Architecture of Sydney

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Culwulla Chambers, completed in 1912, is Sydney's first and oldest remaining skyscraper.
The Sydney Opera House by Danish architect Jørn Utzon
Interior of the 19th-century Strand Arcade.

The Architecture of Sydney, Australia’s oldest city, is not characterised by any one architectural style, but by an extensive juxtaposition of old and new architecture over the city's 200-year history, from its modest beginnings with local materials and lack of international funding to its present-day modernity with an expansive skyline of high rises and skyscrapers.

Under the tenure of early nineteenth-century Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the works of Francis Greenway were the first substantial buildings for the fledgling colony. Later prominent styles were the Victorian buildings of the city centre created out of local Sydney sandstone, and the turn of the century Federation style in the new garden suburbs of the time.

With the lifting of height restrictions in the post-World War II years, much of central Sydney's older stock of architecture was demolished to make way for modernist high rise buildings–according to Singh d'Arcy, in The Apartment House (2017), "From the 1950s onwards, many of Sydney's handsome sandstone and masonry buildings were wiped away by architects and developers who built brown concrete monstrosities in their place. The 1980s saw uncomfortable pastiches of facades with no coherence and little artistic merit".[1] Despite this, Sydney is still home to Australia’s oldest public building, Old Government House, located in Parramatta.

Sydney's notable new buildings were designed by the Austrian-Australian architect Harry Seidler, as well as by international architects such as Jørn Utzon, Jean Nouvel, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster or Frank O. Gehry throughout the 1960s up until the 2010s.

1788-1820s: The new colony's restrained Georgian style[edit]

The British established a colony in Sydney Cove in January 1788 after the First Fleet sailed 9 months from Portsmouth. The early years of the colony suffered from a sense of provisionality and the attitude of the majority of convicts and their guardians that they would return to Britain once they had "done their time." The colony was poorly equipped, had little food supplies, and did not understand the climate or soil. For its first two years it faced starvation. In 1790, Governor Phillip began the process of freeing convicts and granting them land, such as that at Rose Hill 20 km inland which provided a stable food supply to the colony.[2]

The British Government did not provide architects, builders to the new colony, or useful tools. Request for building tools were responded to tardily with more inappropriate tools, which was seen as a sign that the British Government was reluctant to invest money in a penal colony, even though the number of free settlers was increasing. Amateur builders took time to work out what local materials were suitable.

Those significant buildings that were built were of such poor workmanship and materials that they needed constant maintenance. Lieutenant William Dawes produced a town plan for Sydney in 1790 but it was ignored in the under-resourced and often lawless society, and Sydney's layout still shows this lack of planning.[2] The earliest significant buildings in Sydney were simple restrained Georgian buildings that were suited to the climate (often by virtue of deep verandahs), available materials and craftsmanship, and were based in a spirit of making do and improvisation.[2]

Governor Macquarie's tenure began in 1810 and he promoted the idea of Sydney as a successful society of free citizens. He commissioned a survey of all aspects of the colony including its buildings which he found to be in a "most ruinous state of decay". He implemented a basic building code with certain minimum standards for new buildings and a requirement that every plan was to be submitted for new buildings. He saw his role as one of nation-building with a responsibility to provide facilities that were functional and provided a sense of community pride. By the end of his tenure, Macquarie had overseen the construction of 92 brick buildings, 22 stone buildings, 52 weatherboard houses, four bridges, seven quays and moles, and over 200 miles of road. In 1814, Francis Greenway, a convict serving a fourteen-year sentence for forgery, arrived in Sydney.

