Sydney visionaries

Cities are collective enterprises that reflect the decisions, dreams and lives of innumerable citizens, past and present. However, they also bear the stamp of a small number of leaders, architects, campaigners and others whose influence is seminal and long lasting.

​Think of Baron Haussmann, who created the boulevards, parks and apartments of Paris, or Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, forever associated with the distinctive and controversial design of Canberra.

Sydney is no different. This presentation focuses on the harbour city’s visionaries, profiling a group of individuals who, through intellect, determination and passion, have had a lasting and dramatic impact on Sydney. Choosing only eleven people who have been trailblazers for Sydney’s natural and built environment is no easy task, for so many people shape a city. Yet most of Sydney’s visionaries are impossible to ignore. Drawn from a wide range of fields – including politics, law, architecture, urban planning, conservation, heritage and engineering – the lives of these visionaries span the centuries.

While they all worked in very different political, social and cultural climates, the common ground is their tenacity and boldness in making their mark on Sydney. Some of the visionaries actively campaigned for a greener Sydney, more respectful of heritage and community, while others created significant buildings, roads and places to be shared by all citizens.

Captain Arthur Phillip

Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) was the first British governor of this land. His naval skills were ably demonstrated in his achievement of bringing the First Fleet of 11 ships and over 1000 convicts and marines to Sydney Cove with little loss of life. Founding a penal settlement and a new society proved a greater challenge.

Phillip’s efforts to establish the settlement and feed its inhabitants were hampered by the lack of skilled convicts, a fractious officer corps, severe drought and a paucity of supplies from England. That Phillip succeeded was partly due to his stated ambition that ‘there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves’. He established a civil administration, appointed convict overseers and instituted land grants for freed convicts, giving Sydney’s unwilling immigrants an interest in their new society.

Phillip tried to institute some civic order in the newly established colony by devising a street layout and buildings that represented the physical – and social – division of the settlement. The marines were located on the western side of the Tank Stream looking towards the cove and the harbour. The governor and administrative officers were positioned on the more sheltered eastern side where first Government House, the home and seat of colonial authority, dominated the landscape from the top of Bridge Street.

Phillip governed fairly and was a humane leader. Within a decade of settlement, even many convicts had benefited from the opportunity of a new life for themselves, and conditions began to improve.

Major General Lachlan Macquarie

Elizabeth and Lachlan Macquarie were precocious promoters of Sydney as a fledgling metropolis. Together, they set out to improve the colony of New South Wales both materially and socially. The couple’s shared enthusiasm for the ‘civilising’ and ennobling effect of civic order and ornament was expressed in their creation of Macquarie Street, and in the completion of the Domain and proclamation of the Botanic Gardens in 1816.

Lachlan Macquarie (1762–1824) was the fifth Governor of New South Wales. From 1810 to 1821, he undertook a substantial construction program throughout the colony including roads, bridges and some significant buildings. He enlisted convict architect Francis Greenway to build the Hyde Park Barracks, St James’ Church and the governor’s stables (now Sydney Conservatorium of Music). Many streets still bear the names Macquarie gave them.

His capable wife, Elizabeth Macquarie (1778–1835), was an enthusiastic advocate for formal gardens and architecture. She planned the layout of the looped road through the Domain leading to the harbour headland (since named after her), and influenced the design of numerous gardens and buildings, including the Female Orphan School at Parramatta.

The Macquaries were criticised for their encouragement of ex-convicts; allowing emancipists to be reintegrated into society as equals was radical for the time. An inquiry into Governor Macquarie’s expensive building program and autocratic style subsequently led to his resignation. But Lachlan and Elizabeth remained popular: as they departed Sydney with their young son in early 1822 they were cheered by ‘a harbour full of people’.

Henry Parkes

Henry Parkes (1815–1896) was premier of colonial New South Wales five times between 1872 and 1891, and is best remembered for his early championing of Australian Federation. Appropriately, the federation of Australian states was proclaimed in Centennial Park, his major urban achievement.

Opened in 1888, Centennial Park embodied Parkes’s ambition to shape Sydney as an urban monument to progress and democratic government. Largely self-educated, Parkes believed that society and cities should offer moral and cultural guidance to all citizens, hence his investment in sculpture for the Botanic Gardens, and his visionary conception of Centennial Park as the ‘people’s park’.

