Walk on the tiled side

Kylie Davis looks up at the city buildings on a tour that brings her closer to home.

Rushing to appointments, racing for the bus, hunting for a coffee or window shopping there are hundreds of reasons why I have rarely looked up, even though I have lived in Sydney all my adult life. The jungle of skyscrapers, office towers and apartment blocks in the city has been a nondescript backdrop.

It's strange really, because on visits to New York, I spend my entire time with a cricked neck, straining to see the tops of the buildings that give that metropolis its character.

This might be explained by the fact that the stories behind the buildings of New York are so well known but our own concrete narrative is not. And for this reason I'm strolling the streets of Sydney with architect Eoghan Lewis and an assorted group of tourists and enthusiasts.

Lewis fits the stereotype of a passionate student of architecture: thin, wild-haired, long elegant hands that emphasise points and an artistic turn of phrase that shows deep thought, strong research and reverence, balanced with humour. Despite the cold, he's wearing thongs and carrying a backpack well stocked with water.

He's my guide on a Sydney Architecture Walk, billed as "urban tours for literati, voyeurs and aesthetes and for locals who love familiar terrain from a different viewpoint".

Tour one, creatively called SAW1, covers a tiny north-eastern corner of the city a mere few blocks. But even two hours is not enough for Lewis to reveal all the stories, the depth and breadth of thought, the scandal and drama and the history that has determined the appearance of just one pocket of the city of Sydney.

We won't be visiting the Opera House on this tour but its presence and the influence of Joern Utzon follows us. I always bought the line that the Opera House was designed to represent sails. Not really true, says Lewis. Utzon, he says, was fascinated with nature and the beauty of clouds and the sky and obsessed by Sydney's topography of sandstone points jutting into the harbour. These influences were combined with Utzon's other obsession Mayan temples, with their steps rising into the clouds to become the key ideas of the Opera House. It was designed as a sandstone outcrop connected to the sky a temple in which to worship art and beauty. The sail-like structure articulates his desire to capture the wind or something like that.

After the tour, still a bit gobsmacked, I find myself sitting in front of the Opera House, just looking and thinking about it.

The tour winds from the front of the Museum of Sydney via the Governor Phillip and Governor Macquarie towers, stopping briefly at Farrer Place and then settling in for an analysis of Renzo Piano's buildings at Aurora Place.

At the core of the tour is the story of Sydney's architectural heritage. It was never intended to become a city, simply a penal colony, and so its buildings and public spaces evolved, rather than being planned. The challenges since have been about creating a sense of design based on a unique landscape and fighting against stereotypes imported from the old country.

The overpowering masculinity of the dominating Governor Phillip and Governor Macquarie Towers, home of the NSW Government and major corporations, is revealed as an architectural reflection of the big end of town (and you're invited to think about what that says about the anatomical appendages of the men who yearn for such buildings). The inward focus of Farrer Place reveals how modern planning rules have been established to try to protect the streetscape.

Much of the tour looks at the beautiful Renzo Piano buildings at Aurora Place, telling stories of Piano's cleverness in wooing and outwitting the authorities to create the structure of his imagination, confident it would be an asset to the city. The shape and its connection to Utzon's Opera House is examined in detail and Piano's use of materials, and the horrors such choices presented to the architectural glitterati, are unveiled with glee. The tour ends with a coffee in Aurora Place, where the discussion about the connections between design and lifestyle continues unofficially.

The Sydney Architecture Walks are the urban equivalent of stopping and smelling the roses or, rather, stopping to notice the fine detail on the parquetry and run our hands over the terracotta. Artworks, previously invisible against the hubbub of the city suddenly come into focus. It has changed how I feel about my adopted home town revealed a depth I never thought it had and shown me the link between architecture and cultural expression.

Weeks after the tour, whenever I go into town, I notice the Renzo Piano building. It seems to be following me its peak sliding out between other towers at unexpected moments as I drive toward the city or meet friends for a drink. Each time I notice something different, marvel at how it catches the light.

Sometimes, the investment of a couple of hours can make you see your own world a whole lot differently.

Sydney Architectural Walks are conducted every Wednesday and Saturday at 10.30am, leaving from the Museum of Sydney. Cost is $25 for adults, $20 concession. See www.sydneyarchitecture.org.

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