Unrealised Sydney is an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney that explores visions and designs for Sydney that preceded the built reality today – it’s a look at our city as it was imagined in the past. The exhibition investigates the genesis of, and community responses to various government and private sector proposals to redevelop major precincts in and around the CBD through the second half of the 20th century.

Professor Robert Freestone from the School of Built Environment at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture is guest curator behind Unrealised Sydney. He says that cities evolve as a dialogue between the possible and the actual with change often contested.

Learn more about Prof. Freestone and his inspiration for curating Unrealised Sydney:

Hello Professor Freestone! Please tell us about yourself and your research background?

I’ve been a member of the city planning program at UNSW since 1991, relocating from state government after a stint in the private sector. I completed a PhD at Macquarie University in 1984 that examined aspects of the early development of planning in Australia and have retained that as a research interest ever since. Historical narratives around planning and design frequently revolve around things that never happened or are not quite as proposed. So I’ve been long attuned to thinking about how development is inevitably informed by navigating through possibilities, alternatives and scenarios.

How did you come up with the idea for Unrealised Sydney? What inspired you?

Future visions of ideal cities have a long heritage in many guises: art, philosophy, science fiction, utopian thought and social reform. And urban design specifically has been driven by a succession of paradigms across the decades conceived as delivering various social goals from human well-being through better aesthetics to functional efficiency and environmental improvements. Fascinating insights emerge into societal and design history when these stories are assembled for particular cities. I thought Sydney had a rich enough past to warrant an exhibition. The only dedicated treatment I’d seen was Eric Irvin’s book Sydney as it might have been: Dreams that died on the drawing board (1974) which assembled projects for new public buildings, memorials and transport infrastructure to the early twentieth century. So, I pitched the idea to the Museum of Sydney in 2019 and eventually they ran with it.

When did the process of research and gathering materials start? How long does it take to pull something like Unrealised Sydney together?

Without dedicating myself to the cause, my research from the 1980s onwards had just organically extended into this area through various unrelated projects so I built up a working knowledge of at least some of the more spectacularly unsuccessful schemes. Things became more serious when I ended up becoming a guest curator which required tougher decisions about the actual scope and focus of the exhibition. Fortunately, I found myself as part of a very professional team at the Museum and the themes and coverage of the exhibition came together through the second half of 2021 with assembly of available material of exhibition quality extending into the first half of 2022.

What was the best and worst part of the entire curatorial process for you?

The best thing was working collaboratively with experienced museum curators who were able to dig out visual resources from the archives alongside others specialising in exhibition design and installation, audio-visual content, and all the myriad multiple tasks required to successfully stage an exhibition of this kind, something I’d never done before. There was nothing really negative about the experience at all, except perhaps the pragmatic constraints on the length of the research phase which obviously could not go on forever.

What’s the key message you would like audiences to take away from Unrealised Sydney?

The feedback from exhibition goers so far has been excellent. There is something intrinsically fascinating in viewing quite audacious schemes from the comparatively recent past that never came to fruition. This also provides the opportunity to reflect upon the context from which these projects emerged and the challenges they faced. Many including the proposed Rocks and Woolloomooloo redevelopments in the 1960s which were very unpopular with the community and ultimately led to reforms in environmental planning and design excellence processes that have benefitted later generations. But there is also the reminder that vigilance is necessary because schemes with negative impacts on communities, amenity and heritage still regularly surface.


Unrealised Sydney is on at the Museum of Sydney for FREE until the 13th of November. Bookings recommended.