The harbour was once Sydney’s colonial apparatus, ushering in dignitaries and trading vessels, with their news from the world. Port Jackson was a fortification and a working port, Pitt Street being the busy hub of the south with its wharves, its post office, churches, railway and law courts.
In 1850, before a bridge over, or a tunnel crossing Sydney harbour was a realised dream, the northern shores were isolated woodlands, uninhabited and rarely visited by settlers. St Leonards was then, the centre of the north, secluded and picturesque with its conserved landscape of eucalypts and banksias. By 1890 ferries crossed regularly from the Quay to Milson’s point, from where a cable tram ran the steep slope to North Sydney. With time the northern settlement was transformed, developed today into a cluster of skyscrapers, offices, residential towers and the heritage-listed Gore-Hill cemetry.
I became re-acquainted with this history recently when I worked on a concept for a project by MCHP architects. The aim of Urban harbour is to create a vibrant residential, commercial, and community precinct.
The site tapers along a stretch of train line, bounded by embankments, weedy strips, service lanes and undercover car space. Flanked by a sun-filled park and the busy St Leonards train station, it reaches to a serene, natural pocket of Talus Reserve.
Bulky residential and office buildings form the spine of an urban grid, which is abruptly cut by the train line. The site is a dry oasis amid the clamour of trains, braking and accelerating, the recorded announcements of arrivals and departures, the movement of pedestrians, trains and vehicles to and from the station and its commerical hive by day and by night fall.
Urban Harbour has two multi-storey commercial buildings to the busy southern end and a multi-storey residential building to the quieter northern end. Elevated from the train line a central square captures sunlight and breeze to create a public space for social interaction and art. This area views treescapes towards the local landmark Naremburn church spire. Community facilities are blended into the design. A series of pedestrian flows are woven throughout, linking the precinct to the surrounding open spaces, the train station and Herbert Street.
The harbour has pretty much always divided the different tribes of Sydney: the north shore and the eastern suburbs. Before white invasion the Gadigal people inhabited Sydney cove; the Wangal, the clan to which Benelong belonged, inhabited the area known as Concord; and the Wallumattagal, the north. The Aboriginal name for Port Jackson is Weerong, but that name was soon to change with the arrival of the Endeavour. There were some twenty nine clans in the wider Sydney area. Their numbers dwindled alarmingly within twenty years of European settlement, mostly as a result of infectious diseases. They fished from the rocks with spears made of wallaby bone and stingray spine, or from their canoes, in which they cooked on beds of seaweed. We could learn from the way in which they respected the wildlife and flora, protecting the shores of the coastal harbour, and its fragile environment.
Urban Harbour is featured in the current issue of Australian Architecture Review
Designs by David Cahill and Hubert Sawicki