Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

Sydney Technical College and former Science Museum


William Kemp


Harris Street, Ultimo




Federation Romanesque


brick and terracocotta


The erection of the Sydney Techinical College and its adjacent Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Ultimo – a group of grand buildings designed by William Kemp in 1891 indicates this particular coming of age (see Figure 5). Architecturally, these buildings seem to me to be the most significant among all I have mentioned. Earlier buildings had been attempts at exact emulation of models established elsewhere. The M.A.A.S. and the Techinical College, although inspired by overseas' examples, have not as simple emulative a relationship to Britain or to Melbourne as the Observatory or Museum had. Not were they a cheaper and less technologically innovative echo of London's 1851 and 1862 International Exhibition buildings (with a dash of Philadelphia's 1875 creation) as Barnet's short-lived International Exhibition building in the Domain (1879-1882) had been. The American Romanesque style, with its round arches, heaviness and modern mixed materials, was diluted with a strong dose of English neo-Norman, inspired particularly by the example of Alred Waterhouse's Natural History Museum at South Kensington, London (1873-81). But the extended Palladian facade of the 'Tech.', in particular, seems characteristically local in form.

There were also strong and obvious assertions of nationalism in the Australian plants and animals in the capitals of the pilasters and columns of the Technical College building, carved by McIntosh and Fillans: kangaroos, wombats and echidnas and, over the main door, Australian lizards. (see Figure 6) Like the architectural style, such ornamentation was a mixture of traditional and local forms, the national motifs themselves probably being determined by an extremely influential French teacher at the Tech., Lucien Henry, who inspired a whole generation of decorative artists and sculptors to use Australian flora and fauna in their designs. (Henry himself was particularly fond of the waratah.)

One of the people most influenced by Henry was his colleague, Richard Baker, who organised a permanent display of Australian decorative arts at the Museum and subsequently published The Australian Flora in Applied Art: Part 1 The Waratah (Sydney), 1915). The book was illustrated with designs by Henry and his students. More notably, perhaps, Baker also collected specimens of Australian marble for exhibition and wrote a pioneer book about them. (He wrote other important books on the trees, woods and grasses of Australia.) Such national awareness, intended for a local rather than British audience, seems to have emanated almost exclusively from the Sydney Tech. and it is therefore appropriate that its buildings echo its preoccupations at the time. Michael Dysart's concrete monster on Broadway for the Tech. of the 1970s (NSWIT), done under the auspices of the Government Architect's Office, Philip Cox's NSWIT extension into the old Fruit and Flower Market buildings in the Sydney Haymarket, and the Powerhouse Museum now completing for 1988 are, I think equally obvious indicators of social values.

There is no escaping the mixture in scientific architecture – as in everything else – of money and mind: of crass commercialism and high-minded disinterested research. Certainly, when we examine the architectural monuments we have created for scientific purposes, both motives and achievements are very mixed. Science in Sydney has not only remained the poor relation of commerce, bureaucracy or government, it also pales into insignificance against the monuments to Medicine or Education. The only time Science begins to look good is when we compare its buildings to our nineteenth-century monuments to Art and Culture.

from The Architecture of Scientific Sydney Joan Kerr
[Paper given at the "Scientific Sydney" Seminar on 18 May, 1985, at History House, Macquarie St., Sydney.]
With special thanks to The Royal Society of NSW 
The Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo
Photograph of the Technological Museum in Harris St, Ultimo.The Powerhouse Museum arrived in Ultimo in 1893 when the Technological Museum opened on Harris Street (pictured at right). Originally housed in the Garden Palace on Macquarie Street, when this burnt down in 1882 the museum moved to temporary quarters in the Domain. It remained there for ten years until the new purpose-built museum joined the Technical College to make an educational centre for the working men and women of the colony.

Photograph of Howard McKern.Howard McKern (born 1917), pictured at left, worked at the Museum from 1945 to 1977, starting as an assistant chemist and leaving as deputy director. McKern came to know the suburb well, spending his lunch hours walking the surrounding streets and occasionally painting what he saw. From his laboratory McKern looked across to Darling Harbour and Kent Street where 'A familiar scene was big lorries loaded with wool …'. Howard witnessed great changes in Ultimo and at the Museum. 

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