Improbable dream, inevitable reality. James Weirick reflects on the Museum of Sydney’s exhibition on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.





Photography Jody Pachniuk
Improbable dream, inevitable reality.
James Weirick reflects on the Museum of Sydney’s exhibition on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Panel point seven, western truss, 20 June 1930. One of hundreds of images documenting the bridge construction by unknown government photographers. Sydney Harbour Bridge Photographic Albums 1923 – 1933, vol 5 State Records NSW.

The Bridge in-curve, Grace Cossington Smith, 1930. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. “A transcendent vision in which the statics and dynamics of bridge construction were transformed into a shimmering focus of inspiration.”

Masterworks of modernity. The Focus Gallery includes the Cyril A. Farey renders made to illustrate four of the tenders by Dorman Long & Co.

Tender A2 – Proposed arch bridge across Sydney Harbour. Cyril A. Farey, 1923. State Records NSW.

A girder used to test the strength of the bridge prior to construction, in the museum entrance.

Memorabilia and ephemera in the foyer between the galleries.

The Theme Gallery, with its bridge-inspired detailing, documents the construction of the bridge.

A year of celebration in Sydney to mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge has been launched with a major exhibition at the Museum of Sydney (MoS) curated by Caroline Mackaness, who has also edited the magnificent book of the exhibition, Bridging Sydney. Produced with the support of NSW State Records and the Roads and Traffic Authority (long-term manager of the bridge), the exhibition and book bring together a fascinating array of material on the making of Sydney’s most significant urban project of the twentieth century. This material emphasizes the uncanny combination of dream and reality that makes the project seem, even today, both improbable and inevitable.
      There is a striking fitness of purpose in the installation in the upper-level galleries of the Museum of Sydney. Accessed by gantry-like steel stairs, with I-beam lintels and spaces that extend to a steel-framed lookout, the MoS setting almost seems engineered in anticipation of the bridge story.
      The exhibition design, directed by Kieran Larkin of the Historic Houses Trust, sets out the chronological sequence of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bridge proposals in the sequence of long rectangular rooms that comprise the Focus Gallery. An astonishing collection of archival maps, plans and reports from NSW State Records is mounted in display cases detailed to evoke the nineteenth-century technology of lattice-steel bridges – a technology stretched to the limit in the profusion of harbour crossing proposals generated from the 1820s to the 1920s, a heady mix of banal practicalities and Jules Verne fantasies.
      Construction of the real project – the single-span arch submitted as competitive tender A3 by the English contractors Dorman Long in 1924 and completed in March 1932 – is documented in all its drama in a dynamic, interactive installation in the Theme Gallery. This section is signalled from the upper foyer by the flicker of a Film Australia documentary – complete with the De Groot opening – screened as a continuous newsreel in a theatrette set up in a corner of the gallery. The foyer link between the two galleries displays memorabilia, trivia and folk art inspired by the bridge – a collection of junk which underpins the populist dimension of the project and emphasizes its continuing presence in the collective consciousness of the city.
      The exhibition is endlessly fascinating, but a number of standout items cast new light on the well-known story. First, the Bradfield scheme for an overall system of city and suburban electric railways proposed in 1922.
     Presented here in its original form – a spectacular bird’s-eye perspective of the Cumberland Plain prepared by Bradfield’s principal delineator, R. C. G. Coulter – the proposal has real force. In addition to the City Circle, an integral part of the bridge scheme, Bradfield’s heavy rail system comprised two rings serving the suburbs of the inner east and inner west; two middle-ring connections linking St Leonards and Eastwood, Gordon and Narrabeen; and radiating lines stretching as far as Newport, La Perouse, Peakhurst, East Hills, Camden and Richmond. The clear logic of this 1922 concept, inspired by the potential of the harbour crossing, stands as an indictment of the past 80 years of transport planning in metropolitan Sydney.
      Second, the perspectives prepared for Dorman Long by the London-based delineator, Cyril A. Farey (1888–1954) to illustrate four of the firm’s seven tender submissions. Astonishing watercolour renderings, these are masterworks of modernity in their combination of realism, exactitude and abstract colour washes. These 1923 drawings mark the moment Sydney became a twentieth-century city. As it turned out, there was no Farey perspective for the successful A3 tender. As a result, Bradfield commissioned a presentation drawing from R. C. G. Coulter, prepared in the Farey manner.
