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Saving Pyrmont Bridge

By 22 November, 2023March 18th, 2024No Comments

The role of Conybeare Morrison in saving Pyrmont Bridge from demolition was celebrated on Thursday night at the PIA Awards at the Ivy. The project was nominated in the GREAT PLACE category independently by Jan McCredie, respected architect and urban designer, showing an understanding of the foresight that occurred back in 1982, and citing the ability for great results to come from modest yet visionary initiatives.

Nick-D, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

At the time DMR (now TfNSW) was tendering the bridge for demolition to save annual maintenance costs of $1,000,000 since the bridge was no longer needed for vehicular traffic. Our private client proposal (known as Project Sunrise) for the development of Darling Harbour, then a series of rusty disused goods sheds, included the retention of Pyrmont Bridge as a pedestrian and retail connection across Cockle Bay. Through the good fortune of an audience with the then premier, the Honorable Neville Wran, to present our proposal, the premier turned to his ‘Mr Fixit’, the Head of the Premier’s Department, Mr Gerry Gleeson, and said “Hold that tender”. And the bridge was saved.

Today the Bridge carries 14,000 people per day as a vital pedestrian and cycle link across Cockle Bay between the City and Pyrmont. A truly GREAT PLACE. With the renewed appreciation in the 21st century for active transport and walkable cities, the decision to save the bridge 40 years ago, and retain it as such a link, was prescient indeed.

Jan McCredie’s nomination statement

Category | GREAT PLACE

I am nominating Pyrmont Bridge as a Great Place for the 2023 PIA Awards. This comes with recognition of the two people who were instrumental in convincing the then State Government that Pyrmont Bridge should not be demolished. Those two people are Darrel Conybeare and Bill Morrison of Conybeare Morrison International.

The background

For years a story rumbled around Sydney about how Pyrmont Bridge was ‘saved’ and for years I watched how the bridge ultimately became a critical link between Sydney CBD, Darling Harbour and Pyrmont. It is time, I believe, to acknowledge how Pyrmont Bridge escaped the fate of demolition and what it means for city making.

The ‘saving’ of the Pyrmont Bridge was unique because it came about by an instantaneous, identifiable decision, compared with the often-murky slow path of other ‘savings’ of buildings and places. This PIA nomination, in some way, represents all the ‘saved’ projects in Sydney and highlights the value of vision and contextual thinking about place.

Our memories are closely related to the land and built environment. What physically exists is our experience. Nobody remembers that ‘the lanes’ in Melbourne were to be sold because they exist today. Nobody remembers the lanes in Sydney because they were sold. People now cannot imagine Darling Harbour without Pyrmont Bridge. This nomination is to recognise that sometimes Great Places are there because they are saved by the vision and perseverance of planners, architects and the community.

The story

In 1981 Darrel Conybeare and Bill Morrison of Conybeare Morrison were preparing a masterplan for Darling Harbour. Pyrmont Bridge, a swing bridge located across Cockle Bay, (known as Tumbalong, the place where seafood is found) in Darling Harbour opened in 1902. It initially carried motor vehicle traffic via the Pyrmont Bridge Road between the central business district and Pyrmont. It was the pride of Sydney and in the first week 20,000 pedestrians paid the one penny toll to cross but by 1981, Pyrmont Bridge was considered surplus to needs because traffic was diverted to the western freeway. The bridge was slated for demolition with a tender pending.

During the design process for Darling Harbour, Darrel and Bill recognised the potential value of the bridge as a strategic pedestrian link between the CBD and Pyrmont.

CM+ Pyrmont Bridge

The control cab for the bridge’s swinging operation.

In Bills words:

“Being fortunate enough to secure an audience with Neville Wran, (Premier) Darrel and I presented our proposals for Darling Harbour, then a defunct and rusty railway goods yard. The key to our proposal was the retention of the disused and much-loved Pyrmont Bridge as a pedestrian/retail bridge connecting both sides of a new entertainment / retail / residential precinct. It was being tendered at that time for demolition by the DMR. During our presentation Premier Wran turned to his ‘Mr Fixit’ Gerry Gleeson, Head of the Premier’s Department, and uttered three words “Hold that tender” – Pyrmont Bridge was saved and the embryo Darling Harbour Authority was forged”

Today we cannot imagine the city without Pyrmont Bridge, but in the 1970s and 1980s demolition was the ‘go to’ answer. To facilitate the retention of this remarkable piece of infrastructure through a vision akin to the Ponte Vecchio was an incredible achievement.

Darrel and Bill are founding directors of Conybeare Morrison established in 1980. Both are architects and urban designers with extensive international experience in their early careers, Darrell in the USA and Bill in the UK. Their design focus always included broad scale city making and strategic design.

Cities are very long-term projects. Cities change, some of those changes improve the city. The government’s decision not to demolish Pyrmont Bridge has been a very positive change. While the bridge is important historically because of its construction and design (this recognition came later) it has played and continues to play a vital role in connecting the Sydney CBD to Pyrmont and framing Darling Harbour.

© 2020 CM+ Conybeare Morrison International Pty Ltd