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Reinvigorating Redundant Industrial Places: A Challenge to Victoria 

WORDS BY Helen Lardner

Industrialisation was a force for change around the globe. Amongst its many impacts were landscapes reshaped by new building typologies, extensive transport systems and changed patterns of settlement. The recent decline of industrialisation may prove just as dramatic. Loss of the economic heart of communities, with its attendant unemployment and loss of identity has devastated some places.

Derelict buildings and contaminated sites can appear as industrial carcasses strewn across the landscape. They do however offer opportunities for regeneration, sustainable new uses and a connection to a worthwhile past upon which a new layer of meaning may be forged. Some excellent examples in Australia and overseas demonstrate a range of strategies for adaptive reuse of industrial places whilst also demonstrating innovative design outcomes. However, particularly in recent times, Victoria seems to lack the vision to make the most of its industrial legacy.

Industrial remnants are often robust buildings. Many are large, convenient to transport and have landmark features, such as chimneys or a sawtooth silhouette. Industrial processes are vulnerable to international trends, changing markets, exhaustible commodities and superseded technologies. Adaptation to a new use is often the only option when industries are no longer viable. The best adaptive reuse does not dissociate the past but layers new uses and meanings on already valued places. The outcome is enriched by its connection to the past and appeals to both the local community and visitors.

‘As long as you could see the Hoffman’s Chimneys you wasn’t lost’.1 This statement by a worker from the Brunswick Brickworks in the inner north is strikingly true. Locals and visitors alike often yearn for more than an architectural tabula rasa.

Reinvigorating redundant industrial places can provide inspirational architecture. Celebrated international examples such as the conversion of the Bankside Power Station to the Tate Modern in London by architects Herzog & de Meuron engage public interest by making the place itself a form of interpretation with a strong link to the past.

Despite Victoria’s strong architectural and heritage expertise, good planning regimes and public devotion to industrial sites evident during Open House Melbourne, there seems to be better large scale projects interstate. One of the best examples is Paddington Reservoir Gardens by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer with JMD Design and the City of Sydney which won the National Award for Heritage at the Institute’s 2010 National Architecture Awards. The beauty of this project is that the design team transformed community expectations from a regular green park to a design that ignited appreciation of the special nature of the place’s past.  The retained arched and vaulted structures of the former reservoir add not just a sense of history but also sculptural interest to the park.

A successful local example opened in 1992, when Museum Victoria created Scienceworks, an interactive science and technology centre. This was an adaptive reuse of the 1890’s Spotswood Sewerage Pumping Station and incorporated aspects of the original function for educative purposes.

In over twenty years since then, not many local industrial adaptations have retained the same degree of interior fabric, fixtures and fittings.

Instead, Victoria seems to have reverted back to the design approach of the 1970’s seen in the Jam Factory in South Yarra and the Richmond Power Station (now Country Road), which typically preserved the building shell and internal volumes to varying degrees but lost most of the industrial fabric. At its worst, the three dimensional building is lost and facadism – akin to the Woolworths Supermarket on Smith Street Fitzroy – is all that remains.

The legibility of industrial precincts in urban settings offers excellent opportunities for place making. Too often developers avoid large, complex industrial sites because they can’t find an outcome for the whole at one time. Large industrial sites are reduced to a few remaining buildings with much of the land cleared, in some cases resulting in a ‘doughnut effect’ of new development engulfing decaying heritage buildings, the hole in the heart of the scheme.

Despite this, ad hoc change over time can spark new opportunities. Recycling of historic industrial waterfronts like Granville Island, Vancouver has created vibrant commercially successful precincts. The big vision of adapting thematically and regionally connected industrial places has been accomplished at an even greater scale. From the 1990’s onwards, the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (IBA) undertook renewal of the Ruhr District in Germany based on the adaptive reuse of abandoned steel works, mines and associated buildings. Over 180 ha in a parkland setting, the popular area combines creative uses such as a diving centre in a gasometer, alpine climbing gardens in ore storage bunkers, a high ropes course in a former casting house, and a blast furnace modified to provide a viewing tower.

Much of this opportunity was lost to Melbourne’s Docklands, increasing the importance of the fragments that remain. The Boatbuilders’ Yard, South Wharf Maritime Precinct by Six Degrees Architects retains the characteristic form and scale of a maritime shed connecting people to the finer grain of the old port.

Forming meaningful linkages between places is another way of highlighting industrial history and making use of redundant fabric, including ruins. Victoria’s rail trails promote reading of the changing landscape from the perspective of a bicycle seat. The Bass Coast Rail Trail follows a former branch railway providing access to bridges, viaducts, railway stations, remnants of mines and mining activity. These include the Wonthaggi Railway Station and the Wonthaggi State Coal Mine which are both on the Victorian Heritage Register. The Rail Trail visitors have been the catalyst for small scale tourism providing economic benefits to the region. The High Line, an elevated freight rail line transformed into a free public park in New York City, has brought tourists and creative energy into a previously neglected area. In Victoria, opportunities await with the Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct – a decaying dinosaur spine across the Barwon River – which could be physically linked to recreational routes, or has the possibility of conceptually linking the remnants of our car manufacturing industry.

Murtoa Stick Shed. The exterior form of the Stick Shed contrasts with the soaring Cathedral-like interior. The people in the centre distance demonstrate the majestic proportions of the bush poles.

Photographs: Bruce Thomas, courtesy of the Heritage Council of Victoria

Barwon Sewer Aqueduct. The derelict spine of the decaying Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct spans the Barwon River and could reinvigorate recreational enjoyment of the area.

Photograph: Heritage Victoria.

A creative approach means that remnant structures in the Blast Furnace Complex at Landscape Park Duisburg-Nord create an unforgettable environment for corporate events, product launches and conferences.

Photograph: Jochen Schlutius, courtesy Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord.

Sometimes the best adaptive reuse of industrial places, particularly those which retain equipment or complex interiors, involves the least physical intervention. Transient uses can buy time until other more viable uses can be found. Creative Spaces, a program of the City of Melbourne Arts and Culture Branch, provides affordable space for creative people in the short term. The program’s River Studios on the Maribyrnong River at Footscray and the use of the former Argus Building for Melbourne Music Week are two examples discussed in other articles in this issue.

The future of Victoria’s most recently listed National Heritage place, the Murtoa Stick Shed, can draw on these inspiring examples. The Stick Shed, a redundant wheat storage facility, with its elegant bush poles within a soaring space will require a light hand and creative mind for sensitive adaptive reuse. Hopefully it will join a mounting number of case studies both in Australia and overseas which demonstrate that innovative adaptation of redundant industrial places can capture the public’s imagination and reinvigorate more than the just built fabric.

FOOTNOTE

1Billy Ottaway, former Hoffman’s worker and nearby resident of Brunswick Brickworks. Source: Aenea Himbury, ed, “As long as you could see the Hoffman’s Chimneys you wasn’t lost” Saving Brunswick’s Brickworks, Save the Brickworks Inc., Melbourne, March 2000