Parkes supported the ambitious public works scheme overseen by James Barnet, colonial architect from 1865 to 1890. Barnet’s contribution to Sydney is encapsulated in several major projects, including the Australian Museum building in College Street, the Chief Secretary’s Office and the Lands Office. All enlarged the scale of the city and created new urban vistas and spaces. Barnet’s General Post Office, orientated north towards the harbour, created the expectation of a public space to frame the new structure – Martin Place was the result.

Although Barnet’s buildings spoke from the classical vocabulary, he added an antipodean flavour with generous verandahs, colonnades and loggias, as well as sculpture incorporating Australian subjects and themes. Parkes and Barnet’s advocacy of national self-confidence was expressed in the International Exhibition of 1879, colonial Sydney’s major cultural engagement with the wider world.

Florence M Taylor

Florence Taylor’s embrace of technocratic modernity co-existed at a time of sustained and vigorous campaigning to protect colonial-built heritage and Sydney’s natural environment.

A gifted and outspoken polemicist, Florence Mary Taylor (1879– 1969) was the first Australian woman to qualify as an architect, train as an engineer and fly an aircraft. Despite these achievements, she was most influential as a publisher and journalist. Taylor’s town planning and architectural journals championed urban modernity – rapid transit systems, urban freeways, large-scale redevelopment and apartment living – until her retirement at the age of 81.

Annie Forsyth Wyatt

Annie Forsyth Wyatt (1885–1961) was a pivotal figure in the emergence of the environmental conservation movement in Australia. Appalled by the clear-felling of bushland for building sites near her Gordon home, she initiated successful campaigns for the conservation of a number of significant bushland reserves including Balls Head, Waverton (1931); Dalrymple Forest Reserve, Pymble (1934); and the AF Wyatt Reserve, Palm Beach (1938).

The 1930s demolition of Burdekin House and the Commissariat Stores made Wyatt aware of the need for a National Trust to protect colonial heritage. This organisation was founded in 1945 and was immediately involved in a campaign to protect Hyde Park Barracks, The Mint and Parliament House from the NSW Government’s proposal to remodel Macquarie Street. Wyatt served on the Council of the National Trust from 1947 until her death.

John Job Crew Bradfield

John Job Crew Bradfield (1867–1943) designed and helped engineer a modern transport system for Sydney. Transport structures became major landmarks, declaring Sydney’s new status as a modern city. Central Station, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay overshadowed the public buildings, parks and plazas initiated by Parkes and Barnet.

The culmination of decades of planning and politicking by Bradfield, the Sydney Harbour Bridge linked Sydney’s transport system, promoted the expansion of both city and suburbs and gave self-confidence and a new symbol to the city. Although argument continues as to the balance of design input between Bradfield and the English construction contractors, Dorman, Long & Co, to Sydneysiders the bridge remains Bradfield’s triumph.

Trained as an engineer, Bradfield was also active in town planning. His planning was notable for its recognition of urban design and function, as well as its concern for aesthetics.

Bradfield is revered for the Harbour Bridge, which was intended to be the centre of an extensive urban rail system. A daily rail commuter from his North Shore home, Bradfield knew that rapid transit would promote suburban living, ‘where the children can enjoy fresh air and sunlight in healthy surroundings’. Although only partly – or belatedly – built, Bradfield’s network of city and suburban lines is the most used and most extensive in Australia. It remains a challenge to governments to realise the potential of the transport template laid down by Bradfield.

Jørn Utzon

In 1957 Jørn Utzon (1918–2008) was awarded first prize in an international competition for the design of an opera house in Sydney. Even though Utzon was unknown and inexperienced, the brilliance of his proposal made the Sydney Opera House famous even before construction had begun. Ignoring the structural conventions of walls and a roof, Utzon positioned most of the building within a massive granite podium adjacent to the harbour, while the theatres are housed in the distinct shell-like structures above. The foyers were positioned at the harbour end, creating the podium as the entry point.

In 1966, amid disputes over budget and interior designs, Utzon resigned from the unfinished project, which sparked an ongoing controversy. In spite of this, the Sydney Opera House is considered one of the 20th century’s outstanding buildings.

Utzon’s Opera House not only replaced the Harbour Bridge as the internationally recognised symbol of Sydney, but also restored faith in the city’s urban potential during a period of cynicism and conflict. Although a factor in his unfulfilled career, Utzon’s personal idealism was widely admired in Sydney, resulting in his eventual return to the Opera House project to advise on the redesign of the building’s compromised interiors.

