Henry Deane Plaza: Henry Who?

Henry Deane Plaza: Henry Who?

Henry Deane Plaza occupies a place of civic and commercial centrality in the city of Sydney. It is surrounded by important civic landmarks, including Central Station and the heritage-listed Parcels Post Office Building (now Adina Hotel). Those brave enough to pause amid the continual flow of pedestrian traffic can enjoy the spectacle of the station clock tower peeking over the top of the stairs that lead up to the YHA. It is a seemingly distant reminder of the not uncommon disjunct between the impression of a structure from the outside and the mood that pervades its interior and surrounds.

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The area around Central Station does not conform to the tidy grandeur of its large, historic buildings. Nonetheless, unlike some deserted urban centres, life is here in abundance–albeit often on discount.

The Plaza itself is perhaps the closest thing in the area to what might have once been considered a market square. It’s a paved, pedestrian area (I think you can buy the same large tiles at Bunnings) of a reasonably generous size that is surrounded by a range of different food (Lord of the Fries, Oporto, a German Bakery, a ‘grocer’, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, a sushi shop) and retail outlets (chemist, newsagent, Vodafone, clothes shop)—on the website for the plaza, the chemist, newsagency and grocer are described as ‘essentials’.

Occasionally, before Christmas or Valentines day, or simply when a brand gets the urge to promote itself through an event, the plaza has the atmosphere of a traditional market square, with temporary vendors occupying tents (though one wouldn’t want to push this comparison too much, those familiar with the market squares in Norwich or Haarlem on a Saturday will be in for a nasty shock).

A water feature—centred around an abstract sculpture made from flowing, twisted steel pipe—occupies one side of the plaza. There are three medium-sized, not particularly healthy, plane trees in the centre (there are a further three at the street border), which hint at what might be possible in a space like this if vegetation had been more enduringly and widely valued in white settlement.

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Then main pedestrian thoroughfare is sheltered by a structure built in a style common to much public architecture of the period leading up to the 2000 Olympics. It’s a skeletal, glass-roofed thing, supported by steel pylons and cables, echoing the various sports stadia for which that time is known. The overall impression is a drab kind of zaniness, perhaps due to the predominance of zigzags, accumulated grime and sense of faded festivities.

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Place-making signage panels run diagonally down the oversized support pylons. They express a keenness to remind passers by (and they are more likely to be passers by than picnickers) that this is indeed Henry Dean Plaza and ought to be known as such. The street directory—a further attempt at orienting signage, also affixed to one of the support pylons—features what is surely in this context an unnecessary map identifying the various retail outlets against a legend. Such features—prior to the convenience of easily updatable digital panels—suggest longer-term ambitions for commercial outlets than the apparent reality dictates. The IGA Supermarket, the florist, Basanccino Bakery & Cafe, and–most memorably for me–Henry Henry Bar, have all since moved on, despite being recorded for the posterity on the map.

Henry Henry Bar— the name clearly inspired by another desperate effort to turn the plaza into Henry Deane Plaza—for some inexplicable reason attracted my patronage in the early 2000s when I was doing my undergraduate degree at UTS and living in Surry Hills. The space is now occupied by Priceline Chemist, where on occasion I have purchased sunscreen and useless earplugs on my way to doing laps at Prince Alfred Park pool.

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The designers of Henry Deane Plaza are unlikely to have imagined that some twenty years on from its physical construction, the space would have attracted the descriptive and evaluative energies of 284 amateur reviewers on Google. That’s right, there are 284 people wandering the planet who, like me, have thought it worthwhile not just to acknowledge, as the makers of the signs had hoped, that Henry Deane Plaza is a thing, but to judge, against some vague criteria, whether it is a good or bad thing.

It is curious to imagine what people might expect of Henry Deane Plaza based on the evaluations offered by the online reviewing community. A certain number of reviews keep their appraisals vague and positive: “Is a great place”; “Great shopping mall”; “Great shopping and food outlets”; “nice shopping centre with some good restaurant [sic] inside”; “Good”. Others see the collection of shops as “odd”, “random” or “interesting”. Some are less concerned with broader atmospherics and instead focus on handy hints or quibbles: “The food there is pretty good although the sushi joints make bigger roles for presentation and smaller to purchase!”; “Nice place to [sic] many drug addicts around”; “Busy little plaza with no public toilets. Not great.”