Over a short period of time, a partnership between him and Macquarie saw the construction of fine public buildings that were classically inspired, restrained decoratively and well-portioned and included Hyde Park Barracks, St James Church, St Matthews at Windsor, and Old Liverpool Hospital at Liverpool. An 1819 commission of inquiry into the colony accused Macquarie of extravagance particularly in regard to construction and he was recalled to England. This effectively ended Greenway's career and little public construction was carried out until the late 1830s.[2]

1830s to 1850s: eclectic neo-Gothic[edit]

Population growth, the granting of perpetual leases on town properties, the encouragement of free trade and exports underpinned a booming economy. Since the beginning of the colony, officers and administrators were housed on the eastern side of the Tank Stream, while lower ranks and commerce was consigned to the western side. By the 1830s this had become entrenched with fine homes on the Potts Point ridge. The derivative neo-Classical Georgian style was being replaced with the more ornate and eclectic Gothic Revival. John Verge was the most renowned architect in the 1830s and his buildings included Tusculum in Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay House, and Camden Park.[2]

The 1840s saw an increasingly buoyant economy and confident society pushed along by the end of convict transportation and the commencement of an independent legislature. A building boom embraced the neo-Gothic style whereby the colony's strong need to identify with the home country was manifest.[2] Public, commercial and domestic architecture overlooked the local climate in favour of styles transported from Britain, and projects with substantial budgets often produced an indiscriminate eclecticism. Conversely, projects with limited budgets that precluded ostentatious and derivative design often resulted a kind of vernacular style that responded to local conditions. Rather than a connecting device between rooms, the verandah became a sun-shading device, and solid sandstone walls and cross-ventilation stabilised both cold and hot temperature extremes.[2]

1850s - Victorian architecture[edit]

General Post Office, Martin Place

Victorian aspirations for respectability, formality, and materialism were compounded in Sydney by colonial yearning for respect, which in architecture resulted in the copying of imported styles, mostly from Great Britain. New wealth and rapid increase in population came with the 1850s gold rush. A new middle class emerged who wanted homes, cities and public buildings that matched their new wealth and social status and construction of high quality buildings such as churches, commercial and public buildings, and ostentatious houses of the wealthy boomed. On the other hand, housing for the working and lower middle class remained substandard and the prevalence of unhygienic and slum conditions grew.

In the 1860s, architecture in Sydney focussed more on style than consideration of the building's function in relation to its setting and climate. An increase in Italian immigrants influenced residential construction which manifest itself in a growing popularity of surface ornamentation, plasterwork, squared massing, arcades and loggias, and square towers. The simplicity of early colonial architecture was replaced by decorative facades using ornate cast iron with higher ceilings featuring elaborate mouldings.

The Grace Hotel, built between 1929-1930.
The elaborate Hotel Australia (1891), once considered "the premier hotel in Sydney", was demolished in 1971.

Major new civic buildings included Edmund Blacket's Main Quadrangle Building at the University of Sydney completed in 1859. James Barnet was Colonial Architect from 1862 and was Sydney's most prolific Victorian architect.[3] His buildings included The Australian Museum (1864), Customs House (1884), the General Post Office (1890), the Lands Department Building (1881 & 1893) and the Chief Secretary’s Building (1878). He also was responsible for many suburban post offices, court houses and other civic buildings. Most of Sydney's public buildings from this time, including Barnet's, were built from local stone and were a variety of styles including Italianate, Gothic, and neo-Classical with heavily worked façades. The early 1860s saw a renewed interest in the use of brick. Mass production of bricks commenced in the 1870s, although hand production continued until the end of the 19th century.

By 1880, two thirds of the population had been born in Australia and a growing nationalism viewed the country as paradise compared to the Old World. With a booming economy, Australians sought to prove they could compete with the Old World–during this time many Australian department stores, coffee houses and grand hotels were constructed. Most of them were built in the larger cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and some still stand in Sydney today. Anthony Hordern & Sons and the Australia Hotel did not survive, however the Grace Building (The Grace Hotel), completed in 1930, is leftover as an example from the flourishing period in Australia that ran from the 1880s until the late 1920s. Built in the then relatively new art deco style, The Grace was "designed to use the first two storeys in the manner of a department store. The remaining storeys were intended to provide rental office accommodation for importers and other firms engaged in the softgoods trade".[4]

Post World War II[edit]

The Sydney Tower has been the tallest free standing structure in Sydney since 1981.

