Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Chifley Square

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Chifley Square

The area now known as Chifley Square, where Elizabeth Street and Phillip Street meet Hunter Street, has had a somewhat chequered history.

The streets of the city of Sydney reflect the hilly topography of the area and the paths which responded to the landforms. The streets grew to suit the convenience of pedestrians, equestrians and horse-drawn vehicles, and have largely resisted the interventions of town planners attempting to impose a grid-like order.

This is clearly evident at Chifley Square, and the formal organisation of this junction was subject to ongoing argument in the years immediately before and after World War II. From the 1920s, properties were resumed for what was called the Elizabeth Street extension, and in 1937 the Town Planning Institute of NSW had presented a plan to the City Council, which included the closure of the end of Phillip Street to form a pedestrian space. Later, in 1939, the institute swung its support behind a different vision – that of a geometrical square in the style of seventeenth-century Paris. In the meantime, the protracted business of resumptions and compensation to property owners continued right up until the 1960s.

Qantas House, constructed in 1957 on the west side of the 'square', followed the curved alignment of the council plan. But the new Commonwealth Centre, completed in 1962 – a building lacking any architectural merit – ignored the curved plan, since the Commonwealth was neither obliged nor inclined to comply with council's plan, despite massive objections at the time.

There was little regret when this building was demolished in the 1980s, to make way for a commercial tower block built between 1988 and 1993, to a design by the American architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) in partnership with Travis Partners, which mirrored the curve of the Qantas building. Originally known as the Bond Tower, it was built to provide prestige office space for the financial sector. But when in 1992 Alan Bond was declared bankrupt, ownership of the building was transferred to the Japanese construction company Kumagai Gumi.

By early 1993 the building was renamed Chifley Tower, because it addressed Chifley Square on the northern corner of Phillip and Hunter streets. A larger-than-life sculpture of Ben Chifley, Labor Prime Minister from 1945 to 1949, by Simeon Nelson was commissioned by the City Council for the square in the mid-1990s.

But it is the cultural history associated with the old Commonwealth Centre that is more reflective of Sydney's essence. The building achieved some fame during the late 1960s, when there were almost weekly demonstrations at the Centre against conscription of young men to fight in the Vietnam war. The demonstrations started small, but by 1970, with the war becoming increasingly unpopular, they were attracting hundreds of protesters. Draft cards were publicly burned on the building's steps by those whose birthdates had been drawn out in the lottery to determine who should be 'called up'. Public protests and police arrests were shown on television, and the drab building was an appropriate backdrop for the wild scenes enacted in front of it.

Today, Chifley Square is more tranquil, and usually filled with latte-sipping office workers in suits.