Sydney Central Station

Sydney Central Railway Station, although being developed and progressed through time to reflect the rapid technological progression of transport systems; still retains its traditional 19th century architecture as a reminder of the past which also makes it stands out like novelty. As you walked into the Station, you cannot help but feel the presence of the past, amidst the hustling and bustling of people passing by in a rush. This act of rushing in itself, depicts modernity as we are caught in a time zone where we have to constantly keep up with times; literally and metaphorically.

The idea of tradition versus modernity has always been a long debatable issue. In terms of construction, can these two ideas co-exist with one another? Sydney Central Station is a perfect example of how these two concepts can co-exist and also are intermittently linked. In the olden days, a Station is depicted as a place of picking up and dropping off passengers. It also house the mode of transport, for example, busses, trains or taxis and in this particular context, we are discussing trains. With regards to Sydney Central Station, it is also a place where people come together to meet before embarking towards their final destination.

However, as time evolved, so did culture. A station now, no longer is that simplistic. Amidst retaining its traditional architecture, there is also a change of culture happening within the station.

Sydney Central Railway Station is one of the oldest and largest railway stations in Sydney. It was first opened on the 4th of August, 1906 and is located on the Southern end of Sydney Central Business District (CBD). It services almost all the lines on the City Rail network and it is the major terminus for interurban and interstate rail services.

Sydney Central Railway Station has evolved from the time of steam engines to electricity to keep with the times. As the world progresses, so did the world of travelling. Amidst the progress, Sydney Central Railway Station still maintained its architecture form of traditional look while co-existing with the modernity surroundings and happenings.

Tradition is a set of custom or practices that has existed for as long as Man can remember and still ongoing or preserved until today. It can also be linked to nostalgic value instead of practices, for example, architecture of a building is retained at its original so current generation can appreciate it for what it represents; and not because it looks beautiful.

"Architecture works in space as history works in time. History interrupts time's ceaseless flow, segmenting and reordering it on behalf of the human need for meaning. Architecture intrudes in the limitless expanse of space, dividing it into useful, comprehensible pieces. Converting space into places through disruption, architecture brings meaning to the spatial dimensions". (Glassie, 2000)

To begin with, traditional architecture is not an architectural style. It is an attitude towards culture, lifestyle and built form. Traditional architecture, if interpreted literally, means architecture that has been derived out of tradition, and traditions are but the outcome of living practices, daily chores, cultural and social activities.

Traditional Architecture is also known as Vernacular Architecture. The Encyclopaedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World defines vernacular architecture as "... comprising the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental contexts and available resources, they are customarily owner- or community - built, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of life of the cultures that produce them." (Oliver, 1998)

Within this context, the use of Sandstone in the construction of Sydney Central Railway Station was not one of design but more so because at that period of time, it was the common rock in the Sydney region as affirmed by Glassie when he stated that "vernacular building is composed of local materials". However, with time, besides being appreciated for its' beauty, it now has a nostalgic feel to it as it represented the past while standing tall within the current moment.

The fact that these are not static and cannot be frozen and assigned to any particular timeframe also gives "traditional" architecture a natural quality of being with the times, or being dynamic in nature. What is modern to our parents may become "tradition" to us for the next generation. So, it's a continuous and ongoing process. On the other hand, traditional is often considered to have a soft corner for "historical" aspect.

There is also a vast difference between modernity as an attitude and modernism as an architectural style. In my opinion, Modernity as an attitude can co-exist with tradition. Modernity, deals with transformation and change in the present. It also tries to incorporate it in buildings. Thus, it keeps changing with time. The standard steel frame and glass construction which was 'modern' during the early 20th century is no longer modern today. And so, 'modern' architecture of today uses the latest in composite materials and composite structural technology. This is especially applicable in the case of Sydney Central Station with the restoration works that is being done to it.

While retaining its' traditional look on a whole, Sydney Central Station embraced "progress" by replacing the indicator board with television monitors. The integral board "was an integral part of the history of the NSW railways. It comprises 22 vertical panels on which passenger train information was displayed, particularly the departure time, platform number and station names at which trains would stop. It was entirely mechanically operated from floor level by station staff through a series of rods, reduction gears, cranks and counterweights." ( The indicator board placed sentimental values to the hearts of Sydney residents and visitors as it was a popular meeting place during the first and second world war.

An attempt to modernise the board took place in 1945 by installing art deco features after the removal of its neo-classical ornamentation. The introduction of fluorescent lights over the board's canopy was a representation of modernity at that period of time and it was only until 1982 that State Rail Authority hesitantly replaced the Board with television monitors to keep up with progress.

Although the board was replaced with the workings of television monitors, it was still retained for its sentimental and traditional values. Considerable amount of research and work were done to it to restore it to its appearance in 1937. "Because the board has evolved over time and changed considerably in response to electrification, extension and closure of lines and stations, a large number of slats bearing station names had to be added or removed. Colour samples were taken and analysed from all over the board, and it was repainted in appropriate colours. Decorative metalwork was reproduced from enlarged photographs and plans and replaced next to the clock and on the board ends." (

As the board was no longer a working entity, it was offered to the Museum by the State Rail Authority of NSW for preservation so that generations to come would be able to sight how it has evolved for as long as it can with time.

The introduction of ticketing machines is also a sign of change and progress. However, although the introduction of ticketing machine eases the workload of Railway Staff, it does not necessarily mean that the Station is ready to make its ticketing staff obsolete as human beings are capable of change themselves and keep up with progress. This is where tradition and modernity, definitely work hand in hand with time.

