Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
NEGLECT KILLING SYDNEY’S HERITAGE
NIKOLAUS Pevsner’s famous definition, “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture” rested on two qualifying criteria – habitability and aesthetic intent.
The Pyrmont incinerator, now derelict but designed by Walter Burley Griffin in the early 1930s as one of a clutch of similar buildings with which he sought to ward off the worst of the Depression, may never have offered much in the way of human habitation, but it surely had aesthetic intent infusing every block, truss and tile.
It is to Burley Griffin’s lasting credit that he contrived to invest so humble a building program with so potent a cliff-top presence – and no credit to our great nation that, having sent the foreigner packing with no more gratitude or ceremony than we later accorded Utzon, we have tacitly concurred in the long attrition which by now all but guarantees the imminent demolition of one of his most vital and assured Australian works.
The incinerator, on its 0.8-hectare site, is owned by Meriton Apartments -and no-one expects philanthropy from a developer. But much of the building’s dereliction came about under the tender care of the Sydney City Council. As late as 1977 the building had been complete enough to be described in a National Trust citation for heritage listing thus: “Although disused and in poor condition, it (is) … a brilliant example of Burley Griffin’s mature work which is largely intact and which is one of Sydney’s last remaining large-scale works of the early modern architectural movement.”
Burley Griffin’s determined and habitual subjugation of utility to decorative effect was (like the work of his contemporary Leslie Wilkinson, designer of Pyrmont’s Ways Terrace) overtly romantic and decidedly unmodern in emphasis; a stance viewed by some as backwardness, others as near-heroism. The”Mayan” schema, unusual within Burley Griffin’s generally Gothic oeuvre, is manifestly derived from Frank Lloyd Wright’s rather earlier use (beginning with the 1916-24 “Hollyhock” House in Pasadena) of both “Mayan” ornament and an applied precast “textile block” system. But this does nothing to deny the uncommon dignity with which, even as a ruin, the Burley Griffin incinerator invests its Pyrmont cliff-top, or the uncompromising sculptural strength of its massing.
Nor does it exculpate the council, whose decision in the late 1970s partially to deroof the building and to demolish its fantastic 40-metre decorated chimney stack must qualify as an act of extreme vandalism. By October 1987, when the incinerator was sold to Balmain Breweries for $1.35 million, the unhappy creature was already ruinous, with its steel frame rusting, reinforced concrete beginning to deteriorate and decorative precast tiles dropping off like
guilty things surprised.
Even so, the new owners were prepared to spend some $2 million to restore and convert the incinerator into a brewery/ restaurant, along the lines of the(very different) Burley Griffin incinerator at Willoughby. And this might well have happened had Balmain Breweries itself not then been purchased by the ubiquitous Leon Fink.
Submitting to a mandatory residential zoning requirement, Fink commissioned the architect Lawrence Nield to prepare a scheme which would demolish the southern end of the incinerator building, convert the rest to a swimming pool and fill the remainder of the site with 16 storeys of shops, office space and 224 apartments fed, in local tradition, by a grand public stair up the cliff from Bank Street.
It was a confident and promising proposal which might have seeded development that the peninsula sorely needs. But it was not to be; the site was sold to Harry Tregaboff’s Meriton Apartments which will use in-house architects versed in such matters to squeeze some 250-300 apartments onto the site.
So, what may he build? The rules, in deference to Sydney planning norms, are firmly ambiguous. The site is zoned “residential 2F”, which allows almost anything, including light industrial. The new draft City West Urban Strategy which throws a vague residential-mixed zoning blanket across the site identifies the incinerator as a “heritage item of significance” and pledges to conserve it. The Sydney City Council, responding with alacrity to Heritage Council exhortations to assume the conservator’s mantle, approved on September 24 an application for the building’s demolition.
Its approval was conditional, of course. In a letter to the council last July, the heritage branch of the Department of Planning had recommended a number of conditions, including the submission of a satisfactory development application, completion of a comprehensive heritage record of the site, and retention of “representative examples of the decorative concrete tiles” for use somewhere on site. These the council iterated faithfully, with one crucial omission: a proposed requirement to reconstruct those parts of the building visible from Banks Street, and the 40-metre chimney. The warrant for the execution has been signed.
Well, perhaps it is all they could do. Depression materials, unlike those used by the Mayans, were friable and neglect has certainly taken its toll. The building may well be beyond repair. It is even possible that rampant ornamental eclecticism of this nature renders the building well-suited to ruination – a folly at the top of our garden.
But to reduce so handsome and substantial an edifice to a few sorry tiles in somebody’s ornamental shrubbery – or, worse, to mould and reuse the decoration on some new, quite other building, as is also proposed – would be an indignity worse than demolition: the architectural equivalent of both ears and the tail.
These days, when architectural practice is again proving a meagre barrier against cold economic winds, it behoves us to reflect. The story of the Pyrmont incinerator, with government agencies at all levels playing pass the hapless parcel, epitomises one of the bleaker aspects of Australian architectural history: a betrayal not only of the man who designed our capital city (and
whose ideas even there have been compromised beyond recognition)but, by implication, of our entire built heritage. It’s no good making excuses. In any other country with pretensions to civilisation, so serious and accomplished a work would have been kept. Here, as at Woolloomooloo, the Heritage Council, whose job this specifically is, has been worse than useless, mumbling on about conservation but failing in the event even to formulate a policy, let alone make it stick.
It’s not as if Australia has enough history or serious architecture to allow careless destruction of this kind – and Pyrmont is by no means an isolated case. That demolition by neglect has become an accepted way of achieving the unthinkable should be a matter of shame for us all: shame which will not be salved merely by razing the evidence.
Illus: The derelict Burley Griffin incinerator at Pyrmont.