     In the gap between the finesse of Farey’s work and Coulter’s laboured rendering, we can see the essence of the “Bridge design dispute” between J. J. C. Bradfield, the NSW Government’s Chief Engineer – who prepared the tender specification – and Ralph Freeman, consulting engineer to Dorman Long – who responded to the specification. From its conception, the Dorman Long scheme was far more refined than anything imagined in Sydney.
      Third, the set of a dozen or more Sydney Harbour Bridge Photographic Albums – hundreds of full plate, silver gelatin photos taken by unknown state government photographers, which document the whole process of bridge construction. Digitized, the images are available as a sensational interactive display in the Theme Gallery. The sharp-focus, high-resolution, high-contrast photographs form a body of work of utmost clarity, compositional drama and historical conviction – a record of the new industrial Australia, which consigns the soft-focus art photography of Cazneaux and others to the realm of sentimental indulgence and aesthetic irrelevance.
      Fourth, the two great works by Grace Cossington Smith (1892–1984):
     The Curve of the Bridge, 1928–1929, and The Bridge in-curve, 1930. The exhibition affirms the supreme significance of Grace Cossington Smith as the artist who reconfigured the phenomenon of the bridge as a creative force in itself. Other artists, who dutifully sought to capture the bridge as subject matter, were overwhelmed by the scale, complexity and relentless logic of the project and produced little more than minor works of antiquarian interest.
     Grace Cossington Smith painted two of the greatest works of twentiethcentury Australian art, indeed of post-impressionism anywhere – each a transcendent vision in which the statics and dynamics of bridge construction were transformed into a shimmering focus of inspiration. The installation of these two paintings, spotlit on walls painted the dark grey of the bridge and set diagonally across the gallery, charges the space with an energy that lifts the story of Sydney’s big project out of the parochial moment into the mythic realm of challenge, quest and achievement.
      The Historic Houses Trust has produced a great exhibition and book.
     However, there are some curious omissions. The most important point in the whole bridge saga was Bradfield’s last-minute decision to amend the tender documents in 1922 to include the option of an arch bridge, in addition to the long-favoured – and supremely ugly – cantilever solution. At this point, Sydney was saved from suffering a monstrosity like Bradfield’s Storey Bridge in Brisbane. The change followed an all-important trip to the United States by Bradfield as part of a six-month world tour in 1922. The decisive influence was unquestionably the opportunity to see the completed Hell Gate Bridge in New York – the greatest arch bridge of its time, designed in 1905 by Gustav Lindenthal and opened in 1916/1917. This magnificent rail bridge spans the treacherous strait between the East River and Long Island Sound and was built to connect the New Haven and Pennsylvania Railroad systems.
     Bradfield’s 1923 single-arch specification for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in essence, derives from Lindenthal’s work in its structural system, construction method and monumental presence. Bridging Sydney should have given greater space to Lindenthal’s achievement, and to the similarities and differences between the Hell Gate Bridge and its Southern Hemisphere progeny.
      Design controversy has dogged the project since the 1920s. Although the exhibition and book report the principal dispute (the competing claims for design responsibility from Bradfield and Ralph Freeman), a key piece of evidence has been left out – the single-arch design Bradfield prepared for the 1923 tender process. This omission continues the obfuscation of the design process, in which Ralph Freeman and the Dorman Long team reworked and refined Bradfield’s schematic solution.
      A related omission concerns the architectural design of the abutment towers, pylons and approach piers, the work of Thomas Tait (1882–1954), principal designer of Sir John Burnet & Partners of London and Glasgow.
     The degree of daring and refinement in the architectural elements is truly remarkable, and once again, superior to the work of the Sydney designers as can be seen by contrasting the Public Works Department (PWD) contribution to the bridge approaches – not part of the Dorman Long contract – with Tait’s command of composition, massing and details. This is not merely an issue of style and materials – the vapid use of stripped classicism and rendered concrete on the PWD approach structures versus the exhilaration of Art Deco verticals on Tait’s granite-faced pylons. It is also an issue of emotional content, which the exhibition and book completely overlook. The Thomas Tait pylons were a considerable advance on the empty rhetoric of the “triumphal arch” solution developed by the New York architect Henry Hornbostel for the Hell Gate Bridge and clumsily copied by Coulter in Bradfield’s 1923 tender scheme. The Tait pylons – distinctive city gates and