The Sydney Culture Essays

This essay was first published as one of The Sydney Culture Essays by the Committee for Sydney, which capture the thinking of some of the leading voices in Sydney’s cultural life.
No one wants a city that is indistinct from other global cities. The specific identity of a city, its sense of character and place stems from its heritage—places, buildings, whole streets and quarters of the city that embody past eras and encourage people to consider their place in time.

The medium sized cities we most admire and like to visit—Barcelona, Madrid, San Francisco, Boston, Vancouver, Chicago—are places that have worked out how to honour their heritage so it becomes a bankable resource, their brand even, that drives visitation, liveability and local character reflected in well-functioning communities. This is not just a question of great age but of attitudes to place-making that draw connections with the past. Huge swathes of other cities we admire such as Paris, London, Berlin or New York date only from the mid-19th century or early 20th century, but have a cohesive identity. They are cities that have not stood still or become historical theme parks, but their cultural heritage is integrated into their identity in a way we in Sydney have yet to achieve.

We have all visited cities that have lost their connection with their heritage. Whilst heritage is all around us, we’re yet to develop a distinct and coordinated heritage brand for Sydney or an understanding of why the diversity of our heritage is so special. We need to articulate, be proud of and support the places that make up the heritage of Sydney, because we know that tourists and Sydneysiders alike want to connect with this rich resource.

Museums and heritage are vital to NSW’s economy, with cultural and heritage tourism generating $11.2 billion in 2015. Culture and heritage travellers represent close to 60% of all international tourists and the most popular cultural heritage activities are to ‘visit history/heritage buildings, sites or monuments’1 .

We are justifiably proud of our status as a global city. Key to this is understanding the city as a layered thing: built and natural heritage cutting across time and the layering of building, nature, stories and uses of a place. This is described eloquently by Glenn Murcutt who said, ‘It is wonderful to have the best of modern work sitting with the best of historic work, because the new tells [us] about the old and the old tells [us] about the new. In other words, no longer monotony but you’ve got now harmony in a new way’2. Visitors and citizens are drawn to the combination of nature and culture, to the heritage of the city, to the ancient story of Country and Aboriginal history and continuity, to the materiality of the city, to the imported migrant cultural heritage of the 200 plus nationalities living in Sydney.

A too tempting view of Sydney’s cultural heritage might be to characterise it as a few iconic colonial buildings, the Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and some splendid 19th century parks and gardens grouped around its superb natural harbour—a fine enough legacy. But it would be a simplistic understanding of heritage, which is embedded across the fabric of the city in the very street layout and place names, providing constant references to the past in a restless city that is constantly making and remaking itself.

Debates rage about what exactly are the things we collectively choose to keep, and there are significant losses that continue to be lamented as individual buildings fall. Colonial heritage is well understood and respected, but only in recent decades have other 1800s structures become valued, notably terrace houses, long derided as slums suitable only for demolition. Unless we look beyond fashion and today’s taste, the fine legacy of the more recent past, particularly of the Modernist project could easily be lost. All periods in history, including the current period, produce great works of architecture that will continue to resonate and have meaning and impact for future generations. If heritage simply means ‘the things we keep’, some buildings from our own period in history will become future heritage. The battle for Colonial housing, the significance of Federation and the importance of terrace housing is mostly won. What is more contentious and possibly under greater threat, are buildings and places of the more recent past.

Sydney’s cultural heritage is a constantly evolving palimpsest of its physical setting, underlying geology and landform, thousands of years of Aboriginal presence as stewards of the land, early British settlement by a predominantly military administration only gradually giving way to civil institutions, its long history as an international hub of trade and commerce going back to at least the 1820s, and a post-World War II construction boom that transformed it from a smugly parochial outpost of the British Empire, to a cosmopolitan global city with a culture and lifestyle that is the envy of the world. These forces and processes are evident in the physical form of the city and the meanings and association that gradually become attached to specific buildings, sites or places.

Sydney’s early colonial development created four zones that are still evident in the contemporary city: the military encampment and administrative centre on Church Hill, now York Street near Wynyard; Government House fronting Sydney Cove at what is now Bridge Street; the Governor’s private pleasure park east of the Tobegully ridge, now the Botanic gardens and Domain; and in the centre, commercial and early residential development occurred.