Other reviewers, while terse, offer a little more detail:

  • “Human & road traffic surrounded but can grab a quick bite or quick retail shop on your way through to bus or train”;
    “Few and useful shops. Easy access to the train station. Good place to sit around and chat, sip a coffee, grab some donuts at Krispy Kreme. Gives you a good vibe being here”;
  • “The small tunnels underground that you can access from George St. There are plenty of foods options nowadays and quite cheap too.”
  • “Interesting array of food outlets, representing the different cultures situated close to Sydney light rail and bus station. Ideal for the quick bite on the run, amongst the hustle and bustle of great Sydney.”
  • “A decorated metal and glass covered platform between two most busy roads. Under ground this, Devonshire Tunnel Extension pass through. It is mostly used as central place for various buses [sic] stop.”
  • “After walking past the long Central pedestrian tunnel, this continues to be an open-air space thoroughfare lined with various restaurants and some small shops. Good variety of food types and cultures for some quick bites.”
  • “Bit of a wasteland but some good retail stores, had a excellent barber, had a lovely breakfast at a cafe and cashed in my lotto tickets, so there’s plenty here.”
  • “A cold, emotionless outdoor plaza devoid of any real sense of culture or purpose. Two stars for the world-class collection of cigarette butts which can be seen through the cigarette smoke haze which tends to fill this area.”

The overall impression from these reviews is that Henry Deane Plaza is convenient, busy and cheap, which is about right. It’s also evident that some people regard the contrast between the relative openness of the plaza and the confines of surrounding tunnels to be important. And this, from my perspective, is perhaps what makes the place suggest a certain potential, albeit well hidden. Despite the otherwise utterly unremarkable, garish atmospherics of the place, emerging from the dim rush of Devonshire Street tunnel into this open, bright, treelined (maybe a bit rich) space, does occasionally lift the spirits.

Henry Deane Plaza also manifests online as a website, the logo of which features an illustration of a young bearded man with a spivvy haircut, dark sunglasses and the tagline: ’Hang with Henry”—I think not. The website reminds readers that Henry Deane Plaza is ‘where Sydney meets’ and encourages people to sign up to its newsletter “to keep up with the latest events and specials at the Plaza”—I think not.

The Plaza is vexed territory for the critic writing after postmodernism. On the one hand it seems off the mark to say, as one reviewer does, that the place is “devoid of any real sense of culture or purpose”. In as sense I feel the opposite: here is Sydney 2019 in all its glory, see it while you can. But on the other hand, I agree, it’s impossible not to regard Henry Deane Plaza as a classic example of a failure in urban design. The basic elements are there—trees, a sense of openness and leisure sharpened by contrast with the claustrophobic thoroughfare, a certain buzz and the spatial affordances for civic and commercial activity. Yet it feels anonymous, despite the efforts of the place makers to yell its name at every opportunity.

But who was Henry Deane? Exploratory inhabitants of the plaza may be lucky enough to discover the information panel that displays his biographical information. It is situated at the Lee Street entrance to the top level of the plaza, a largely deserted spatial anomaly populated by pigeons, air vents, the occasional smoker and a stand of palm trees. According to the panel, “Deane was Engineer-in-Chief the the Railway Construction Branch of the Department of Public Works between 1890 and 1912.” He was then appointed the first Engineer-in-Chief for the Commonwealth who worked on a number of large scale engineering projects, including the first and largest electric powerhouse, the Trans-Australian Railway and the Zig-zag railway. He was indeed bearded, as the contemporary logo for his plaza suggests, but far less irritating to look at.

Like the plaza itself, it seems that for most passes-by Deane is likely to remain a kind of known unknown, an anonymous name for something that almost comes into being but lacks a certain substantive quality that is common to place names which emerge from the enduring conventions of their users. Though perhaps, as the 284 reviewers attest, I am at the wrong point in history to be making such a claim.

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