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The Songlines of Sydney

By Malcolm Knox

Jul 5, 2013

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Four influential residents reveal the stories of a cosmopolitan city.

This spring, AFAR brought a group of experiential travelers to Sydney for the third AFAR Experiences event. The group crisscrossed the city from the Art Gallery of New South Wales to the headquarters of Dinosaur Designs. Prominent urban planners, writers, designers, scientists, and businesspeople spoke to the group, offering an in-depth immersion into the city. Read more about the AFAR Experiences event series. 

Sydney is a city that warrants hyperbole: Its harbor is often called the most beautiful in the world, its opera house an icon of late modernist architecture, the Harbor Bridge an exquisite working monument to structural engineering. Palm trees, mission-style houses, wrought iron balconies, and art deco accents form the texture of the city. Relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis, Sydney today has a thriving cultural scene brimming with visual art, music, theater, and film.

It is a dispersed city, with a central downtown surrounded by compact neighborhoods and suburbs. Its residents—Sydneysiders— forge daily paths for themselves, contemporary, urban versions of what indigenous Australians might call their songlines. Four Sydney residents who helped curate our most recent AFAR Experiences event have carved out significant places in the city’s cultural life. Each moves along a particular axis. Entrepreneur Dare Jennings travels between his beachside home at Tamarama and the bustling, post-industrial Inner West precinct of Camperdown; for Wendy Whiteley, Sydney’s two poles are her home with its secret garden at Lavender Bay and the art studio of her late husband across the harbor in Surry Hills; newspaper columnist and self-described flâneur Elizabeth Farrelly circles the dense inner city from Balmain in the west to Darling Point in the east; John Morse, a country boy who built a life in the metropolis, is all-or-nothing, leaping from the heart of Sydney to the far Northern Territory in a single bound, bypassing the intervening suburbia.

Here is a window into their lives and favorite hometown haunts.


john morse afar experiencesRumpled and informal but full of spark, John Morse embodies his own philosophy: “People promoting the tourism industry should themselves reflect the brand.” Morse, the former managing director of the Australian Tourist Commission, began his career in Sydney in 1983, at the start of a cultural awakening that would culminate in the city’s new image during the 2000 Olympic Games. To the outside world, “Australia was seen as desirable but monodimensional,” Morse says. “There was Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, and kangaroos, but not much about the cities. Sydney was growing up, emerging as a global metropolis.”

During those Olympics, the world saw a Sydney that could stand with the best cities anywhere. “The place that most reminds me of Sydney is San Francisco,” Morse says. “Multicultural, with a relaxed approach to life.” The parallels are many—the cuisine, with its seafood and Asian influences; the wine, thanks to prodigious vineyard regions nearby; the topography around complex waterways; and a sense that the two cities attract visitors because their tourist attractions are built for and used by the locals.

Morse’s own haunts in Sydney are in the same mold: local hubs that happen to be sights. The Opera House, he says, is “my favorite build- ing not only here but anywhere in the world. I went to the first-ever concert inside the building, in 1972, which was put on for the workers. There were Yugoslav, Greek, and Italian workers crying at the magnitude of what they had achieved. All these people from around the world had come here in hope.”


Morse’s largest current project involves promoting tourism in Australia’s “Top End,” where he’s working with the indigenous Yolngu people to establish a new cultural tourism destination. “Our indigenous culture is something that differentiates us from the rest of the world. It is one the world’s oldest continuously living cultures.”

There is common ground, Morse believes, between the city and indigenous territory thousands of miles away in Arnhem Land and Kakadu. “The essence of indigenous tourism is being invited into somebody’s life and home. That’s distinct from ‘industrial’ tourism, which is theme parks and hotel chains. It’s the same with Sydney. You have to get under its skin to really know it.”


Elizabeth Farrelly afar experiencesElizabeth Farrelly has come to understand Sydney through her sense of smell: the scent of flowers, century-old houses, ebbing tidewater on the streets, and staircases that slope toward the harbor in neighborhoods such as Darling Point, east of downtown.

“When I walk through Darling Point, it’s so pretty and charming,” Farrelly says. “The lush plants combine with solid masonry buildings like nowhere else in the world. I love the ‘pokability’ of it. If you feel like it, you can poke your way through Sydney, following your whims from one discovery to the next. The city has a sense of adventure that still exhilarates me.”

New Zealand–born Farrelly first came to Sydney in the late 1980s. She has worked as an architect, academic, writer, and social policy adviser, with public roles as a Sydney City Councillor in the late 1990s and a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald since 2000. Though her interests are eclectic, they coalesce around politics, urban design, and residents’ way of life.

“Some of the best things in Sydney have been preserved through corruption,” she says. In the early 1970s, plans were developed to
wipe out the inner terrace-housing districts and replace them with freeways, residential towers, and open space. The entire inner city would have “looked like downtown Dallas,” Farrelly says, but activists protested and “governments were too corrupt to act on their planning principles and couldn’t get their act together. It’s the best thing that ever happened to Sydney.”

