A couple of years back I was contacted by a photographer named Alex Mattea. From 1987 to 1989 Alex photographed every building and every street in the Sydney CBD. He wanted to show me the results.
During the 1980s Alex was alarmed by the head-long speed of the city’s transformation. Familiar buildings and views were disappearing apparently unmourned. He felt that a record should be made of what was being lost, and spent months creating one. I borrowed Alex’s negatives for a time and had some of them scanned and assembled as street panoramas. You can see of few of them here.
Viewed two decades later, these photos of Sydney streets confirm Alex Mattea’s fears for urban heritage. Within the time since 1989 some buildings (for example the Sykygarden retail centre) have been built but have already been demolished and replaced. The time scale of urban change is becoming shorter and shorter.
However late-80s Sydney retains a certain familiarity. Twenty years or so is just enough for most of us to remember not just the buildings but also our lives in the city. In contrast photos from older period create too great a temporal gap. The people and places are from another world.
Alex calls his project the 1987/89 City of Sydney Streetscape Survey, a comprehensive, assembled record of detail. Streetscape surveys have a history in Sydney. Joseph Fowles’ Sydney in 1848 was the first, depicting every city building in an effort to show the progress of the new town. There was probably nothing comparable until the City Council began using photography to document building applications and potential demolition site. The Council’s demolition books are a great record of lost Sydney and Max Kelly used photos of William Street in 1916 as the basis of his Faces of the Street, one of my favourite books about Sydney.
During the 1960s the street level panorama gained artistic cred thanks to Ed Ruscha and his books of Californian urban scenes – Twenty six gasoline stations and Every building on the Sunset Strip – were crucial moments in the movement to make everyday commercial images the raw material of art. Wesley Stacey did something similar in Australia with his series of Road photos, some of which were featured in the PHM’s Cars and culture exhibition during the 1990s.
Alex Mattea’s photos recreate streets full of memories, like old songs they call up experiences and feelings from the past. But they are also a record of politics, style and history. These include the history of the buildings themselves, as well as controversies that surrounded many of them. In 1987 the Regent Theatre, Sydney’s grandest, was still standing on George Street, vacant, unused and squabbled over. A picture taken today would show the Regent’s replacement but also recall the scandalous ‘black hole’ that occupied its site from its 1990 demolition until 2006.
If many of the buildings have become ghosts, the human presences on the footpaths are even more spectral. Who were these people, striding so purposefully? Few of them could have been residents – the city’s population was close to an all-time low during the 1980s – rather sojourners, visitors, workers.
In 1989 the city was still struggling out of its 1960s, 1970s nadir, when department stores, cinemas, theatres and pubs were closing. A result was several run-down and oddly welcoming precincts like the southern end of Pitt Street, dominated by cheap accommodation at the West End hotel and the People’s Palace, cheap cafes, cheap book shops and similar. Or the part of Sussex Street where decayed buildings provided cheap venues and homes for the artists and thespians of the Pact theatre, the Royal George, favourite watering hole of the Sydney Push, and the Dundee Arms, pub turned into artists studios. Apartments and tourist hotels now set the tone for both of these precincts. Today’s city is richer but more generic.
Some streetscapes have effectively disappeared. For example the block of Hay Street behind the Capitol Theatre, home in 1989 to the Roma café, Golden Hay restaurant, Fisherman’s World and Pam’s Bargains is but a memory – and a set of Alex Mattea’s photos.
Alex is putting together proposals to display his City of Sydney Streetscape Survey. In the meantime his photos lend value to the ongoing debates about heritage – how or why to value urban infrastructure, the relative value of architecture and history, memory and regeneration.
Post by Charles Pickett, Curatorial