The Great Depression and World War II created a severe housing shortage for Australia in the late 1940s.[citation needed] A shortage of materials and skilled labour compounded the shortages, as did restrictive bank lending practises whereby it was the norm for borrowers to put up a deposit of 50% of the value of a house. Building plots of around 115 square metres aggravated the problems further. These factors fed a building industry recession and the cost of building home in the decade following the war grew by 600%.[5] In response, young architects who had worked in Europe and returned to Australia brought a simplicity to design and construction and renewed interest in logical structure and free planning. Verandahs and porches were less common on houses, and slightly pitched roofs replaced hipped roofs. Designs no longer featured non-functional ornamentation, ceilings were lower and rooms were expected to be multi-purpose. Vestibules were eliminated, hallways, and separate dining and living rooms were eliminated and the main entry was directly into the living room.[5]

Kent Street postwar building

Harry Seidler was instrumental in the introduction of Internationalism to Sydney. He studied under Walter Gropius at Harvard, worked with Marcel Breuer, and had been tutored by Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. The Rose Seidler House, for his parents, was the first of 10 buildings he built in Sydney between 1948 and 1952. The house was a revelation to conservative 1950s Sydney.[6]

In contrast to Seidler's strongly European flavour of Modernism was the softer form practised by the so-called Sydney School of the 1950s and 1960s. This loose collection of architects, comprising, among others, Bill Lucas, Bruce Rickard, Neville Gruzman and Ken Woolley, favoured organic and natural houses, often built on steep slopes and hidden from view in natural bushland. These projects were largely on the city's North Shore, and to a lesser extent in the Eastern Suburbs. Following on from Walter Burley Griffin's work in the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag, this style of Australian architecture was visually sensitive to the environment and, like Griffin, often utilised natural local materials as structural elements.[7]

In the central business district, the lifting of height restrictions heralded the beginning of the city's change into a largely high-rise city.[5]

Opened in 1973, the Sydney Opera House was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon.[8] Its construction was partly financed by the Opera House Lottery. Utzon left under acrimonious circumstances before the building was finished; later work was completed by other architects. Located on Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, the building is a World Heritage Site.[9] The tallest point in the city is the Sydney Tower built in the late 1970s-early 1980s, when height restrictions were far more lenient. The observation tower provides views of the entire city.

Sydney is home to Australia's first building by renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building (2015), based on the design of a tree house. An entrance from The Goods Line–a pedestrian pathway and former railway line–is located on the eastern border of the site.

One Central Park, completed in 2014, is an award winning mixed-use building located in Chippendale.[10] Developed as a joint venture between Frasers Property and Sekisui House, it was constructed as the first stage of the Central Park urban renewal project.[11] It consists of two high-rise apartment buildings, and features vertical hanging gardens. In 2013, One Central Park was awarded a 5 star Green Star – ‘Multi-Unit Residential Design v1’ Certified Rating by the Green Building Council of Australia, making it the largest multi-residential building (by nett lettable area) in Australia to receive such a designation.[12][13]

Heritage laws: poor attitudes to historic buildings throughout the 1970s to the 2000s[edit]

Sydney lost most of its notable inter-war cinemas between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, including the Winter Garden at Rose Bay, the Odeon at Manly and most disgracefully of all The Regent in George Street, where the property developer had purchased the structure cheaply, only to pull it down. Whole classes of buildings remained under threat.

