City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.



Greg Allen posted about the concept of 'tomason' a while ago, inspired by the fabulous Tokyo-based architectural practice Atelier Bow Wow and their relentless documentation of the the city and its quotidian architectural foibles, in books like Made in Tokyo and Pet Architecture. He described the thomason (超芸術トマソン) thus:

"Made in Toyko was about ridiculous hybrids: a department store with a driving school on the roof; a cement factory integrated with the workers' dorms. They called these ridiculous, pragmatic spatial phenomena dame [dah-may] architecture, using the Japanese term for 'no good'. Such ad hoc, aggressively undesigned accidents stick in my mind as I read about Tomason [also spelled Thomason and Thomasson in English]. If dame architecture is the awkward result of relentless functionality, Tomason are the useless, abandoned leftovers. Stairs to nowhere are a favorite. Bricked up windows are a close second. Tomason are the flashings and detritus of the incessant churn of building, destruction, and redevelopment that characterizes the Japanese city. No clean slates here, no way …"

"The term comes from the art & architecture collective formed in 1986 known as Rojo Kansatsu [Roadside Observation], which counted the author/artist Akasegawa Genpei as a founding member. Rojo's inspiration was Gary Thomasson, who was given the biggest contract ever in Japanese baseball in 1981-2, only it turned out he couldn't hit; then he blew out his knee. He was a giant, useless lump on the bench." [, my emphasis]

The photos you see here are of a tomason I'm particularly fond of, found down the road from work in Sydney. It's a sequence of steps to nowhere, with the entrance and exit long bricked-up. There's no way in, there's no way out. It just sits there embedded in the sandstone. The base is thoroughly bricked-up, ensuring no-one can climb into the section in the middle, which presumably would've taken too much brick to warrant fully enclosing.



As a tomason, it's not exactly a remant of Tokyo-pace redevelopment; more some long lost relic of an early wave of urban development that had paused a long time ago. 

It's on Hickson Road, as part of the extraordinary sandstone wall which curves right round the contours of the harbour here, part of the area now known as Barangaroo (more photos here), all the way to the Harbour Bridge. The wall was once host to a series of sky-bridges, comprising a form of connective tissue between the wharves of the harbour and Millers Point and the rest of The Rocks up on the hill. The tomason is tucked in next to the two remaining arched bridges at this point.


Browing some New South Wales state archives, I came across a couple of relevant images: the first showing the construction of the major sandstone wall along what would become Hickson Road (I think) and the second showing the construction of the adjacent bridge, taken in 1911.



Note the steps aren't visible in this photograph. Interestingly, note that also the houses on the street above the wall (High Street, appropriately enough) remain fairly unchanged, at least structurally, though their backdrop is rather different now. Big fan of these houses; more to follow.


Who knows if the steps were bricked up as part of the bridge construction, or afterwards. Either way, I declare them Sydney tomason. As the Barangaroo development unfolds, I'm quite keen to plant trees or a green wall in it, or use it as temporary exhibition space, bounded as it now is on all sides.

On Tomason, Or the flipside of dame architecture []
Thomason group on Flickr


11 responses to “Barangaroo Tomason (超芸術トマソン)”

  1. lauren Avatar

    great post dan – what a fascinating space. technically useless, but oh so amazing. something a little bit storey hall/monaco house about it.
    re-used as a green space, exhibition space? ooh yes please!


  2. Scott Writer Avatar

    Hi Dan,
    Great post, and enjoyed your interview on RRR recently.
    I thought you might be interested on this article which contextualises Thomasons within the activity of the ‘neo-Dada avant-garde collective’ High Red Centre, formed by Akagesawa Genpei in Tokyo in 1963.
    Also involved with the Roadside Observation group was the fantastic Fujimori Terunobu, whose teahouse designs would seem to me to be situated very much up cityofsound’s alley, so to speak.


  3. Avatar

    nice, thanks for the link and the shoutout. what an awesome find, too. I don’t know what I like better: the carved out of solid rock part, or the arbitrarily filled in solid with brick part.
    And let me second Scott’s suggestion of Darryl’s excellent HRC post; everything I know about Tomason, I learned from Neojaponisme.


  4. kevic Avatar

    I hate to bring this up, but does this remind anyone of Eisenman’s stairway to nowhere? Granted, it’s much better because there’s nothing contrived about it. Could we call it “inadvertent deconstruction?”
    And also, thanks Scott for the link.


  5. kevic Avatar

    On 2nd thought, scrap “inadvertent deconstruction.” “Neo-Dada Avant-Guarde” is just so much better!


  6. james Avatar



  7. Les Avatar

    Great post, I came across this staircase several years ago when I was in Sydney on holiday. I always wondered what the back story behind the staircase was.
    I came across your post from the Life Without Buildings blog. Your first picture was linked to that blog, and I did a double take when I saw it cause I took a photo which from memory is almost identical.


  8. Bob Meade Avatar

    If you go to this photograph, you will see the stairs were apparently extant, with the top visible on High Street:,I
    Although if you look at this different view of the construction of the retaining wall and parts of Hickson Road below, the stairs had not yet been cut into the sandstone although the recess in the retaining wall had been created:,I
    There was a bout of bubonic plague in The Rocks during 19001, followed by slum clearance in 1901. I’m taking a guess at the moment, but I would say the predecessor of High Street originally ran along the sandstone cutting visible below the concrete retaining wall, and the new High Street was created in The Rocks’ reconstruction phase.
    I used to work near there, and there is a very long staircase, probably almost identical to the one now missing, at the far end High Street in the photographs. It is one of the longest staircases I’ve been on, and in some ways dangerous.


  9. Lawson Avatar

    I might be a little late to the party, but I thought you might find it interesting to know that cyberpunk author William Gibson deploys the Thomasson (that’s how he spells it) as a possible description of the bridge community depicted in his novel ‘Virtual Light’. The bridge is a cyborg structure of people and the San Fran bridge, which in his near future has been partially destroyed by earth quake.
    The novel features a kind of sociologist figure, a visiting Japanese scholar Yamazaki, who has come to study the bridge community and he dubs it a Thomasson. He tells the exact same origin story of the term, but Gibson invents a fictional scholar who applied Gary Thomasson’s name.
    The use of this term on a macro scale as in the novel is very interesting, especially considering that Gibson took as inspiration for his dystopic SoCal Mike Davis’ ‘City of Quartz’, which is a description of contemporary LA that speculates on a future divided city (which is precisely what happens in ‘Virtual Light’).
    I can’t really comprehend all the particulars at the moment, but thought that little tit-bit might interest someone.


  10. dogpossum Avatar

    I can’t help but think that a pakour nut would find these stairs exciting.


  11. Simonalex Avatar

    an curious truncated find this is Dan, thanks, how many other Tomason can be found around town, ive seen other fragments and have photographed many stairways. I like the earlier comment for adding a use or non-use as it were. Then there is the question of whats inside the void of the bridge arch adjacent, for eg I understand Lennox bridge in Parramatta is hollow.


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