Darling Harbour: The Sydney Harbour Redevelopment Story

Sydney never fails to enchant architecture enthusiasts, with so many buildings to capture our attention and attract our gaze that, on its own, it makes a trip to the southern hemisphere worthwhile. Without doubt, the Australian city’s most iconic building is the unique Sydney Opera House, designed in 1956 by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who beat 232 other candidates. Sydney is also known for the Central Park tower, One Central Park, a showcase for Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s creative flair, and the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, with its unmistakable rumpled look. City skyline enthusiasts are guaranteed to be impressed by the height of the Sydney Tower, the city’s tallest building and, indeed, the tallest observation tower in the entire hemisphere. Also well worth a view are the black and white Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia Square, the Rose Seidler House, Vaucluse House, and the iconic Elizabeth Bay House. However, when it comes to architectural interest, in recent years one area of Sydney has monopolized the attention: the Darling Harbour district, where a major and extensive redevelopment project has “given back to the city” this key area with views out over the sea.


Darling Harbour, As It Is Today

If you have never been to Sydney, it might be hard to understand just how important Darling Harbour is. It’s a large, pedestrianized area located about a 10-minute walk from the city centre. When it comes to recreation, entertainment and personal growth, Sydney’s citizens and the tourists who flock here are spoilt for choice, thanks to its museums, theatres, a zoo, an aquarium, a host of restaurants, and many stores and boutiques. And yet, as you may have guessed, a few years ago this area was completely different: until the Eighties, this little paradise and its sea views was the preserve of piers, factories and freight train marshalling yards.


The History of Darling Harbour

Because the coast was so full of oyster shells and other molluscs, when the first westerners arrived in the Darling Harbour area, they called it Cockle Bay. After Europeans set up their first colony, the area was initially frequented by fishermen, workers and prisoners employed making lime. The first piers went up in the 19th century, and “Cockle Bay” was renamed “Darling Harbour” in honour of Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales from 1825 to 1831, to reflect its role as a major port.

Australia’s first real factories went up here, and Darling Harbour became a fundamental hub of the Industrial Revolution in the southern hemisphere. Australia’s first steam engine went into operation here in 1815, and the continent’s first metal-hulled ship was built here, as the harbour became a major iron galvanizing centre. In the 19th century, enormous quantities of coal, timber and grain flowed through the Darling Harbour docks; after 1870, wool became the port’s number one commodity. In 1874, the Iron Wharf was built. Hailed at the time as the world’s first all-iron pier, until the Eiffel Tower went up in 1889, it was regarded as the most impressive metal structure ever built.

Darling Harbour continued to grow in the 20th century, weathering World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Around the middle of the century, however, the area went into slow decline, culminating in 1984 with the last train leaving the Darling Harbour terminals.


Major Redevelopment of Darling Harbour

In 1983, Darling Harbour’s last major industrial plant shut down. That year, New South Wales Prime Minister Neville Wran announced a major redevelopment scheme for the area, to “give it back to the citizens of Sydney.” Work continued until 1988, when on 4 May, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the new Darling Harbour. Its central attraction was without doubt a large aquarium, soon followed by many other attractions, from museums to hotels, restaurants and stores. In the late 1980s, the former Cockle Bay became Sydney’s “new” heart. However, there was still more work to be done.


Growth of Darling Harbour in the New Millennium

The former port and industrial area did not stop growing and developing when it opened in 1988. On the contrary, on its tenth anniversary, major construction work commenced in the run-up to the 2000 Olympic Games, which Sydney hosted. Construction of King Street Wharf was completed, and the bay put on five different sports competitions.

The district continues to evolve today: right now, the Crown Sydney skyscraper in Barangaroo, on Darling Harbour’s eastern pier, is nearing completion. When it is finished, it will be 271.3 metres tall, making it the tallest building in the city (considering that the Sydney Tower is an observation tower).

The most recent buildings to be erected in Darling Harbour include the Sydney International Convention Centre. Hosting conventions and other international events since 2016, it offers seventy different meeting rooms and three theatres, with room for 2,500-, 1,000- and 750-person events. The Centre took two years and 32,000 cubic metres of concrete to build.