In Review: AAA Sydney City Walk

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By Deborah Singerman

On one of those unexpectedly cold April mornings after days of heat (I rued wearing shorts), the variety and perspectives of this city walk kept me on my chilly toes. Four of us, including guide Hong Nguyen, a University of New South Wales architecture graduate, wandered around the top end of town, starting at Customs House in Circular Quay and ending up at the museum of Sydney.

The other two tour participants have been on several AAA walks (and, keen as, were going on the Redfern walk the next day). Nguyen said her groups often consisted of locals taking along interstate and international friends. The tours mix of historical buildings and places, a sandstone stretch, and some of our major modern office blocks and plazas, are a good instruction to Sydney.

Having discovered that the designated site for penal settlement of New South Wales (NSW) further south at Botany Bay did not have a reliable fresh water supply nor secure anchorage, whereas Sydney Cove offered both, this is where official possession of NSW occurred. (The freshwater creek became known as the Tank Stream.)

The shore base (at the Rocks, which we did not visit) is where goods and people started to arrive until another spot with a perfectly clear view of ships arriving, took precedence. The magnificent heritage-listed, classical revival colonial building, a Customs House before Federation, has had storeys added to the original three, a look based on London’s Customs House. It has also had function changes including state government departments, cultural events rooms (such as the former customs’ shopfront, the Barnet Long Room named after colonial architect James Barnet who added a balustrade colonnade to the building in 1885), and a thriving City of Sydney-council owned cultural centre, with a top bar and stunning views. We did not visit this on a Saturday morning but peered down to the glass-roofed ground floor model of Sydney, which is regularly updated to reflect the city’s changes.

We walked up Loftus Street and Bent Street taking in public buildings such as the original Department of Lands building, designed by Barnet, built in different stages, and lined with detailed statues but not as many as hoped for because the money ran out during the 1880s Depression. Sensibly, the map room was on the top floor to benefit from any daylight (no floor-to-ceiling windows in those days).

For a change of mood and landscape, we passed Bert Flugelman’s 1979 controversial, modernist sculpture, en route to Australia Square, the first of the Harry Seidler towers Nguyen described (and enjoyed). She left us in no doubt that the Viennese-born architect had a tremendous influence on the city. 

Modernist, practical, bold, and with his visionary client, Lend Lease founder Dick Dusseldorp, an active force, from 1967 onwards Seidler stamped the footprint with his love of open spaces, European-style piazzas, raised steps, outside seating areas with bright umbrellas, and circular concrete skyscrapers, using fast-working formwork, with clever use of beams and columns, and a street setback to reduce gloomy outlooks and wind tunnels. 

At 50 storeys high, Australia Square was Sydney’s tallest building and the world’s tallest reinforced concrete structure. We also passed by the MLC Centre, and its prominent street setback and plaza, and later on, the more concealed, No 9 Castlereagh Street, an office with a light, airy outlook, strong structure and striking glass work. 

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A saunter through Angel Place, at that time of day empty, and we were able to see the paving describing the birds in the cages above, now extinct or endangered, with their forgotten songs appropriately tweeting (in the best sense of the word) near the City Recital Hall.

Up steps from Angel Place to 4 Martin Place, an entree to the grand open space of Martin Place, with different shades of paving showing the various time scales of its development. The late 19th century GPO (General Post Office) sandstone building, designed under Barnet’s guidance, was said to be the grandest building in the Southern Hemisphere, and its scale and grandeur are still breathtaking. The carvings below the underhangs, alone, are something to behold.

No longer a post office, the GPO is a cornucopia of dining and leisure and hotel linkages, and its heritage-listed facade is an arresting sight. Another moving sight is embedded in the paving itself, Reflection, remembering the Lindt Café victims, Tori Johnson with hydrangeas and sunflowers for Katrina Dawson.

Nguyen finally brought the group to much newer but, in their own way, just as important built contributions to the city: 

1 Bligh Street (Ingenhoven Architects of Germany and Architectus of Australia), circular, free-standing, at the end of a block, with views galore and top Green Star-rated energy-efficiency, recycled water, solar and chilled beam thermal comfort, masses of natural light, and an external vertical garden; 

the Renzo Piano-designed commercial and residential Aurora Place, with wintergardens with an operable louvre façade, and distinctive customised terracotta panelling; and 

the Museum of Sydney, on the site of the first Government House, which, among other things, embeds displays of the original foundations and outside, has a cluster of Janet Laurence-designed poles representing 29 Aboriginal clans, and a wall, grading from rough sandstone at the bottom to smooth at the top, a low-key but effective way to ponder on the meaning of taking the rough with the smooth.

You too can discover Sydneys CBD on the AAA's next Sydney City Walk on Saturday 8 June.


Location: Meet outside the Customs House entrance, 31 Alfred Street, Circular Quay, NSW 2000 
Date: Saturday 8 June 2018
Time: 10.00am - 12.00pm
Tickets: $30 (Public) / $25 (Concession) / Free (AAA Members and Company Members)

Click here to secure your tickets for the tour.


AAA Volunteer Deborah Singerman is a writer and editor, with extensive experience interviewing people, researching stories, finding angles and then disseminating the information for different readerships.

She offers professional writing and editing services for articles with content that can be adapted for websites, blogs, magazines and university journals.

Check out her website at:


  • Article: Deborah Singerman
  • Image 1: Australia Square Tower, designed by architect Harry Seidler
  • Image 2: Forgotten Songs sound installation by artist Michael Thomas Hill and research scientist Dr. Richard Major