Much of the city evolved like a patchwork quilt, without purposeful urban planning. What this created, architecturally, is a glorious hodgepodge. The politicians’ failures, Farrelly says, left intact her favorite precincts, such as Chippendale, Surry Hills, and Balmain, what she calls the “Dickensian parts of Sydney.”

“These precincts are higgledy-piggledy, the exact opposite of modernism’s idea that everything needs to be rational and uniform,” Farrelly says. “Sydney’s best parts are charmingly irrational. What has been left is that ‘pocketedness,’ which is enchanting.”

And wafting through it all is Sydney’s unique smell. “There’s a mixture of fecundity and rottenness in that city smell,” she says. “The corruption and vitality, together, are what forms the culture.”


wendy whiteley afar experiencesIn the early 1990s, Wendy Whiteley was grieving the death of her ex-husband, Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s most renowned painters. The Whiteleys had lived for years in a house overlooking Lavender Bay, on the northwest side of Sydney Harbor Bridge. It also overlooked an abandoned landfill owned by the state railways. Over the past 17 years, Wendy Whiteley has turned this blank canvas into a unique work of urban art.

“It was a hole in the ground, left by the quarrying of sandstone for the houses, and what do people do with a hole? They throw rubbish into it,” Whiteley says. “There were new apartments and offices going up in North Sydney, making the area more intense, and people became desperate to get out into a bit of greenery. It seemed a pathetic waste to leave that great green lump, so I just thought, ‘I’ll do this.’ ”


brett whiteley studio afar experiencesThe garden in Lavender Bay is steep, lush, and peaceful, with nooks and crannies and pathways, benches and sculptures strategically placed, the ground sloping down toward a tunnel beneath the railway line that opens onto the harbor’s shore. Whiteley never asked permission from the department of transport to build the garden. She preferred to count on the agency’s neglect. “I knew if I went and asked, they would have said no,” says Whiteley, who is often thanked by passersby when they see her in the garden. “If I’d asked for a year’s beautification lease, they’d have forced me to pay a huge amount of money, which I’d rather spend on gardening.”

Whiteley still lives in the house she shared with Brett, where he vividly interpreted Sydney Harbor, capturing the water in all its moods, from gray and orange to a French ultramarine that has virtually reinvented the color of the harbor on a summer’s day. “Once you’ve seen Brett’s pictures of the harbor, you’ll never see it the same again,” Whiteley says. “The color enters your psyche and becomes part of your vocabulary. It changes the way you see.”


dare jennings afar experiencesDare Jennings has an innate feel for all that is unique and handmade in Australian culture. In 1984, he cofounded the surfwear company Mambo, which, along with the brands Rip Curl, Billabong, and Quiksilver, would redefine Australia’s image and produce some of the country’s most successful retail exports.

Jennings sold Mambo in 2000. Always striving for the essence of what interested him, he started Deus ex Machina, which he calls “a barrel of contradictions—a bike shop but not in the bike industry, a surf shop but not in the surf industry.”

The underlying idea is that “after years of working on computers, people want to fix and make and build things.” In the Deus workshop, customers learn how to change oil and spark plugs, among other skills, to build customized and artisanal sports items: single-speed and fixed-wheel bicycles, stripped-down motorbikes, old-school surfboards.

The Deus ethos captures what Jennings feels is his personal, and very Australian, fight against pigeonholing. “In the ’70s, if you surfed, you had a motorbike. There was nothing incompatible,” he says. “Then the surf industry came along and went fundamentalist, said surfing is this and can’t be that. That’s what I resented. If you want to be fresh and interesting, you have to follow your own ideas and not fall into those fundamentalist ways of thinking and following.”

deus ex machina afar experiencesJennings describes Sydney as a series of villages, and his daily commute captures the city’s diversity, including all the contradictions that madden and beguile him. He lives in Tamarama, a tight cluster of houses and apartments overlooking the cityside beach, which is both a jewel of perfection and a dangerous swirl of rips and gutters that can sweep out the unsuspecting swimmer. It is Jennings’s favorite place.

His design space and showroom, a renovated factory called the House of Simple Pleasures, houses a garage and restaurant. It is located in Camperdown, an eclectic precinct on the city’s western fringe defined by auto shops, retail warehouses, and the grinding thoroughfare of Parramatta Road. It’s another almost accidental Sydney suburb, neither one thing nor the other, now in its moment of rediscovery and refurbishment.

At the end of the day, when Jennings returns home to the beachside and washes off the soot and grime, he can’t complain. Those who bike down to the beach with surfboards under their arms are there for the quintessential Sydney experience. “When I take a walk around here,” he says, “it still strikes me how incredibly lucky I am.” A

Photos by Petrina Tinslay. Illustrations by Riccardo Vecchio. This appeared in the August/September 2013 issue.

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