Sands of Time

13 December 2003. Sydney Morning Herald ; Forty Eight Hours section 

Cities are often defined by their raw, foundation material – London by its Portland stone, New York by its brownstone and Melbourne by its bluestone. In Sydney it is, of course, sandstone – which novelist Peter Carey once referred to as the city’s DNA.  Each type of stone has its own character. What makes sandstone special is its lightness and reflectivity. And the fact that, due to its softness, it can be worked into fine details and forms. As a result, many sandstone buildings have a combination of golden warmth and sharp, contrasting detail. Our strong sunlight casts dark shadows that help sharpen the detail. Although sandstone is often regarded as heritage material for older buildings, there are many examples of sandstone in contemporary architecture.

Many of Sydney’s most important and imposing sandstone buildings, past and present, are in the northern and eastern parts of the CBD, and all within walking distance of each other.  The Rocks is a good starting point. The old Rocks Police Station at 127-129 George Street was designed in 1882 by thecolonial architect, James Barnet. The cute little building has a highly ornate facade. The signage describes it as “the Palladium Water Gate architectural style”. The lion’s head sculpture above the entrance holds a police baton in its mouth.

Across the road is the Museum of Contemporary Art.  It was designed in the art deco style to complement Circular Quay railway station. Sandstone cladding is used in its strong vertical expression and symmetrical facade. The effect is sombre, post-war austerity.  A recent addition to the building on the western side also used sandstone but in a more contemporary way.  Bridge Street is sandstone central.  It boasts the Burns Philp, Department of Education and Chief Secretary’s buildings. They typify traditional sandstone buildings: sculptured, organic, curvaceous and extravagant. The Lands Department building fills a whole block. Its sculptured structure was designed by Barnet in the Italian Renaissance style. The facade integrates statues of royal figures and others associated with the land, including Burke (the explorer, not the celebrity gardener).

Leap forward more than 100 years to First Government House Place and the adjacent Museum of Sydney. The sandstone entrance to the museum demonstrates the contemporary use of sandstone. Starting from the rough base, the courses of stone get progressively smoother and more refined as they go up. It can be read as symbolic of Sydney’s architectural history, with different layers representing different building types. In nearby Farrer Place is Governor Philip Tower, designed by Melbourne style gurus Denton Corker Marshall in the 1990s. Here, as in their other tower at 363 George Street, sandstone cladding is used around the base of the building in a stylised modern way with funky detailing and stainless steel inserts.

On Martin Place, the bank buildings were built mainly from granite, which was seen as more serious than sandstone. The GPO is the central player here. Designed originally by Barnet, it has maintained its presence and dignity, despite having had a hotel, offices and food court inserted into its rear end. The colonnade is the finest in Sydney, with granite columns supporting sandstone arches on a grand scale. The Pitt Street facade entrance to the hotel uses sandstone in a modern way with stainless steel inlays. Also on Martin Place, Challis House and the old MLC building have much plainer sandstone facades.

On Macquarie Street, the Renzo Piano-designed Aurora Place has no sandstone at all. However, it does have something in common with the qualities of sandstone. The terracotta tile facade gives a warm earthiness, unlike the sterility of concrete and steel facades. Beyond the terracotta, the soaring curved-glass walls were famously described by the architect as talking to the Opera House. Across the Domain, The Art Gallery of NSW, like the State Library, was built in the neo-classical style – that means large columns and a central portico like a Greek temple. The highlight of the front sandstone facade is the entablature around the top of the building. It lists names of great artists through history. On the northern portico is an artist by the name of Michael Angelo.  Any relation to Michelangelo?

More information
An excellent reference is A Guide to Sydney Architecture by Graham Jahn, which lists tours and provides historical and architectural information on most significant Sydney buildings. For something a bit more structured, try Sydney Architecture Walks. Run by a group of young architecture enthusiasts in conjunction with the Historic Houses Trust, they cover some of the city’s architectural icons in a series of themed walks. Go to