hStanding in plain sight in central Sydney, inside a Harry Seidler-designed building affectionately known as ‘the mushroom’, the Commercial Travelers’ Association (CTA) clubhouse has been left unrenovated, unrenovated and unoccupied for 46 years.
That the building still exists is surprising enough. That it’s still operating in the same guise as it did in 1977 is a wonder in a city that’s far more likely to sell historic buildings to the highest bidder for luxury apartments or cool new restaurants – or get rid of them altogether.
“The time of brutalism is over,” New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet once wrote in his list of “10 Iconic Buildings I’d Bulldoze Down” in the Sydney Morning Herald, which included the CTA club because of its “strange UFO-like structure.” “Once a monstrosity like this is built, it never goes away because there is always some dedicated fan club proclaiming its heritage value,” added Perrottet.
CTA’s fan club may soon be joined by a new crowd of Sydney folks who are delighted with its bygone-era charm: it has been “activated” by the Sydney Festival to host the nightly soundscape of American artist Kelsey Lu in 28 hotel rooms, as well as a three-week program of bands and DJs in the underground lounge.
Repurposing architectural landmarks into places is the theme of this year’s Sydney Festival, and it’s an exciting topic. As I walk down the wide spiral steps of CTA with my duffel bag, I realize I’ve walked down them hundreds of times before, heading elsewhere, but never stopping to stick my head in.
The place relies heavily on 70’s decor: velvet booths, loud carpet and walls you want to stroke. The lounge has been renamed The Weary Traveler, a tribute to the CTA’s roots as a hotel for traveling retailers, and the low-ceilinged restaurant is called The Disco Bistro. Spots of light glide romantically over bain maries, vinyl chairs and plastic cards advertising $16 seafood baskets and $30 steaks. Sadly, this menu has been replaced with slim selections of festival bar food. Think cheese cubes, cocktail onions and Hawke’s Brewing Co; nostalgia drowned in nostalgia.
CTA employees work as bartenders, floor attendants and cleaners. The bar manager, John, has been working here for 30 years and tells me British-American comedian Bob Hope used to go there.
Bob Hawke? I scream over the efforts of the DJ. “No, Bob Hope!John shouts back. In the 1970s and 1980s, he says, the clientele consisted mostly of salesmen, but “Martin Place was also a hub for politicians, lawyers, Reserve Bank people … and sometimes a judge or two.”
The minimum fee for Lu’s work experience, The Lucid: A Dream Portal to Awakening, is $200 for a single room. Complaining that it’s too expensive is unfounded: many hotels in Sydney cost twice as much, and this includes admission to the Weary Traveler – which runs until midnight.
But this occasion is also the beginning of disconnection. There is no synergy between the club hedonism of the bar downstairs, the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the CTA rooms, and Lu’s minimalist composition, which “invites the audience on a sonic journey that goes into a dream state and tests the triggers of lucid dreaming.” In fact, over-stimulation interferes with the hearing clearing you crave as you buckle up for an eight-hour horizontal sound bath. This is despite Lu’s intentions for specific places to “play with the common idea that architecture speaks not of history but of time and the dreams that lie within it.” Playing with ideas together is hard when you’re very sleepy.
It’s fun at first. Lu’s ‘custom audio object’ is a tasseled phallic mound that is placed on a desk in each room, next to a lace doily. She resembles Cousin Itt in a flapper dress. At 10:30 p.m., it transitions ethereal into ambient sound, anchored in a foggy, pulsating rhythm.
However, at 3am, despite a sign saying volume is “determined by the artist according to the sonic journey”, I am at the back of the mound with a flashlight, parting the hairy tassels to rummage through its private parts, looking for the volume knob.
In the rooms on the fourth and fifth floors of the hotel, others are also looking for modifications. The mood lighting works, though the main culprit is the vintage air conditioners that puff and buzz all night long. Going downstairs to pick it up with the concierge I meet a couple doing the same thing.
“I thought it was part of how analog tape hisses,” I confess.
“I thought it was solar winds!” the guy replies. However, you can’t turn down the air conditioning, which probably means the soundscape has been turned up.
Which all makes it a bit too noisy to sleep. At 6:30am I was able to get some sleep after using earplugs. Coming back to Bistro Disco for breakfast, chilled rooms are a hot topic.
“I hate mechanical noise, so I was there with a towel and tried to keep it quiet,” says one woman. Another claims that the “gray noise” interfered with her sonic immersion: “Actually, I think it was pink noise, then it has a lower frequency spectrum.” Her partner chimes in. “It wasn’t pink noise,” he says. “It had a lot of high frequencies. Let’s call it water?
Would Lu’s experiment be better received in a modern, neutral hotel with white walls and blackout blinds? Probably yes. Do I regret going? Not at all. The Sydney Festival has made many safe choices in the past, and this one is not one of them. Purists and audiophiles may struggle conceptually and sonically, but it’s worth it for the sense of excess, risk and ambition of the place.
And ambition is something these walls know well, dotted with photographs of old white men dating back to the club’s first president, J Inglis, in 1886. Next to him sits the moustached co-president, G Balls – whose name is certainly the spirit animal of the venue.