Not wanting to quote Conchita Wurst so soon after her historic Eurovision Song Contest win, but this is a building that really has risen like a phoenix from the ashes: a derelict waste incinerator given new life as a gallery and café. Melonie Bayl-Smith relates the sensitive renovation of a modest masterpiece, designed by a one-time assistant of Frank Lloyd Wright.
About five kilometres north of Jørn Utzon’s iconic Sydney Opera House sits a much smaller – and far less celebrated – architectural gem, the work of another talented foreign architect who arrived on Australian shores last century. Sited on the edge of a picturesque park that merges with tree-lined streets and the remains of bushland, the Willoughby Incinerator is one of thirteen reverberatory incinerators designed by Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937), better known for his competition winning masterplan for the then newly proposed capital, Canberra, in 1912. Born in Illinois, USA, Burley Griffin moved to Chicago after his studies and from 1901 and 1906 worked in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright. He only arrived in Australia for the first time in late 1913, in order to inspect the site of the new capital, after which he primarily based-himself there.
Griffin, with his colleague Eric Nicholls, undertook the incinerator projects for the Reverberatory Incinerator and Engineering Company (RIECo) between 1929 and 1937. They were remarkable examples of advanced engineering at the time, for RIECo were early innovators in waste disposal, and developed a gravity feed system patented in 1926 that prevented waste from ending up in landfill and waterways. The engineering design instead facilitated the separation of waste types into reusable by-products, such as steam captured for sterilising processes, clinkers for road ballast and ash for garden fertiliser. This forward-thinking approach was typical of Nisson Leonard-Kanewsky, the Director of RIECo at the time, who saw his relationship with Griffin as a collaborative one, with the design and aesthetic skills that the architect provided, a valuable tool in convincing local authorities to purchase his incinerators. For Griffin′s modern, attractive designs, with their relatively modest scale made them appear suitable for siting anywhere in a city or suburb, in turn making Kanewsky’s garbage disposal solution a more socially and politically acceptable proposition to choose.
Completed in 1934, the Willoughby Incinerator is a beguiling building with a subtle monumentality. Appearing single storey at its street frontage, the incinerator is actually a multi-level building embedded within a steep embankment, its cascading skillion roofs peeling off from the central gable that covers the main volume, clad in green Marseille tiles. This massing and composition of the building allows it to work in harmony with the sloping site. The incinerator’s exterior is faced in coursed, rusticated Sydney sandstone contrasting with the delicate geometries of the triangulated decorative plaster and render treatments that articulate the chimney, roof gable and flanking elements. This material palette and textural integration demonstrates Griffin’s careful attention to detail and is typical of his organic-modernist style of architecture.
In 1967 the facility was shut down, with the building falling into disuse until the early 1980’s when it was converted into a restaurant and offices. Adaptations made then to the structure, such as alterations to fenestration elements and the interior spaces, were highly unsympathetic and eventually caused more damage to the original fabric and structural integrity of the building than the accumulated vandalism, fire and even a lightning strike that it suffered during the its periods of abandonment.
The incinerator subsequently returned to near-dereliction by the early 2000’s, but in 2006, as part of its overall strategic plan, Willoughby City Council decided to fully renovate and adapt it for a range of uses, commissioning Sydney-based practice SJB Architects to undertake the work. Adopting a forensic approach, SJB pieced together the missing and damaged parts of the building from various photos, included those taken in the 1970s by a local architect, prior to the unfortunate alterations in the 1980s. This process was even more important due to the lack of original design and “as built” survey drawings. From these they recreated the incinerator as a detailed 3D computer model, allowing for the careful assessment of its restoration needs, as well as the identifying of opportunities for robust yet sensitive adaptation.
The work was largely completed in 2011, and the renovated building now accommodates an artist-in-residence studio, gallery space, community meeting place, and café, its interior designed by Acme and Co. The active arts programme has included the annual Willoughby Sculpture Prize, with sculpture displayed on the incinerator’s front lawn, and in the immediate surrounding parkland, which is now planned to become a permanent sculpture park.
Providing a clue to the new use of the building is a stainless steel sculpture by architect/artist Richard Goodwin, entitled Exoskeleton Lift. This crowns the shaft of the newly requisite passenger lift, with Goodwin’s parasitical work interestingly echoing the complex and intricate geometries inherent to Griffin’s design.
Griffin saw the architect’s role as a multi-faceted one – architectural, economic and social – and the renovation of his incinerator, has reinvested and expanded all three aspects of his original design, renovating the fabric and returning the building to both economic and social use: not just servicing, but actively being used by the local community it serves, as well as attracting visitors to the area.
– Melonie Bayl-Smith is an architect, musician and educator from Sydney, Australia. She is the Director of Bijl Architecture and Adjunct Professor at UTS School of Architecture in Sydney.