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Colonial ambition and city development: the influence of commissioners for the 1879 international exhibition on Sydney's architectural identity

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 11:06 authored by Orr, K
The second-half of the Nineteenth Century saw Sydney transformed from a convict settlement into a commercial city. A representative cross-section of the men behind this transformation were appointed as Commissioners for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition: elites who were influential in all aspects of colonial activity, and who, in various capacities, advocated for the development of the city and drove the building of its public institutions, commercial premises and private dwellings. This paper attempts a brief characterisation of the Commissioners, connecting their occupations, interests and ambitions with Sydney’s urban development. They were educated in the classics and subscribed to Old World views, whereas the International Exhibition they hosted transmitted new ideologies that favoured utilitarianism and material progress and challenged the classical basis of colonial taste. The tension between classicism and utilitarianism became evident in subsequent city development: there was an increasing architectural eclecticism in Sydney as the century progressed.

The methodology is based on careful archival research, but there are also some speculations based on historical probability. What can be inferred as having been thought by individuals is considered alongside what has been officially recorded or can be ‘read’ from the urban fabric. Considering the voices of the Commissioners adds to the heritage significance of buildings; and understanding the social, political and economic circumstances of their conception broadens the cultural significance of their place in the urban landscape. The Commissioners, by organising the Sydney International Exhibition, imposed their value systems and world-views on the general population, promoting cultural and city development. They organised the Exhibition in their own image as a means of shaping a better society. But the outcome was a society that, having benefited from the Exhibition, continued to evolve and develop its own identity – one that possibly differed from their expectations.


Publication title

History in practice: proceedings of the 25th International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand


D Beynon, U de Jong






School of Architecture and Design


Society of Architectural Historians Australia and​ New Zealand

Place of publication


Event title

25th International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand

Event Venue

Geelong, Australia

Date of Event (Start Date)


Date of Event (End Date)


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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Australia’s past

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