Hiding in plain sight in Sydney’s city centre, inside the Harry Seidler-designed building fondly known as “the mushroom”, the Commercial Travellers’ Association (CTA) Club has remained unmodernised, unrenovated and un-bought-out for 46 years.
That the building still exists is surprising enough. That it is still operating in the same guise as it was in 1977 is a miracle in a city that’s far more inclined to sell heritage buildings to the highest bidder for luxury apartments or cool new restaurants – or get rid of them entirely.
“Brutalism’s time is done,” New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, once wrote in his “10 iconic buildings I’d bulldoze” list in the Sydney Morning Herald, which included the CTA Club for its “strange UFO-like structure”. “Once such a monstrosity is built, it never goes away, because there’s always some dedicated fanclub to proclaim its heritage value,” Perrottet added.
The CTA’s fanclub could soon include a new bevy of Sydney-siders won over by its bygone-era charms: it has been “activated” by Sydney festival to host US artist Kelsey Lu’s overnight soundscape in its 28 hotel rooms, as well as a three-week program of bands and DJs in its subterranean lounge.
Repurposing architectural landmarks as venues is a Sydney festival theme this year, and it is an exciting one. As I descend the wide spiral steps of the CTA with my overnight bag, I realise I’ve hurried down them hundreds of times before, heading elsewhere, but had never stopped to poke my head in.
The venue leans hard into 1970s decor: velvet booths, loud carpet and walls you want to stroke. The lounge has been renamed The Weary Traveller, a homage to the CTA’s roots as a hotel for travelling salespeople, while the low-ceilinged diner is called The Disco Bistro. Flecks of light glide romantically across bain maries, vinyl chairs and plastic-encased menus advertising $16 seafood baskets and $30 steaks. Sadly, that menu has been replaced by the slim pickings of festival bar food. Think cheese cubes, cocktail onions and Hawke’s Brewing Co beer; nostalgia washed down by nostalgia.
CTA employees are working as bartenders, floor staff and cleaners. The bar’s supervisor, John, has worked here for 30 years and tells me that British-American comedian Bob Hope used to stay there.
“Bob Hawke?” I yell over the efforts of a DJ. “No, Bob Hope!” John yells back. In the 70s and 80s the clientele was mainly salesmen, he says, but “Martin Place was also a hub for politicians, lawyers, Reserve Bank people … and sometimes a judge or two”.
The minimum fee to experience Lu’s work, The Lucid: A Dream Portal to Awakening, is $200 for a single room. Grumbling that it’s too expensive is unjustified: many Sydney hotels cost twice that, and here it includes entry to the Weary Traveller – which runs until midnight.
But this bargain is also where the disconnect begins. There’s no synergy between the bar’s clubby hedonism downstairs, the retro-futurist aesthetic of the CTA’s rooms, and Lu’s minimalist composition, which “invites audiences on a sonic trip that flows into a dream state and tests the triggers of lucid dreaming”. The overstimulation, in fact, clashes with the aural cleanse you want when you strap in for an eight-hour horizontal sound bath. This is despite Lu’s site-specific intentions “to play with the joint idea that architecture speaks not of history but of time and the dreams that lie therein.” Playing with joint ideas is hard when you’re very sleepy.
At first, it’s fun. Lu’s “bespoke audio object” is a phallic mound encircled by tassels which is placed on each room’s desk, next to a lace doily. It resembles Cousin Itt in a flapper dress. At 10.30pm it gears ethereally into ambient sound, anchored by a hazy pulsing beat.
Yet by 3am, despite a sign stating the volume is “determined by the artist in line with the sonic journey”, I’m at the mound’s rear with my torch, parting the hairy tassels to poke around its private parts looking for the volume knob.
In rooms across the hotel’s fourth and fifth floors, others are seeking modifications too. The mood lighting is playing up, though the main culprit is the vintage air conditioning units, which wheeze and thrum all night. On my way downstairs to raise it with the concierge, I meet a couple doing the same.
“I thought it was part of it, like analogue tape hiss,” I confess.
“I thought it was solar winds!” the guy replies. The air con can’t be turned down, however, which presumably means that the soundscape has been turned up.
Which all makes it a tad too loud to sleep. By 6.30am, I’ve snatched some broken sleep after resorting to earplugs. Back in the Bistro Disco for breakfast, the cooled rooms are a hot topic.
“I hate mechanical noise, so I was up there with a towel, trying to mute it,” says one woman. Another claims the “grey noise” interfered with her sonic immersion: “Actually, I think it was pink noise, that’s when it has a spectrum of lower frequencies.” Her partner chips in. “It wasn’t pink noise,” he says. “It had a lot of high-pitched frequencies. Let’s call it aqua?”
Would Lu’s experiment have been better received in a modern, neutral hotel with white walls and blackout blinds? Probably, yes. Do I regret going? Not at all. Sydney festival has made plenty of safe choices in the past and this is not one. Purists and audiophiles may struggle conceptually and aurally, but it’s worth it for the location’s sense of excess, risk and ambition.
And ambition is something these walls know well, slathered as they are in photographs of old white men, dating back to the first club president, J Inglis, from 1886. Next to him is the moustachioed second president, G Balls – whose name, surely, is the venue’s spirit animal.