Museum of Sydney exhibition unveils unrealized proposals for city landmarks

What if a different design for the Sydney Opera House had been chosen? What if the developers stick to the original winning design of Barangaroo? What if the Sydneysiders traveled in mini-helicopters?

A new exhibition, Unrealized Sydney, asks these “what if” questions by unearthing some of the most controversial and outlandish schemes proposed for the city’s landmarks.

A proposal for Sunrise High Technologies’ Darling Harbor included theme parks, a planetarium and an aquarium.(Provided: State Archives of NSW)

Among the rejected plans is Project Sunrise, a Darling Harbor redevelopment plan submitted by Sunrise High Technologies.

The ambitious plan would have included several theme parks such as “mineral mountain and energy rock”, a planetarium and a Great Barrier Reef aquarium.

“On a series of islands off the western shore of the harbor, it will be a hands-on adventure that will elevate theme parks into a new kind of educational activity,” says Sunrise High Technologies’ proposal.

The 1980s plan suggested that “visitors will make decisions and take risks” when encountering new technologies.

The Museum of Sydney exhibition, curated by Robert Freestone, professor of planning at the School of Built Environment at the University of NSW, examines alternative visions for eight neighborhoods.

Crowds watch the oil city of the future from Atlantic Union
Atlantic Union Oil’s “City of the Future”, designed by Charles Frederick Beauvais, was displayed at the Royal Agricultural Show in 1947.(Russell Roberts)

“The evolution of the city has not been some sort of linear, pre-planned, seamless process. In fact, it has been a stop and a restart, there have been many forks in the road,” said Professor Freestone.

In some cases, plans were thwarted by budget constraints or thwarted by designs more attractive to the government of the day. Others were arrested by community opposition.

“When we look back at the late 60s and early 70s projects, which probably dominate the exhibition, in relation to the urban renewal projects of Woolloomooloo and The Rocks, they were conceived largely as commercial developments,” the professor told Freestone.

A black and white image showing nine large towers at The Rocks
Lend Lease Corporation proposed to build mega office and residential towers in The Rocks in the 1970s.(Provided: Museum of Sydney )

In the 1970s, plans to “clear” the Rocks and build office and residential towers provoked massive opposition from the local community who were trying to retain historic buildings and maintain affordable housing.

Professor Freestone said the battle for The Rocks had led to a more sophisticated approach to design that took into account heritage that had previously been largely ignored.

“This interplay between the designer’s vision and community criticism actually helped to influence the subsequent path of architecture and urban design in Sydney.”

A black and white artists impression of the Rocks with several office buildings.
Proposals to demolish historic buildings in The Rocks created fierce opposition and led to improvements in the planning process.(Provided: State Archives of NSW)

Other ideas were more fantasy than reality. Like the 1945 drawings by industrial designer Charles Frederick Beauvais depicting aerobuses transporting workers from the Lower North Shore to the city.

Prof Freestone said Mr Beauvais’ design philosophy reflected a period of optimism about the future after the dark war years.

“He spent much of his time, especially in the 1940s, inventing new kinds of technological solutions to create a more practical and mobile society. Not only these almost mini-helicopters… but also monorails and other forms of fast and efficient ground transportation.”

A pencil drawing of an Aerobus on paper by Charles Frederick Beauvais in 1945.
The ideas of industrial designer Charles Frederick Beauvais reflected a post-war optimism about the future. (Provided: Museum of Sydney)

Professor Freestone hoped visitors would enjoy looking at the ‘weird, wacky and horrific’ ideas, but also realize the power of the community to shape major development and urban renewal projects.

While he may be relieved that many of the projects included in the exhibit haven’t started, Professor Freestone said that was a different case for Barangaroo.

Black and white photomontage of the proposed parking station at Circular Quay
Wood Hall Limited proposed a car park at Circular Quay in 1970.(Provided: State Archives of NSW)

In 2006, a winning design was chosen in an international competition, but the final proposal bore little resemblance to the original.

“I think people could take a look at that initial project, which is on display, and some of the other Barangaroo proposals, and then think about what it has become now with the tallest building, the apartments of luxury and the Sydney casino.”

The Unrealized Sydney exhibition opens to the public on Saturday at the Museum of Sydney.

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