About the Author

Raeburn Chapman is an architect, urban designer and city and regional planner with international experience across academics and research, private consulting and Government. He has specialised in transport infrastructure policy and design. Currency he is an urban design commentator and advisor and founding editor of Urban Design Review.



Many proposals have been made to reshape Circular Quay all of which have come to naught. Now, a new spate of ideas has emerged, nicely articulated by Julie Power in The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday June 25, 2022 under the title: “Ten ideas to transform Circular Quay – from ‘rainforests’ to ocean pools”. Without ideas cities would be static and boring. I would like to put this in perspective and present a different viewpoint.

Much activity and argument has occurred regarding Circular Quay around opposition to the Cahill Expressway, including the idea of demolition. The Cahill however is not the same as the famously demolished Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco returning that city to its waterfront. Sydney’s Cahill Expressway is a multimodal facility having traffic on an upper deck and passenger rail on a lower deck. It is a gateway and part of a major multimodal transport interchange at a metropolitan node where ferry, rail, bus, taxi, light rail and ocean liners meet. It is part of a promenade around Circular Quay (and beyond) with pedestrian permeability and shops and cafes. As well, it is reported to be the busiest tourist location in Australia close to the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge and with a multitude of ferry trips available.  Views from it for motorists and rail passengers are world-class. The Cahill Expressway originally was part of an engineering and planning conception for Sydney by engineer J.J.C.Bradfield in the 1920s that was visionary for its time and multimodal and regional in conception.  Certainly, one would not choose to do this today.

In response to a brief from the Minister for Roads some 20 years ago, the Roads & Traffic Authority NSW (under Paul Forward CEO, a champion of urban design who had appointed me into that role) in conjunction with the Government Architect’s Office (under Chris Johnson who worked vigorously and cooperatively in the public interest) investigated options to: improve the visual amenity of the expressway, improve physical access to and from Circular Quay and surrounds and enhance views for users. An inter-governmental task force was set up, chaired by the RTA. The process resulted in the following improvements for the city all paid from the roads budget:

-A reconfigured upper deck creating a continuous pedestrian walkway linking the Royal Botanic Gardens and Sydney Harbour Bridge (this includes a new pedestrian bridge over Macquarie Street hung from the expressway ramp and linking the walkway at expressway level directly to The Domain landing at a recently completed sculpture garden)

-A glass lift connecting the promenade with the upper deck walkway

-A viewing platform at mid-upper deck, centrally above the railway station, incorporating a set of interpretative panels describing how the original Sydney Cove area evolved from indigenous history to European settlement

-At railway platform level: glass replacing solid balustrades; a new simplified roof canopy hung along the platforms to frame views; and, elimination of advertising and other clutter within the rail corridor obstructing views

-A complete pedestrian way-finding system for Circular Quay (RTA and Government Architect) since changed


View of glass lifts going from promenade to walkway at upper deck level, also showing visual transparency between the upper deck and descending rail deck below. Photo: Hazel Chapman.


Viewing platform at upper deck walkway centred on Circular Quay station maintains its architectural symmetry and simple horizontal lines. Photo: Raeburn Chapman.


The possibilities in further opening the ground plane, a design intervention that would make a great difference and should continue to be explored, were constrained by ownership and leasing arrangements.

In contradistinction to the idea of demolition, it can be argued that the Cahill Expressway together with the Sydney Harbour Bridge (protected under a Conservation Plan of Management) forms an architectural and engineering ensemble. With the great colonnade along the eastern promenade (thanks to Prime Minister Paul Keating another great champion of urban design), the foreshore buildings including Museum of Contemporary Art and Overseas Passenger Terminal on the western promenade and the strong inter-war functionalist architecture of Circular Quay station on the southern promenade, it creates a dramatic amphitheatre that defines the Quay. There is a bold compositional monumentality here which perhaps we should not undo.

Partial view of the “amphitheatre” (without Sydney Harbour Bridge) and its foreground foreshore buildings that define Circular Quay. Photo: Getty i-Stock.

At the other extreme turning the Quay, for example, into a second St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is inappropriate and could create an exposed environment lacking form.  Sydney’s ‘square’, after all, is the entirety of its waterfront and gardens. Costs of demolition and infrastructure replacement will be inordinate; multiply estimates by at least 2.5 to be realistic, and factor into what we do as well as the opportunity costs of that money.

Circular Quay changes vastly according to the viewpoint including height – near and far – by land, sea and aerially, night and day, and according to the light and the mode of movement. It is experienced in space and time. In this, the pedestrian experience is critical. There are, indeed, many compositions to Circular Quay from imposing to overpowering and, indeed, ugly.

Winter midday light catching the rhythms of the monumental engineering and architecture of the Cahill Expressway and showing the sculpturesque columns, continuity of ground plane under the viaduct and free-standing lifts and stairs to Macquarie Street and The Domain in the background. Photo: Raeburn Chapman.

So, what should we be doing here?

-The whole context (natural, cultural and built) should form the basis of design objectives and principles: the evolution of Circular Quay helps us understand the ‘genius loci’ of the place

-Reinforce the role of the place as a major interchange, a promenade, a point of arrival and a domain containing cultural institutions and icons

-With First Nations people, work toward an Aboriginal framework as a key dimension of urban design

-Bring architecture, engineering and landscape together into a holistic approach

-Avoid compartmentalisation: wharfs, foreshore, expressway and city should be seen in relationship

-Enable a lively economy and place of human interaction by day and night

-Consider Circular Quay from many viewpoints and in motion

-Take into account possible future global warming effects including tidal

A design process can also test what has already been proposed eg we should not want a High Line because it’s the fashionable thing, but rather if is contributes to the design organisation of the city.

The outcomes will be only as good as the representation, integrity and talent of those involved in the design process and, critically, who heads it. If the Cahill Expressway upgrade needed a Task Force surely this more complex, contemporary, challenge needs one of its own. As well as state and local government, representation should include architecture, engineering and landscape architecture at institutional level together with First Nations People. But keep it tight. Out of this process, a holistic and meaningful solution should be found.