sydney: back to circular quay

When I left off last time, I was walking off the Sydney Harbour Bridge, hoping the scaffolded building I could see (far left of the photo) wasn’t the AMP Building.

Sydney skyline from the Harbour Bridge

The little sandstone-looking building is the Fours Seasons Hotel, which I thought might have appeared in the Sydney Modern book. It doesn’t.

Four Seasons Hotel

I couldn’t find out much about this building other than it was built in 1982.

Once you get off the bridge, there are a zillion lanes of traffic, and you can take the Cahill Walk back to Circular Quay through The Rocks.

Coming off the Harbour Bridge

Signs along the way tell about how the expressway was built and how much the area has changed.

Construction on the Cahill Expressway started in 1954, and it was built to divert through traffic away from the CBD. This road doesn’t sound like it has many fans. This article says it’s been described as “doggedly symmetrical, profoundly deadpan, severing the city from the water on a permanent basis, as well as “an eyesore, an unnecessary barrier between the city centre and the harbour foreshore and an inappropriate structure to have at the city’s point of entry”.

It says it is “extremely functional though rather ugly, and in a more environmentally and aesthetically conscious era would never have been allowed to be built”.


According to the signs, the construction took place across much of the “historic heart” of the city and resulted in many houses in The Rocks being demolished.

As you come off the walk, you can stand in the spot that was once Little Essex Street (and before that, Brown Bear Lane), which was demolished in 1954, and see what it would have looked like in 1902.

Old viewpoints

I made it back to Circular Quay and commenced my search for the AMP Building.

It was built in 1962, designed by Peddle Thorp and Walker. When it was completed, at 115 metres, it because Australia’s tallest building, breaking the height limit restrictions set in 1912. Sydney Modern says it used the precedent of Melbourne’s ICI House to do this. I’m not sure how that went down. Maybe it was “Melbourne broke their height limits so why can’t we, and we can make ours taller so we’ll win at tall buildings”.

I believe (at least in Melbourne’s case) it had something to do with the percentage of the area of the site the building was actually going to cover. So maybe that’s the precedent. For this building, a significant proportion of the site was to be public open space. It’s now a public transport space, which makes it congested and tricky to get around, but open space was the original intention.

I like my answer better.

According to the Cahill Expressway signs, the expressway “modernised the Circular Quay skyline, encouraging the construction of new skyscrapers”, and AMP house was obviously one of them.

As I had reluctantly suspected, it was indeed the scaffolded building.

This is what I saw when I got to 33 Alfred Street.

AMP Building (Peddle Thorp and Walker, 1962)
AMP Building (Peddle Thorp and Walker, 1962)

There’s boards underneath that provide some history of the building and explain what’s happening in the redevelopment (or, as they call it, re-sculpting).

AMP Building history board

Fortunately, the Tom Bass sculpture is still visible.

Amicus certus in re incerta (Tom Bass)

This sculpture depicts the goddess of Peace and Plenty, the male figure of Labour and a woman with a child. The AMP’s motto Amicus certus in re uncerta means “a certain friend in uncertain times”. This basic idea is a feature of other AMP buildings, including the one in Hobart.

According to Sydney Modern, the AMP Building is distinct because of its curved facade, “a feature which, along with its height, caused a surprising amount of controversy”.

It also had a roof-top observation deck that was closed when taller buildings came along.

Here’s what it used to look like, and what I’d been hoping to see.

Photo: Gareth Evans. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Two out of two misses wasn’t a good start to the day!

I wandered around Circular Quay a bit longer and made the obligatory bridge photo.

Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932)

I noticed markers on the ground denoting the line of the foreshore prior to settlement and development of the area, reminding me that in the context of this place and its original inhabitants, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, what I was looking at was a minuscule faction of its history.

1788 foreshore markers, Circular Quay

I could try and visualise what the AMP building might have looked like. It seems so small now. It’s hard to imagine it was once the tallest building here.

Circular Quay looking back at the AMP Building

As I was deciding what to do next, I came across another Tom Bass sculpture on the side of a building, best seen from the adjacent set of steps.

Research (Tom Bass, 1959)

Sydney Modern tells me this was originally on the side of the ICI building that was previously on the site.

Smaller than Melbourne’s ICI building, this was a glass curtain wall building designed by Bates Smart & McCutcheon (who also designed the one in Melbourne), constructed in 1957 and demolished in 1996.

Here’s a picture of the statue in situ. Information on Sydney’s ICI house seems to be a bit lacking because almost every search comes up with the Melbourne building. But here’s an archive photo of it being built.

By now I’d seen enough of Circular Quay and wondered if I wanted to find some more of the buildings in Sydney Modern and its partner, Sydney Inter-War 1915-1940. While I’d covered the Melbourne Mid-Century Modern tour in two days, these two tours were more logistically difficult.

For a start, I don’t know Sydney as well as I know Melbourne and have been known more than once to head off in the opposite direction to where I’m supposed to be. I’m not sure why, but Sydney has this disorienting affect on me. It’s probably something to do with how their horse races run the wrong way.

And there are two tours that overlap in a lot of places and Sydney’s big and I can never find anything . . . and I only went into the CBD for one thing, and I hadn’t seen it yet.

It was time to find what I’d come to see!


2 thoughts on “sydney: back to circular quay

  1. Primary Tinting

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post about exploring Sydney and its architecture. The pictures are stunning, and the historical context behind each building is fascinating. I noticed that the Cahill Expressway has been described as an “eyesore” and an “unnecessary barrier between the city centre and the harbour foreshore.” I’m curious, do you think there are any plans to change the expressway to better connect the city and the harbour?
    P. T

    Liked by 1 person

    1. straightlinesgirl Post author

      HI PT – thanks for your comments. I’m glad you like the photos.

      I’m not from Sydney so I don’t know if changing the Expressway is something that’s being considered at the moment. Seems unlikely though.

      If you have a look at the article I linked to in the post ( it does refer to discussions in the 1990s and 2000s to remove it, with the federal government also offering to contribute to the cost. But it sounds like it would be a very disruptive project for traffic and extremely expensive as well.



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