To further instil the feel of modernity, Fast Food Outlets like Hungry Jacks and KrispyKreme were installed in Sydney Central Station as a representation of change. accommodate the needs of passengers waiting to go onboard. For some it may be an aspect of Capitalism but from a modernity point of view, this represents change. To some, these may be tacky choices but in keeping with times, the need for these capitalistic fast food restaurants far outweigh the need for a cafe. The act of being personally served by a waiter is considered tradition, while nowadays, people are happy to just go up to a counter to place an order as it is the quickest form of getting served.

In modern times, there is a saying; time waits for no Man which means that if you do not keep up with the times in progress, you will be held back or struggle to make it. That in itself is modernity. The world has now evolved to a state of rush. Majority of the masses are no longer taking their time to enjoy what they do but instead are rushing to "get it" and to "finish it". Hence why, McDonalds will always be the fastest selling and number one fast food outlet in the world.

With the introduction of fast food restaurant in Central Station, does it carry implication that our family values has eroded? With this, I meant, does it symbolise that we no longer maintain close relationship with one another as a result of our "rush" culture. In the olden days, not eating together as a whole family unit at the dinner table is unheard of. Part of maintaining a close knit relationship with one another did flow over to the dinner table, where everyone is allowed to share with others the ongoings of their daily lives. This allowed each member of the family to appreciate and understand each other as they have time for the other.

Do we now blame, modernity in the face of fast food restaurant for the change in relationship culture between family members? Or is it just a sign that times have changed. We still do maintain the tradition of being close, only that we are not as long winded in the act as we did in the past. We have learnt to keep conversations short and simple.

Sydney Central Station has also evolved in terms of advertising. "In earlier days, paper advertisements were plastered on station walls, signs hung from platform fences and company logos painted on the inside and outside of trains. Following World War II, production of consumer goods blossomed as people's disposable income increased - and the volume of visual advertising increased with it." ( These have now been replaced by advertising panels put up along the walkway lower ground.

Station architecture aside, Sydney Central Station has also seen the changes in its train architecture and system. From the age of steam to electricity train, this also shows how tradition is interlinked to modernity.

"Until the middle of the 1800s, people travelled around the colonies of the Australian continent by horse-drawn transport and by coastal shipping services." ( The first terminal station in Sydney was built in 1855. Travelling has always been a lifelong tradition. There are many reasons why one travels; for work, for leisure, to meet up with friends or relatives; the list is endless. The act of travelling is a tradition but how we travel is where the concept of modernity kicks in.

One of the key ideas to the enlightenment legacies is that they believe in rationalism or empiricism which is to do with progress, science, facts etcetera. Sydney Central Station would have witnessed this key idea taking place with the modelling of its trains.

"Early Australian trains were powered by steam engines that burned coal and poured black soot from their chimneys. In the 1950s, these were replaced by cleaner and more efficient diesel locomotives. Electric trains followed and are now most the most common train in the built up areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth." (

The change in trains proved progress. Travelling may be a form of tradition but in order to keep the act of travelling efficient, there was a need to improve and upgrade train systems. Steam Trains; due to its use of manual labour (to shovel coal to keep the trains running) have led to detrimental health problems to its workers that kept it going. Besides health risks, it was also polluting the environment. The impact of coal use was probably not realised as much as it is today as greenhouse effect is unheard of. However, it is not the use of coal that is completely responsible for the environmental pollution today. It is how coal is used that we have to be aware of as "Coal is still the most abundant, widely distributed, safe and economical fossil fuel available to meet this escalating energy demand." (

With the introduction of electric trains, the use of manual labour to shovel coal was no longer needed as trains were running via electrical lines. No City Rail employee would need to break their back to keep the trains running as they only need to use a flick of the switch to get the electricity channelled into the trains.

1926 saw the first Sydney suburban line network being electrified, this was also the same year when Sydney first batch of electric trains were introduced. The original carriages were made up of wooden bodies (which was considered to be traditional) before it progressed to aluminium construction in 1964 and now to stainless steel bodies It continues to progress architecturally in 1988 when the Tangara fleet were introduced. "Tangara introduced the latest technology and modern streamlined styling which clearly differentiated them from previous generations." (

The current train generation is known as the Millenium. "Although similar to Tangaras, the Millennium trains are a result of changing customer expectations in terms of internal design." ( This means that with times a changing, customer's needs and expectations also changes depending on what is more pratical and relevant in current times. For example, with the introduction of heating and air-conditioning system in the new trains that started off from the Tangara Trains. Prior to that, this would probably not be seen as a basic necessity in a train as it is today.

With internal design, we would be looking at the practicality and comfort level of trains. The Millenium has more seating capacity as compared to Tangara and both are modern trains; to suit the growing needs of population. The Millenium also has wheelchair access spaces for disabled bodied passengers while Tangara does not. Tangara is still operable in NSW but this just shows how modernity still takes place in a progressive world. Compare the two trains to the traditional train, it is obvious that that although the practice of travelling is a traditional habit or mode of practice but the means of getting to places has evolved with time.

I believe that modernity cannot exist without tradition. Tradition needs to be interlinked to modernity in order for it to "survive". The keyword that binds these two concepts together is continuity. Tradition needs the continued practice of custom or continued appreciation of its originality while Modernity is concerned with constant progress which in itself is a state of continuity. It has and must co-exist.

To deplete tradition would only deny modernism from happening because anything newly created will be considered as tradition. In order for modernity to exist, it has to start with the introduction of tradition or it cease to exist.


  • Vernacular Architecture Glassie, p 21

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