—Peter Spearritt, 2016[14]

Historic preservation exists in Sydney and is overseen by the New South Wales State Heritage Register, established in 1999. Some of Sydney's grandest edifices have been replaced with contemporary architecture, a trend which began in the 1960s and has continued throughout to the present day. Lax heritage conservation in Sydney has attracted the ire of Sydneysiders, who are often in opposition to what government or local authorities want for the city, something seen recently with government contesting the heritage-status of the Sirius building at The Rocks.[15][16]

Perhaps the most notorious recent demolition of a Sydney building was the loss of the head office of the Rural Bank at 52 Martin Place. The art deco building, designed in the 1930s by F.W. Turner, was controversially demolished in 1983 for a "modern" State Bank tower.[14] Despite staunch public protest, building's design significance and a listing y the Australian Heritage Commission listing were unable to prevent it being destroyed. Articles in The Sydney Morning Herald on the 2 February 1982 ran spreads about protecting the building at public meetings organised by the Australian Institute of Architects.

Another controversial demolition of a prominent Sydney building was Anthony Hordern & Sons, once Sydney's largest department store. The building was constructed in 1905 with an entrance in Italian marble in a Victorian style. The Anthony Hordern Brickfield Hill site, Palace Emporium, was subsequently used by the NSW Institute of Technology (now UTS) for some years. The emporium buildings were controversially demolished in 1986 for the World Square development, which remained a hole in the ground for nearly twenty years, before finally being completed in 2004. Despite the hugely contested and much lamented demolition, there are some legacies remaining in Sydney, such as the Hordern Pavilion, Hordern Towers (within the World Square development), and the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Croydon of which its oldest building, 'Shubra Hall' was the home of Anthony Hordern III until 1889.

Prominent styles[edit]

Government House, in the Gothic Revival style
Department of Lands building, in the Classical style
State Library of New South Wales, in the neoclassical style
Queen Victoria Building, in the Romanesque style
Chief Secretary's building, in the Italianate style
Bankstown Reservoir, in the Federation Free Classical style.

Gothic revival[edit]


  • Durham Hall, Albion Street, Surry Hills
  • Cleveland House, Bedford Street, Surry Hills
  • Waimea, Waimea Avenue, Woollahra
  • Judge's House, 531 Kent Street
  • Juniper Hall, Oxford Street and Ormond Street, Paddington




  • Central Police Court, Liverpool Street
  • Former New South Wales Club, 31 Bligh Street
  • Chief Secretary's building, Bridge Street
  • Holyrood (facade), Santa Sabina College, The Boulevarde, Strathfield
  • Rockwall, Macleay Street, Potts Point
  • Stead House, Leicester Street, Marrickville


Second Empire[edit]

  • Sydney Town Hall, George Street
  • Downing Centre (former Mark Foy building), Liverpool Street

Queen Anne[edit]


The CBD from Sydney Tower
View of several of Sydney's tallest skyscrapers from the east

With 146 skyscrapers over 90m, Sydney has the largest skyline in Australia.[17] Height restrictions were lifted in the 1950s and the AMP Building at Circular Quay became Australia's tallest building several years later. The late 1980s and early to mid-1990s saw a skyscraper boom in Sydney, but height restrictions limited future buildings to the height of 235 metres, in part due to the close proximity of Sydney Airport. The largest structure is Centrepoint Tower standing at 309 metres, containing restaurants and observation decks. Although both the MLC Centre and World Tower are higher measured to roof at 228m and 230m respectively, the tallest conventional skyscraper measured to its spire tip is the Citigroup Centre at 243m, completed in 2000.

Tallest buildings[18][edit]

  • Sydney Tower 309m
  • Citigroup Centre 243m
  • Chifley Tower 241m
  • Deutsche Bank Place 240m
  • Meriton World Tower 230m
  • MLC Centre 228m
  • Governor Phillip Tower 227m
  • Ernst and Young Tower 222m
  • RBS Tower 219m
  • ANZ Tower 195m


There are 23 major bridges within Sydney. There are no significant suspension bridges. Instead, there is a mix of more modest girder, truss and cable bridges. The most iconic bridge in the city, the through arch Sydney Harbour Bridge, links the North Shore with the CBD across Port Jackson. The design was influenced by New York City's Hell Gate Bridge. It is the sixth longest spanning-arch bridge in the world and the tallest steel arch bridge, measuring 134 m (440 ft) from top to water level.[19] The Anzac Bridge is an 8-lane cable-stayed bridge spanning Johnstons Bay between Pyrmont and Glebe Island.

