Construction has started on Rogers Stirk Harbour’s £3.3 billion Barangaroo development in Sydney Harbour.

New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell signalled the start of construction after declaring the 22ha project “as historic as the laying of the first stone on the Sydney Harbour Bridge”.

When built the transformation of the now defunct container wharves in East Darling Harbour will accommodate 23,000 workers and 800 apartments.

Speaking about the project O’Farrell said: “It sends a message to Australia and the world that Sydney is on the way up. We’re going to see a rejuvenated Sydney.”

The redevelopment of the former container port has been mired in controversy, with a recent report heavily criticising the designs of some of the buildings – which include a hotel built up to 100m into the harbour itself.

Earlier this year Richard Rogers had to defend the project against the charge that it represents “the worst of Dubai”.

The first commercial tower is expected to open in 2015.