Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Sydney Harbour Bridge: From Modernity to Post-Modernity in Australian Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Sydney Harbour Bridge: From Modernity to Post-Modernity in Australian Fiction

Article excerpt

In the interwar years of the 20th century Australian cities began to be reshaped by the impact of modernism upon architecture, engineering and town planning. Innovative approaches to urban design coupled with new materials and construction technologies and the need to adapt city spaces to new modes of transportation, communication and entertainment, produced profound changes in the built environment. For residents of Sydney, and indeed for Australians generally, the most obvious and significant manifestation of modernity in this period was the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge between 1923 and 1932. The bridge builders harnessed the technologies and skills of modern engineering to produce the world?s longest suspension bridge, and with this grand gesture Sydney began to assume its modern form. As travel writer Jan Morris has written, the Harbour Bridge is, "one of the most talismanic structures of the earth, and then by far the most striking thing ever built in Australia. At that moment, I think, contemporary Sydney began-perhaps definitive Sydney? (24).

This paper examines the Harbour Bridge as it has been represented in a series of (mostly) recent novels that focus on the period of its construction. Contemporary interest in the Bridge will be contrasted with the actual period of its construction when, despite its very obvious appeal to visual artists, the Bridge was all but ignored by writers of fiction. It will be argued that these recent novels look back at the construction of the Bridge through a postmodern lens, at a time when the Bridge has transcended its roots in functional interwarmodernity and been reinvented as a centrepiece of Australia?s most visible and theatrical urban space.

That the Bridge has evolved in this way is testament not only to its impact on the physical environment of Sydney and its Harbour, but also to the powerful emotional pull that it almost immediately acquired. Through a remarkable confluence of geography and history the Bridge was built at the very place where the nation?s non-indigenous settlement commenced, and in the space where post-settlement Australia is most visible to the world. Of course Sydney Harbour, and more particularly Sydney Cove, as they existed before the construction of the Bridge were hardly emotionally neutral spaces. The Harbour had held great significance to the Eora people for millennia, and the choice of Sydney Cove as the site of European settlement immediately ensured it would have lasting importance for the settler society. Sydney Cove, in its evolved form as Circular Quay, remains the gateway to our most recognisable international city and the chosen stage for signature events of national and even international importance, ensuring that it is constantly re-inscribed with new meaning and emotional resonance. While the short-term view might see the Bridge as a sign of something that is both modern and permanent, the longer-view will appreciate that the space it occupies is ancient, haunted and evolving.

One outcome of the Harbour Bridge?s striking modernity was that many graphic artists were eager to record its construction, finding in the marriage of design and engineering an expression of the modernism that was transforming their own art. As Lionel Lindsay observed, "The Bridge has dwarfed the city and humbled the North Shore. It sets the scale for a new era and a modern Babylon. Old Sydney is now but a memory? (quoted in Slater, 54). Early Australian modernist painters and printmakers such as Grace Cossington-Smith, Dorrit Black and Jessie Traill, and photographers such as Robert Bowden, Henri Mallard, Harold Cazneaux and Frank Cash, regularly-even obsessively-recorded the Bridge, its workers and the surrounding industry. Laurie Duggan has noted that in these representations the Bridge ranges from "an aggressive symbol of modernity (and masculinity)? (112), to "a living organism whose energies send out an aura or mantle? (113). Duggan concludes that from its inception the Bridge had a symbolic potency that reduced its function as a commuter thoroughfare to a secondary role. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.