Residential architecture[edit]

Of the more than sixty Australian residential architectural styles that developed in Sydney over the years, more than half were used in residential architecture. Prominent residential styles included:

Old Colonial Period[edit]

  • Georgian
  • Regency
  • Grecian

Victorian Period[edit]

  • Free Classical
  • Filigree (featuring wrought iron balconies)
  • Italianate
  • Gothic
  • Tudor

Federation Period[edit]

  • Free Classical
  • Filigree (featuring woodwork instead of wrought iron)
  • Queen Anne (the dominant residential style between 1890 and 1910)[22]
  • Bungalow (featuring prominent verandah)
  • Arts and Crafts (including Shingle style)

Inter-War Period[edit]

  • Georgian Revival
  • Free Classical
  • Mediterranean
  • Spanish Mission
  • Gothic
  • Old English
  • California Bungalow

Post-War Period[edit]

  • International
  • American Colonial

Late Twentieth Century Period[edit]

  • Organic
  • Sydney regional
  • Tropical
  • Late Modern
  • Australian Nostalgic
  • Immigrant Nostalgic

Residential architecture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butler, Katelin; Bruhn, Cameron (2017). The Apartment House. Thames & Hudson. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-500-50104-7.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g McGillick, Paul; Bingham-Hall, Patrick (2005). Sydney Architecture. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0-7946-0334-3.
  3. ^ Barnet, James (29 July 1899). "Architectural Work in Sydney New South Wales 1788-1899" (PDF). Journal R.I.B.A. VI (17): 503–518. Retrieved 13 July 2015.
  4. ^ "Grace Building". New South Wales State Heritage Register. Office of Environment and Heritage. Retrieved 10 October 2017.
  5. ^ a b c McGillick, Paul; Bingham-Hall, Patrick (2005). Sydney Architecture. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. p. 106. ISBN 0-7946-0334-3.
  6. ^ McGillick, Paul; Bingham-Hall, Patrick (2005). Sydney Architecture. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing. p. 108. ISBN 0-7946-0334-3.
  7. ^ "So last century". The Sydney Morning Herald. 13 April 2006.
  8. ^ House History Archived 16 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine; Sydney Opera House website (accessed 2006-07-24)
  9. ^ Entry for Sydney Opera House; UNESCO World Heritage Centre (accessed 2006-07-24)
  10. ^ "Central Park Sydney". Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  11. ^ "Frasers Property - Central Park, Sydney". Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  12. ^ "Central Park receives its first three 5 Star Green Star ratings" (PDF). Fraser Property. 30 October 2013. Retrieved 21 August 2015.
  13. ^ "Central Park receives its first three 5 Star Green Star ratings". Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  14. ^ a b O'Callaghan, Judith; Hogben, Paul; Freestone, Robert (2016). Sydney's Martin Place: A Cultural and Design History. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-76029-362-8.
  15. ^ "Sirius sell-off: 'They don't think people like me should have these views'". Sydney Morning Herald. 6 August 2016.
  16. ^ "Age-old appeal: Why Sydneysiders are clamouring to buy heritage apartments". Domain. 13 October 2017. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  17. ^ The World's Best Skylines
  18. ^ Daily Telegraph June 11, 2014, p.6
  19. ^ "Sydney Harbour Bridge". Australian Government. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  20. ^ "Widest Bridge". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 15 September 2012.
  21. ^ "Port Mann Bridge". TRANSPORTATION INVESTMENT CORPORATION. British Columbia: Province of British Columbia. 2007. Archived from the original on 11 September 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2012. Once complete, the new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge will the second largest and longest cable-supported bridge in North America, and at 65 metres wide it will be the widest bridge in the world.
  22. ^ A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architecture, Apperley (Angus and Robertson) 1994, p.132

External links[edit]