‘At first it’s fun’: Can a night in Sydney’s ‘mushroom’ tower make me dream? | Sound art

HIn sight of central Sydney, inside the Harry Seidler-designed building known as ‘the mushroom’, the Commercial Travellers’ Association (CTA) Club has remained unmodernised, unrenovated and unpurchased for 46 years.

That the building still exists is surprising enough. That it still operates in the same guise as it did in 1977 is a miracle in a city far more inclined to sell listed buildings to the highest bidder for luxury apartments or cool new restaurants – or get rid of them altogether.

“The age of brutalism is over,” 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 is always a dedicated fan club that proclaims its heritage value,” Perrottet added.

The Commercial Travelers' Association building on Martin Place.
The Commercial Travelers’ Association building on Martin Place. Photo: Zoltan Csipke/Alamy

CTA’s fan club may soon include a new crowd of Sydney followers won over by its bygone charm: it has been “activated” by the Sydney Festival to host American artist Kelsey Lu’s overnight soundscape in its 28 hotel rooms, as well as a three – weekly program with bands and DJs in the underground lounge.

Repurposing architectural landmarks as venues is a Sydney festival theme this year, and it’s exciting. As I descend the wide spiral steps of the CTA with my overnight bag, I realize I’ve hurried down them hundreds of times before, on my way to other places, but never stopping to poke my head in.

The venue leans heavily into the 1970s decor: velvet booths, high carpet and walls you want to iron. The lounge has been renamed The Weary Traveller, a nod to the CTA’s roots as a hotel for traveling salesmen, while the low-ceilinged dining room is called The Disco Bistro. Spots of light glide romantically over bain maries, vinyl chairs and plastic-wrapped menus advertising $16 seafood baskets and $30 steaks. Unfortunately, that menu has been replaced by the slim selection of festival bar food. Think cheese cubes, cocktail onions and Hawke’s Brewing Co beer; nostalgia washed down by nostalgia.

“Velvet stalls, high carpet and walls you want to iron…” inside the weary traveller. Photo: Jacquie Manning

CTA employees work as bartenders, floor staff and cleaners. The bar manager, John, has worked here for 30 years and tells me that British-American comedian Bob Hope used to live there.

“Bob Hawke?” I shout over the efforts of a DJ. “No, Bob Hope!” shouts back John. 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 occasionally 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. Complaining that it’s too expensive is unwarranted: many Sydney hotels cost twice as much, and here that includes admission to Weary Traveler – which lasts until midnight.

But this trade is also where the disconnect begins. There is no synergy between the downstairs club-like hedonism of the bar, the retro-futuristic aesthetic of CTA’s space, and Lu’s minimalist composition, which “invites the audience on a sonic journey that flows into a dream state and tests the triggers of lucid dreaming.” The overstimulation actually collides with the sound purification you want when you brace yourself for an eight-hour horizontal sound bath. This despite Lu’s site-specific intentions “to play with the common idea that architecture does not speak of history, but of time and the dreams that lie within.” Playing with shared ideas is difficult when you are very tired.

At first it’s fun. Lu’s “custom sound object” is a phallic pile fringed with tassels that is placed on each room’s desk, next to a lace tablecloth. It looks like Cousin Itt in a flapper dress. At 10:30 p.m., it gives way ethereally into ambient sound, anchored by a hazy pulsating beat.

Inside the CTA club.  Located in Harry Seidler's iconic
Like Cousin Itt in a flapper dress: Lu’s “tailor-made sound object” can be found in every room. Photo: Kate Hennessy

Despite a sign stating that the volume is “determined by the artist in line with the sonic journey” at 3am, I’m at the back of the pile with my torch, parting the hairy tufts to rummage around in its private parts looking for the volume button.

In rooms across the hotel’s fourth and fifth floors, others are also seeking modifications. The mood lighting plays up, although the main reason is the old air conditioners, which beep and bang all night. On my way down to raise it with the concierge, I meet a couple doing the same.

“I thought that was part of it, like analog tape hissing,” I admit.

“I thought it was solar wind!” replies the guy. However, the air conditioning cannot be turned down, which presumably means that the soundstage is turned up.

Which makes it a little too loud to sleep. By 06.30 I have had a bit of a bad sleep after using 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 muffle it,” says one woman. Another claims that the “gray 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 steps in. “It wasn’t pink noise,” he says. “It had a lot of high frequencies. Let’s call it aqua?”

Would Lu’s experiment be better received in a modern, neutral hotel with white walls and blackout curtains? Probably yes. Do I regret leaving? Not at all. The Sydney festival has made many safe choices in the past, and this is not one. Purists and audiophiles may struggle conceptually and sonically, but it’s worth it for the venue’s sense of excess, risk and ambition.

And ambition is something these walls know well, carved 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 second moustached president, G Balls – whose name , surely , is the spirit animal of the premises.

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