for over 30 years the principal ensemble of “skyscraper” elements on the Sydney skyline – were a creative fusion of two powerful precedents: the square-topped, stepped pyramid given decisive twentieth-century form by Eliel Saarinen in his 1908 project for the Finnish Parliament and dramatically reinterpreted as a true skyscraper in the Saarinen scheme for the Chicago Tribune Tower (1922); and the contemporary war memorial, given distinctive form by Edwin Lutyens in the Cenotaph at Whitehall (1919) and the Thiepval Arch on the battlefields of the Somme (1924–1932). At the time of their work for Dorman Long on the bridge tender, Sir John Burnet and Thomas Tait were consultant architects to the Imperial War Graves Commission on the design of battlefield markers and war cemeteries in the Dardanelles, Sinai and Palestine. Their significant works include the Lone Pine Memorial at Gallipoli. The silent forms of the bridge pylons are thus part of a greater project. They stand as sentinels on the massive batters of the abutment towers – at once timeless monuments in the tradition of city walls and city gates; products of their time, as memorial markers of the British Empire; and pointers to the future, as proto-skyscrapers rising above the wharves and warehouses of the port city.
      The comprehensive nature of the MoS exhibition provokes critical engagement with the bridge story, as does the comprehensive documentation in the accompanying monograph. The book is a major work of scholarship supported by the most comprehensive illustrative material we have seen, reproduced to exacting standards, and superbly integrated with the essays by Caroline Mackaness, Alan Ventress, Robert Freestone, Ray Wedgwood, Peter Spearritt and Jane Kelso; the illustrated chronology 1789–1932 compiled by Caroline Mackaness and Joanna Gilmour; and even the publicity piece on the bridge today contributed by the Roads and Traffic Authority.
      Apart from the inherent fascination of the engineering project unfolded in detail, the great value of the book resides in the opportunity to study the urban proposals associated with the scheme and to critically reflect on their significance, guided by Robert Freestone’s masterful review. Here the visionary dimension of Bradfield’s achievement is given the attention it deserves. The bridge project was the last sustained attempt to shape Sydney on the basis of heavy rail and light rail infrastructure. Tragically, this strategy was supplanted in the late 1930s by a motorway programme promoted by the Department of Main Roads and its successor organization, the Roads and Traffic Authority, which in terms of spatial pattern, detail design and financing has to be one of the worst in the world. However, before a generation of engineers made the fatal switch to road construction, Bradfield put forward his astonishing vision of a rail-based metropolis, inspired, as Robert Freestone demonstrates, by the rail sinews, bridges and civic projects of Manhattan. A sense of the city Bradfield proposed can be experienced at Milsons Point where the approach structure to the bridge becomes a great work of urbanism – a hybrid fusion of concrete viaduct, public space, pedestrian subways, station concourse, shops, workshops, post office and banks, which form the civic focus of a high-density neighbourhood, a concentration of movement systems, density and programme that creates a sort of “delirious Kirribilli”.
      Bradfield is indeed the hero of the Bridging Sydney story. He is the greatest public servant the city has ever had. No single individual has carried forward a project as complex, vital and far-reaching as the Harbour Bridge/City Circle/ Railway Electrification works of the 1912–1932 era. Although his work as a designer was heavy-handed – and thankfully refined by Ralph Freeman, Thomas Tait and the Dorman Long team – two documents from the MoS exhibition and book give the true measure of this man: his 1922 advice to the state government not to surrender the city infrastructure to private interests, and his 1924 Report on Tenders, an open and completely transparent evaluation of the technical basis and financial implications of the twenty competing designs. We have seen nothing like it since – indeed, we have seen nothing but contempt for the public interest in recent competitions conducted by the NSW Government, like those for the Olympic Village and the Olympic Stadium, in which the unsuccessful entries and the basis for selecting the winners were never revealed. Seventy-five years after the opening of the bridge, the most important aspect of the project highlighted by the MoS exhibition and book is that in every way, design and construction of this great public work was a truly honourable achievement.
James Weirick is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of New South Wales and director of the Urban Development and Design Program, University of New South Wales. Bridging Sydney shows at the Museum of Sydney until 29 April. The book Bridging Sydney, edited by Caroline Mackaness, is published by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, in association with Thames & Hudson.

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