Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Home for technology confounds pessimists
E M FARRELLY
FIVE years ago it didn’t look possible. Even at second and third glance, the proposed Australian Technology Park seemed like the opportunity to miss. A 14-hectare railway off-cut bounded by working tracks along one side and deepest Redfern on the other, with no view, less cachet, crumbling infrastructure and three mammoth heritage buildings stacked to the gunnels with fabulously useless relics of the steam age, or similar.
Industrial fossil-hunters flourished but developers stayed away in droves. South Sydney Council was morally opposed to anything other than housing on the site. Even optimists were forced to classify Sydney’s Australian Technology Park as a probable co-gurgler with Adelaide’s MFP – nice thought, shame about reality.
That, however, was to reckon without the redoubtable, the irrepressible Tom Forgan. Now, the first $50 million has been spent (not counting as much again on electronic infrastructure) and the first 7,000-odd square metres of air-conditioned space are fully tenanted. The flagpoles are in, the oval is grassed and queues for Stage II are sufficient to support some formidable tenant-selection procedures. The minister has promised a $2.5 million upgrade of Redfern station within two years, and the cappuccino is positively Darlinghurst.
So does this mean there is hope for Sydney’s dwindling heritage stock, the temptation to torch notwithstanding? Is it possible, after all, to do the decent thing and still make a quid? Are there lessons here?
Answer, equivocal: maybe, maybe not. Just getting this far has absorbed some hefty Government freebies and the park is not home and dry yet. But even allowing for the help and the hype, you’d have to say that now, against all expectations, it definitely looks like a goer.
It all started when Sydney University approached Forgan, who had design-directed the MLC Centre, Darling Harbour and the ABC complex in Ultimo, about a technology park on the other (north) side of the tracks. Forgan, recognising the need for both critical mass and massive kudos in such a venture, proposed expanding to a tri-university arrangement (backed by Sydney, UNSW and UTS) on the bigger, under-loved site south of the line. The universities liked the idea and the three vice-chancellors now sit, each with right of veto, on the ATP board.
Then came the bonuses: $26 million Better Cities funding from the Commonwealth, $22 million from the dying Fahey Government, a 99-year lease gratis and a 10-year rates-and-taxes holiday. True, if it were as easy as this sounds, someone would have done it before. The figures in themselves are a tribute to Forgan’s imaginative and persuasive powers.
So too is the quality of the emerging architectural product, designed by architect John Crawford. Of the three heritage buildings on the site, the 1906 New Engine Shop was the last to be built. The “new” refers to the contents, not the container, arising from a major decision, way back then, to construct new locomotives at Eveleigh. Now, appropriately, the New Engine Shop houses the National Innovation Centre, brimming with specially selected small-tomedium research and development companies which specialise in multimedia, super-computing, genetic research, technology transfer, advanced numerical research and the rest.
The building is a handsome basilica in solid load-bearing brick with a double-gable roof over one half and south-facing saw-tooth on the other. A central row of double-barrelled, cast iron columns and two rows of massive brick piers were designed to support not only the lightweight roof but, rather more importantly, the 35-tonne Craven Bros overhead crane that still graces the foyer.
Within this impressive carapace, high-tech companies enjoy what Forgan likes to call a “totally synergistic environment”, in which the tenants, or “citizens”, are expected to share information as well as coffee, Lease conditions include preparedness to undertake joint projects, participate in joint information-sharing functions and contribute to a joint ATP database which will be available free for use by schools. They are also required to be non-polluting and to demonstrate support for energy-conservation practices.
The new interior is designed to foster such openness. What Forgan calls total synergy, John Crawford sees as an affordable approach to serious heritage. Fortuitously, the principles coincide. The result is a three-storey stack of steel and glass pavilions which sit within the great space but scarcely touch its fabric, being literally suspended from the antique strong-arm structure.
Blinds are forbidden, in the interests of synergy, so the gravitas of the old is constantly underscored by the glassy transparency of the new. Research pavilions are air-conditioned but the common and circulation spaces, centring on the great airy foyer, are naturally lit and ventilated, blanketed by the thermal mass of yesteryear.
Within these spaces, a stylish, open-tread timber staircase feeds a series of lightweight catwalks, drawn from those in the ABC building on Harris Street. Set deliberately in front of the lift, the stair encourages the walk without humbling those who would ride while the catwalks duck gracefully and arc around the vast Craven Bros gantry that still stiffens the building with a sense of its former life.
Continuing the recycling theme, new cast-iron glazing bars in the old Romanesque windows were fashioned on site from pipes unearthed during construction.
True to post-modern ideologies, the National Innovation Centre is a celebration of difference, contrasting not old and new so much as new-then and new-now. This sense of changing high technologies imparts an enormous, invigorating energy which can only reinforce the ATP’s guiding idea that our progress as a species depends, now as ever, on pooled brainpower.
Stage II, offering some five times the floor space available so far, will involve the conversion of the vast 1887 Locomotive Workshops (or Paddy’s Market building) into tenancies, exhibition/convention space and a “School of the Future”, intended to familiarise teachers with advanced technologies.
If it can be done with the same aplomb and conviction apparent so far – and there’s no reason why not – the ATP Redfern will be shining proof that pennies from the public purse can, in life as in theory, add value to the developer’s vision, rather than just plump his pockets.
Two illus: The Australian Technology Park is bringing new life (above) to dilapidated railway buildings at Redfern (right).