Marking the transition from the military administration of the corrupt NSW Corps (the Rum Corps), Lachlan Macquarie (NSW Governor 1810–1821), developed a new government precinct to the east with his new general hospital (the Rum Hospital), the new convict barracks (Hyde Park Barracks), St James Church and new courts—all still standing lined up along a grand Georgian street eponymously named.

Whilst the landform is now concealed under streets and buildings, the broad form of a shallow valley between two low sandstone ridges can still be observed and appreciated, as can the profound influence of Sydney’s signature material, Hawkesbury Sandstone, both as a substrate and a building material. Sydney’s other most striking feature is its relationship to water, most notably the extended commercial zone between Farm Cove and Cockle Bay, the focus of daily life for most of the 19th century.

As Director-General of UNESCO says in the recent Culture Urban Future Summary, ‘tangible and intangible heritage are integral parts of a city’s identity, creating a sense of belonging and cohesion.’3 One of Sydney’s great strengths is its cultural diversity—the many different nationalities that call Sydney home—but can our multicultural heritage inform our future as a city? How have these and do these different cultures contribute towards a distinctiveness across Sydney, a fusion of influences of immigration through architectural design styles and influences?

Whilst we undoubtedly require new construction and infrastructure to keep pace with Sydney’s expansion and buoyant economic growth as Australia’s biggest city, this needs to be maintained in equilibrium to balance our awareness of heritage with this growth. Critical to this is how we reflect contemporary community values and plan for showcasing multi-dimensional aspects of Sydney heritage for the future, drawing on Indigenous history, our natural history, our urban history and contemporary Australian culture. We must also ensure our definition and appreciation of heritage is not only the preserve of the privileged, or reflective of some cultures at the expense of others. Australia’s new fusion culture is now an Anglo-Mediterranean-Asian-Indian fusion culture with significant populations from the UK, NZ, China, India, Philippines, Vietnam, and Italy.5

We need more opportunities for people to connect with heritage on site and online. How can we use our heritage to explain our character to the world—how does it communicate distinctiveness, boldness, inventiveness, openness and the longevity of our institutions and beliefs?

The past began yesterday and out of it will gradually grow an awareness of those buildings, places and stories that will become the heritage of the future. Future heritage calls for us to be aware of changes to our built environment, to recognise and value those special places from the small and simple to the iconic, and to ensure they receive statutory protection. It calls for us as a community to share our passion for architecture, place and heritage and to open a discussion about what matters, so that people will value it, conserve it and bring life to it for present and future generations. It means that we face the fact that perhaps Sydney, as a comparatively young city, has been too progress-focussed and through different eras, ‘past-less’ in its pursuit of the modern and the future. It also calls on us to think creatively about re-purposing places for future generations to keep pace with city change; but also to think beyond fashion and trends to protect and secure places of beauty and meaning that feed our minds as well as our souls and will continue to feed our children’s children’s minds and souls as well. Mostly ‘heritage’ prompts images of old places but we need to think of it as places and things we will want to keep. It could be something that was built as recently as yesterday.

The Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot observed that ‘time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. Time past and time future, what might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present’.6

  • 1. Destination NSW, 2015, Cultural and Heritage Tourism to NSW, Report for the Year ended December 2015.
  • 2. Glenn Murcutt, 2016, interview in ‘Harry Seidler, Modernist’, 15 November, ABC TV.
  • 3. Irina Bokova, 2016, Foreword, Culture Urban Future Summary, Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
  • 5. Bernard Salt, 2014, ‘Immigration and other influences have reshaped Australian culture’, The Australian, 25 October 2014; Bernard Salt, 2015, Presentation to KPMG, ‘NSW Public Service Commission: The Impacts of Cultural and Demographic Change’, 17 September 2015.
  • 6. Sunil Kumar Sarker, 2000, T.S. Eliot: Poetry, Plays and Prose, ‘Four Quartets’ by T.S. Eliot.

About the authors

Portrait of woman against sandstone wall.

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon

Director, Strategy & Engagement

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon is the Director, Strategy and Engagement at Sydney Living Museums.

Ian Innes

Director Heritage, Assets and Museums

Ian is passionate about the conservation and sustainable management of buildings, parks, gardens, and cultural collections - and is fortunate to work with other skilled and dedicated professionals at some of the most important historic places in NSW.