“Heritage is fine,” says Newcastle architect Dominic Warland. “But, if it’s not being used it’s of no value.”
And, with that in mind, transforming old buildings to be used again is what his practice does.
Warland was the architect in charge of a small, town centre repurposing project that turned a disused interwar railway building into the Newcastle Visitor Information Centre to win EJE Architecture the Heritage Award in the just-announced 2021 Newcastle architecture awards.
Days later, the utilitarian brick structure with a surprising interior was shortlisted in the same category in the 2021 Australian Institute of Architects’ NSW awards to be announced in early July.
That puts the narrow, former ticketing hall in the heart of Newcastle up against 10 other heritage projects, including the impressively refined and relatively huge-scale restoration of the Project Discover spaces at the Australian Museum in Sydney.
As usual for heritage architecture awards, it’s a diverse group. And, like the station building, two other contenders demonstrated just how thoughtfully contemporary designers plumb the seams of the stories of place to come up with schemes that will make them live again.
On the edge of Sydney’s Neutral Bay, and on land that was out of the public realm for 150 years because it was first a gasworks and then a navy submarine base, architects lahznimmo and landscapers ASPECT Studios have made an engaging recreation realm that now serves a range of community functions.
Sub Base Platypus, which operated from 1967, became defunct in 1999 when the Oberon-class submarines relocated, leaving behind eight large industrial structures and a deep, long sandstone shelf where gas tanks had once been.
Fixing up the saw-toothed buildings for studios and some destination retail roles, and creating access stairways down the rock face and bridge walks across the water, was lahznimmo’s part in the $27 million project.
ASPECT took on the parkland creation as various small pockets and playgrounds that Sydney practice director Sacha Coles says “interpreted the old gasworks (the circle theme), and the Oberon submarines, without ramming it into anyone’s face”.
Thus, incised into the descending concrete seating platforms, and on the play equipment and seats are the names of all the subs that came into HMAS Playtpus during its time in navy service.
“Working with amazing geology and landforms we drew on all the content that is layered in the park,” Mr Coles said.
In Goulburn, NSW, the Rocky Hill Memorial Tower has also been given an update. Sitting above Goulburn since it was constructed in 1925 to honour the district’s fallen WWI servicemen and women, it’s a prominent icon.
With the addition of a partially mirrored annex designed by Crone Architects with Urbis to expand its extensive museum of military artefacts, it will be better able to engage with the anticipated (post-COVID) 25,000 visitors annually.
The “very simple” $2.2 million annex, which has a footprint on the same dimensions as the tower’s plinth, also pays homage, says Crone principal Ashley Dennis “to the Australian war memorial vernacular that you see in Canberra and Sydney”.
“It’s a prime example of contextually specific design, that deco-esque vernacular of bronze (the concertina arrangement of mirrored glass) and grey masonry,” Mr Dennis said.
Instead of being granite, the masonry is form-poured concrete, and the mirrors not only reflect “a unique setting”, but are a literal indication “that this is a place of reflection”.
The Newcastle Visitor’s Centre is just as immersive as a reborn structure.
With interior designer Molly Veale, Mr Warland says what initially looked like a difficult gun barrel-shaped building proved to be advantageous when the designers put a map of Newcastle’s downtown peninsula on the floor and a custom-made mesh and LED lighting installation on the ceiling.
He says the lighting “represents the (geological) contours of the map below, so you are literally being oriented by the long rectangular custom-vinyl map on the floor”.
Inbuilt interactive devices deliver more in-depth information about Newcastle’s heritage and history directly into a visitor’s phone.
As with most of the 11 Heritage Award contenders for this year, what the architects have done with their history rich projects is, says Mr Warland, “not compete with the buildings but add to them and bring them forward for the next generation of users”.
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