Sydney Masonic Centre: A tour with the Freemasons
This was the very first year that I was unable to attend Open House Melbourne since it started in 2008. Whilst I was sorry to miss one of my favourite annual festivals and despite taking holidays in New South Wales, architecture was not entirely absent from my life this month. I finally managed to visit the Sydney Masonic Centre; one of Australia’s great Brutalist masterpieces.
I’ve been interested in Brutalist architecture (and its preservation) for a long time. The term “brutalist” is a play on words in English; it comes from the French béton brut (raw concrete) which describes the principal building material from which such buildings are constructed. Conveniently, béton brut sounds like brutal which many would attest is a good description for a style that is distinguished by heavy shapes jostling for attention. In Australia, Brutalism enjoyed a vicennium of glory between 1960 and 1980 where it was often used in civic and government architecture.
There are numerous excellent examples of the style in Australia and the Sydney Masonic Centre (SMC) ranks amongst the best. Designed by Joseland Gilling and constructed between 1975-9 (with a tower completed in 2004), the SMC stands audaciously on the corner of Sydney’s Castlereagh and Goulburn Streets with not a care in the world. For many years, the SMC fronted the public with a barren concrete façade, but a glazed-in cafeteria was added later to soften the building at street level.
Visiting Sydney Masonic Centre
I had tried to get inside the SMC for years. Every time I visited Sydney, I would pass-by hoping to get a look but failing. I sent many emails asking whether tours would take place but all were ignored. Still, persistence pays and despite my previous failings I again attempted to see whether the building was ever opened to the public. This time, I was lucky.
The Freemasons run a “Museum of Freemasonry” on the fourth floor of the SMC and though that, they conduct tours. I decided to book a tour but unfortunately I needed three other people for it to proceed. To get the required quota, I
coerced bribed invited my sister-in-law and wife’s friend to accompany my wife and I in order to get the minimum numbers. With the numbers secured, the tour was booked.
The office of the Freemasons is located on Level 4 of the SMC, which isn’t immediately apparent when visiting. Nevertheless, I found our guide and we were escorted on a tour of the secretive Freemasons.
The tour commenced with a walk-through of the Museum of Freemasonry, which comprises of several rooms of display cases of various items as well as an expanding collection along the main corridor. The guide showed off some important items of memorabilia and explained a little about the intriguing uniforms that Freemasons wear, including aprons.
For me, the most interesting part of the tour were the meeting rooms.
The lodge is currently in the long-term process of renovating its meeting spaces. On level 4, two of the four rooms remain intact with their original décor. Typical of the period, the colours are earthy.
All of that changes when one walks into one of the newly renovated rooms. Each has been lavishly redecorated to provide an entirely different atmosphere. Aside from the gold leaf on the ceiling, the most impressive feature in each is the 420+ LED “stars” that shine from the rich blue “sky”. Attending meetings in such salubrious surrounds must be quite an experience!
One of the small details that I particularly liked were the masonic-themed door-knockers.
To be eligible for membership of the Freemasons, the candidate must be male and must not be an atheist although any religious affiliation (Christian or non-Christian) is apparently acceptable. Freemasons swear an oath upon their chosen holy text when they are admitted as members and meetings are held in a room with a letter “G” suspended from the ceiling. The “G” stands for the “great creator” who may be God or some other deity or deities, depending on each member’s religion.
The SMC consists of more than just meeting rooms and a museum. One especially nice feature is the gallery of former Grand Masters. Our guide informed us that upon retirement, each Grand Master has a life-size painting commissioned. These are then hung in the gallery, typically in a gold-gilt frame of considerable size.
Another gallery of eminent Freemason Australians including members of the judiciary, politicians, sportsmen, clergy and businessmen has also been proudly assembled for the benefit of visitors. I asked our tour guide how many of these people were Freemasons before they became successful versus those who found success and then decided to join the Freemasons. I didn’t get a clear answer.
For the benefit of members, the SMC also consists of a library and archives centre. Both facilities are of considerable size and I was impressed that we were permitted to view these on our tour.
As one would expect in a Brutalist building, there was plenty of raw concrete. The façade of the SMC is quite imposing, so it comes as no surprise that the interior also features some fairly heavy pieces of engineering. I especially liked the cylindrical lifts, although there wasn’t much space inside once a few people stepped in!
The overall internal composition of the building is rather pleasant. Ascending the spiral staircase affords one a decent overview of the SMC, in particular the view over the large foyer to a series of stained-glass windows. A large skylight allows natural light to permeate down into the centre of the building.
I found the tour of the SMC fascinating, yet the secretive nature of the organisation and the subtle omissions of the tour guide left me quite curious. Given the extensive rituals, the elite nature of the membership and the quiet manner in which the freemasons conduct their affairs, I can see why conspiracies abound. The good charitable works of the Freemasons in the community should certainly not go unnoticed and we’d all be much poorer if not for their benevolence.
For those who love Brutalist architecture or have an interest in the Freemasons, I recommend a tour of the SMC. Perhaps the best recommendations come from the family and friends whom I dragged along with me. They came to the SMC with a certain reluctance but quickly became enthralled. The tour quickly became one of the highlights of our holiday.
A guided tour of the Museum of Freemasonry costs $10 per person and takes approximately 45 minutes.