The area along McEvoy Street between Botany Road and Fountain Street is an unremarkable patch of a partially gentrified industrial urban landscape. Cars are an inescapable part of the atmosphere, something you notice when trying to take an unobstructed shot of a facade or when you see them packed into the redundant space alongside large warehouses.
Unlike the areas of central Sydney, along this stretch there are rare glimpses of carpark rusticity: un-cemented lots, riddled with puddle holes, bare dirt and piles of old bricks partially uncovered by the traffic.
If you were showing a visitor around this area you’d probably prepare them by saying it wasn’t likely to offer a beautiful or sublime aesthetic experience, perhaps not even charming or agreeable. More likely, you’d say, it’s interesting, which is suitably ambiguous with regard to evaluation.
Nonetheless, as you walk the stretch enough times things start to stand out and just seeing them there in their often inexplicable peculiarity is reassuring.
Take the anomalous brick structures below. I can’t for the life of me work out why they are there, with their own little cement deviations from the main footpath. Perhaps the folly of someone with leftover bricks? Perhaps they’re coving up some kind of piping similar to bit jutting out of the grass against the grey wall in the background.
The street features a contrasting combination of a few remaining, run down weatherboard workers cottages, what you might call old-style ‘authentic’ industrial eateries, and gourmet cafes.
A view down some of the lanes leading off the street can offer a classic, Jeffery Smart like view of an industrial streetscape. The candy stripes in the foreground perhaps herald the increasing softening or funification of the area that will come with the continued transition to the services and retail industry.
By contrast, other alleyways are impressive green tunnels of trees, usually Port Jackson Figs, the roots of which twist in loose leaves like tentacles or splay out in cross section form at the gutters edge.
The combination of domestic and industrial architecture in the area takes many different forms. The Able Metromix is an older variety and features what must be among the most pleasing bits of street advertising in the area, with the green and gold, painted sign a soothing comparison to the nearby signage advertising muffins and coffee on the outside of Caltex.
The Able cement works is bounded by a cement wall that incorporates a small, corrugated iron roofed cottage featuring the asymmetrical facade common to the variety of buildings identified as being in the Federation Style which are common in the backstreets of Alexandria and Erskineville. It’s complete with a shingle awning over the window, cast iron lace work on the veranda and decorative bargeboard on the eves.
Such a combination is perhaps reminiscent of the service station incorporated into the Spanish Mission style apartment block on the corner of O’Sullivan and Old South Head Road in Rose Bay, also known as Broadway Garage.
Another more recent example of the industrial, retail and the domestic can be seen below, where a the facade of a brick warehouse has been retained and converted into a retail space, here a Nandos fried chicken ‘restaurant’, with an anaemic set of residential apartments rising above it.
This is a less extreme version of the phenomenon discussed in an article by Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, only in this instance it is industrial rather than classical architectural heritage that is being preserved. It’s a phenomenon I have described elsewhere as obligatory postmodernism in the sense that heritage demands or desires produce an aesthetically contradictory relation between past and present functions, which is characteristic of postmodernism.
The architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas has made some fruitful observations on the modern obsession with heritage. Including the following: “there are a number of phenomenon these days that are intersections of intensity and decreasing intensity, and that maybe preservation is one of those. you can look at this as an incredible increase in nostalgia and decrease in memory, and that is for me the field in which preservation currently takes place.”
The curious pastiche of old and new is in large part the result of the 60-plus new listings that were part of an initiative by City of Sydney to preserve the industrial history of the area.
Some of the remaining warehouses provide foundations for appealing buildings, such as the example below on the corner of McEvoy and Loveridge, which features street level retail space above which a facade of large, multi-paned windows form the outer wall to apartments.
Some of the old infrastructure has been converted into the kinds of services Twenty First Century humans demand, such as the mood enhancement venues commonly known as cafes: we’ve worked out mood lighting, now to mood lifting. Below an old electrical substation has been converted into a substation cafe. Vanessa Berry of the Mirror Sydney blog has written a piece on the efforts of Matte Rochford to catalogue this building type.
The large Dan Murphy’s liquor outlet is another prominent feature of this stretch of road. It too now features a restaurant known as Sushi Jones, more or less incorporated into the side of the building. This seems an upmarket version of the tuck shops that pop up in industrial areas, a famous example of which is the Weigh Bridge Cafe not far away on Bowden Street.
On the McEvoy Street side of Dan Murphy’s in front of the large asphalt carpark between the shop and the street is a curious memorial to Shea’s Creek, which was transformed into the Alexandria Canal in 1887 and polluted with toxins used in the mills, tanneries, brickworks and foundries once common to the area.
Heritage maps of the area reveal that an underground sewer pipeline begins at the memorial and along with a series of other stormwater channels meets with the open air canal that runs alongside Burrow Street near Sydney Park.
The memorial is made of what seems to be recycled rubber composite that forms part of a wall obscuring the carpark. Unless you see it close enough and in the right light the text Sheas Creek Under is barely visible. A brick pathway with smaller than normal brick stock leads to dead end bordered by more of the rubber composite. Who commissioned this curious work? For whom is it meant? Who was the designer? When was it built?
Across the road from Dan Murphy’s is another converted industrial building housing an impressive series of gourmet food outlets, including: Bread and Circus, Campos Coffee, Salts Meats Cheese, a Pana Chocolate outlet and a Vietnamese eatery known as Nguyen Brothers. As you’d expect, the building has been subject to an attentive and what I imagine to be expensive make over, featuring the staples of polished concrete floors, high ceilings with stray steel girders and exposed piping. The brick foundations of the facade are interspersed with the regularly partitioned windows that are among the most pleasing features of such buildings. All the venues inside offer a spacious environment in which to work at a laptop, eat, hold meetings and catch up with friends.
Back towards McEvoy Street, behind the foodie outlets, is an apartment complex known as The Foundary, “one of the premier residential properties on McEvoy Street.” The rustic industrial materials of heavy steel, old brick, rusted metal and “inviting” wooden sleepers are contrasted with brown, red and yellow panels that jut out from the building, creating a kind of zany aesthetic that is at once fun and unfun. It’s vaguely reminiscent in recent McDonald’s architecture, which is a kind of cheapening of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1924 Schroder House, a seminal example of De Stijl architecture known for its adaptable interior spaces and the permeable relation it exhibits between inside and outside.
The building features an internal “greenery common courtyard.” This is a laudable part of many similar complexes in the area. However, I’m eager to know how often it is used by the residents. I’d say: only occasionally, if it’s anything like the fake grass courtyard in my own apartment complex that I don’t imagine soaks up the dog urine as well as real turf.
Speaking of McDonalds, here is a parting sight that I imagine is unique among the branding ploys of the giant restaurant chain and nicely sums up the character of this strip. The golden arches are mounted on what seems to be the remnants of an Art Deco industrial facade. An interesting structural ploy. I’m guessing heritage wasn’t involved considering the facade is all but unrecognisable. But who knows. It acts as a grand entrance to the restuarant carpark.