Posted: 22 May 2012 | By: Ben Garrard
ISBN 1 877004 09X
Much like the early Australians who quarried it, Sydney sandstone is responsive to its environment, colourful, photogenic and yet modest, insofar as it cannot be polished. It is also the title of Gary Deirmendjian’s ode to the iconic local stone that gives Sydney its golden aura.
Presented amongst essays by six academics, Deirmendjian’s exposures aim to convey the medium’s charms and capture the subtlety, scope and grandeur of sandstone buildings that are otherwise overshadowed by Sydney’s more imposing modern architecture.
Dr Shirley Fitzgerald contributes an essay on the hewing of the stone, describing the removal of Yellow Block from the three quarries of Pyrmont: Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole. This sandstone, considered some of the finest in the world, appeared around Sydney as schools, gaols, churches, asylums, pubs, courts, a university and a synagogue.
Photographs of most of these are included; however, Dr James Broadbent draws attention to two of the finest examples of nineteenth-century sandstone architecture, the Royal Exchange and the Australian Bank of Commerce, which were demolished in 1964 and 1971 respectively. Sydneysiders can be eternally grateful that a similar fate did not befall the Queen Victoria Building after it was earmarked for demolition in 1959.
Fitzgerald includes anecdotes about the allegorical figures that adorn the General Post Office and the winking lion near the steps of Town Hall, which will entice Sydneysiders and visitors alike to take a closer look at some of the city’s seemingly most familiar buildings.
The story of sandstone architecture in Sydney mirrors the colony’s stages of development, and directly lines up with the most important events in the nation’s history.
Deirmendjian’s images of Campbell’s Warehouses in the Rocks depict the earliest use of sandstone in Sydney. As a penal colony with few skilled stonemasons, sandstone was reserved for places of security and brick was a far more common building material.
From 1851, the gold rushes brought prosperity and an influx of skilled stonemasons. The Victorian period, ending in 1901, saw the bulk of Sydney’s ecclesiastical and civic sandstone edifices erected with St James, St Mary’s, Town Hall, Bridge Street and the QVB all belonging to this building boom.
After Federation in 1901, and the subsequent loosening of ties with Britain, the city’s newfound independence found its architectural expression in buildings of commerce and trade, with impressive numbers of warehouses and offices built using local sandstone, transforming Kent, Clarence, Sussex and York Street.
World War 2 marked an important shift in Australian diplomacy; Churchill referred to the fall of Singapore as the worst disaster in British military history, after which Australia turned to the United States to assist in repelling the Japanese war machine.
This momentous shift was to have its impact on post-war architecture, and inevitably on Sydney’s local stone. As architects turned to the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan for their inspiration, they sought glass, concrete and steel to resist weathering and combat pollution — the golden age of Sydney sandstone was over.
Yet its lasting legacy is still highly visible today, creating a harmony and cohesion between Sydney’s built and natural environments that is rare in a modern metropolis of its size.
Gary Deirmendjian for his part has created an artefact that fosters an appreciation of this architectural heritage, instils a desire for its preservation and hopefully inspires its ongoing incorporation into the city’s future architectural story.
Images from top:
St Stephen’s Church, 1935, 195A Macquarie Street, Sydney. Architect: John Reid & Sons. Photograph Gary Deirmendjian.
Department of Education Building, 1912, 35–39 Bridge Street, Sydney. Architect: George McRae.
Photograph Gary Deirmendjian.