Harry Seidler

Born in Vienna, Harry Seidler (1923–2006) escaped Nazism via England, Canada and the United States of America before settling in Sydney in 1948. He was one of a generation of immigrants in Australia who internationalised a British outpost. No architect has had a greater impact on Sydney, through both his own work and its influence on others. The generous public spaces of his city office towers created different urban possibilities, as did the new quality of house and apartment architecture he brought here. Rose Seidler House, the groundbreaking home he designed in Turramurra for his parents, Rose and Max, was Seidler’s first commission in Sydney and remains Australia’s best-known 20th-century house.

Although Harry Seidler’s modernism was shaped by his experiences in Europe and the United States, Sydney’s environment and culture also informed his work and his generous patronage of the arts. Despite being perceived as a doctrinaire modernist, Seidler tailored most of his work to Sydney’s climate and topography. Some of his best buildings – Blues Point Tower and Australia Square to name but two – were also his most controversial. As a polemicist, Seidler stood his ground and Sydney’s urban culture benefited greatly from his scorn of the second-rate in design and decision-making.

Bob Bellear

Bob Bellear and Jack Mundey were activists on several fronts and both campaigned to make quality urban living available to all. Bob Bellear (1944 – 2005) was one of the first Aboriginal Australians to graduate in law. In 1996 he became Australia’s first Aboriginal judge. He had already gained a public persona as an urban activist, campaigning against the eviction of Aborigines in Redfern. This campaign resulted in the formation of the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) in 1972, with the aim of restoring derelict terraces for community housing.

Recognised by the Whitlam government, the company gained title for the houses in ‘The Block’, restoring and leasing them to residents. The AHC is currently campaigning and planning for the construction of new housing on most of its site.

Jack Mundey

While secretary of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), Jack Mundey (born 1929) was a prominent supporter of the AHC. The BLF’s Redfern involvement was one of numerous ‘Green Ban’ campaigns led by Mundey during the early 1970s, and was typical in resisting the displacement of residents and protecting heritage buildings and precincts.

Mundey advocated the local and social distinctiveness of particular places rather than pursuing any lofty urban visions and theories. He focused on neighbourhood scale, seeking solutions in consultation rather than grand design. Among the results were the state’s first heritage protection laws and a transformation in attitudes to urban heritage that shifted the focus of urban policy towards respect for community, history and context.

Marion Hall Best

Marion Hall Best (1905–1988) was one of Australia’s most important and influential 20th-century interior designers. Best completed hundreds of public and private commissions and operated retail outlets in Queen Street, Woollahra (1938–74), and Rowe Street, Sydney (1949–60). A founding member of the Society of Interior Designers of Australia, she was instrumental in the emergence of the profession.

Best mixed easily with artists and the design community. She stocked furnishings and fittings by local designers and from 1949, following her first overseas trip as an interior designer, began to source the latest international modernist styles. As a result, her shops became a magnet for anyone interested in design.

Colour – bold and intense – was Best’s greatest legacy. In 1952, in one of her regular appearances in the popular press, Best stated that ‘home decoration should be based on colour – one exciting colour stimulating other equally exciting shades’. On walls this took the form of glazing, a technique developed by Best and painter Fred Russell that produced brilliant lacquered, translucent finishes.

Marion Hall Best was a leading figure in the dissemination of international modernist ideas of furnishings and interiors. Her designs inspired, her colours invigorated and her shops enlivened Australians for almost 40 years.

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Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon

Former Director, Strategy & Engagement

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon is the Former Director, Strategy and Engagement at Sydney Living Museums. Spanning 20 years, her career has been dedicated to cultural leadership that connects diverse audiences to history, arts and heritage through a broad range of public engagement programs, including festivals, exhibitions and books. At SLM, she used her vision, experience and expertise to lead the cross—platform programming in the fields of interpretation, exhibitions, regional touring program, public programs, education, web + digital, volunteering, and publications for the portfolio’s 12 museums and historic houses. She is the winner of multiple awards for the books, curatorial and creative history projects she has written, produced and led that share the stories of urban life, architecture and design across the centuries. She completed the Museum Leadership Institute Program in 2012 at The Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University, California and completed her PhD on the history of apartment living in Sydney at the University of New South Wales in 2009. Learn more about Caroline.

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