Skip to content

Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

Dept House Banner
Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Section markerTranscripts


delay, decay and demolition at Pyrmont incinerator

Fitzgerald, S. Sydney 1842-1992, 1992

Incinerator as Work of Art

When it was built in the 1930s nobody wanted it in their vicinity, and the Council's papers concerning its construction give no hint that there was anything significant about its architecture. But a generation on, when Marion and Walter Burley Griffin were secure in their reputation among the greats of twentieth-century architects, the Council was presented with a whole new set of challenges as this utilitarian urban structure had metamorphosed into 'a prominent landmark, cleverly sited, sculptural and dramatic . . . architecturally special . . . a building of international significance'. The National Trust assessed 'this early modern cubist exercise having a profusion of rich surface decoration of geometric shapes based upon ancient Central American architectural details' as 'a brilliant example of Griffin's mature work'. It showed how 'a mundane urban function [could] be integrated into the landscape of the city as a work of art'. The architects themselves made it clear that they believed in they had designed more than just an incinerator. Marion Mahony Griffin observed in 1949 that the Pyrmont incinerator 'will stand, we think, as an historical record of twentieth-century architecture'. The form and the ornamental relief were intended to represent the forms of energy released by the 'smashing of the atom', she claimed, indicating that the Griffins were aware of the work of physicists in the 1930s at the time of the construction of the incinerator.

At the time the stack came down, organisations mindful of its heritage significance were manoeuvring for the building's preservation. Had the incinerator been built in prestigious Moore Park, as originally planned, the Council might have had a desirable commercial property on its hands, with a similar potential for redevelopment as the Burley Griffin incinerator in Willoughby which was converted into a restaurant. But although industrial Pyrmont could not compare with Moore Park, by the time the incinerator was decommissioned in 1971, there were some signs that the status of the peninsula was changing, and that more than a narrow group of preservationists might come to see that the building had been 'cleverly sited'.

Of all the areas of the city which have given rise to varying answers to the question of 'what is the proper use of inner urban land?', Pyrmont's response has been the most volatile. Pyrmont was always staunchly Labor in its voting habits, and back in the 1950s Labor councils had favoured increased residential development on this industrial peninsula where the most recent housing to be built was Ways Terrace, the Council's own project built on land resumed in 1923. The State government had other ideas, however, and prepared plans in 1965 which permitted most of the peninsula to be industrial. Its City of Sydney Plan, gazetted in 1971, also favoured industrial development, while the Council's Strategic Plan of the same year advocated that most of the peninsula be zoned 'residential'. The Council's plan did not have the statutory authority of the State plan, but by limiting floor-space ratios the Council was able to frustrate would-be developers by making industrial projects uneconomic. The conflicting understandings of how Pyrmont should develop were well illustrated by the Action Plan for Pyrmont which the Council commissioned in the early 1970s. The consultants who undertook this work reported that the area was 'an inferior residential location' which was a conduit for through traffic and 'a stopping place for single men'. The numbers of residents had declined to a mere 2,000 by 1971, which was too small to attract or justify service infrastructures, while land prices made new residential developments unlikely. Continued industrial development was predicted as the only feasible future for the area. At the same time they reported that the State Planning Authority 'failed to reveal any clear positive policies', that the Valuer General's Department appeared to be confused, that the Commonwealth Government had no plans for its holdings on the peninsula and that, although the Housing Commission wanted inner-city land, it didn't want to pay Pyrmont prices for it. The future of the Darling Harbour goods yards were not in doubt, however, as it was 'certain that they will continue to play an important role for the forseeable future'.

Such are the hazards of prediction in an area where land use is uncertain. The goods yards disappeared under the Darling Harbour Authority's tourist and entertainment complex by the end of the 1980s, and in 1976, instead of accepting this report on Pyrmont, the Council commenced its own in-house Ultimo/Pyrmont/Haymarket Plan. This plan, begun by a Civic Reform Council and adopted by a Labor Council in 1982, saw a future for the peninsula which included substantial residential development. Developers were encouraged in this by the offer of bonuses of increased floor-space ratios in exchange for projects containing a residential component.

Procrastination and Decay

However, the incinerator site remained a difficult one. The building was classified by the National Trust, but this listing had no legal weight behind it, and there was no conservation order placed on it by the Heritage Council. The City Council had resolved to restore the north and west facades, as recommended by the National Trust, but did nothing, and in 1983 the City Planner, John Doran, recommended an immediate study because the building was decaying rapidly. At this time the Council was considering the possibility of using the site for housing and in 1985 resolved to amend the Ultimo/Pyrmont/Haymarket Plan to zone the site 2(F) which is a mixed zoning category which includes residential uses. However, the site did not attract proposals for its use. At the same time the Department of Main Roads' plans for roadways in the area were in a state of flux, with a proposed high-level bridge to replace the old Glebe Island Bridge threatening to obstruct the view from the site to Blackwattle Bay. The Bay, traditionally used by timber, coal and boat building interests, was gradually becoming deindustrialised and beginning to provide desired water views.

Unable to provide any clear guidelines, the Council was uncertain of what could be achieved at the site and in 1986 offered it for sale to the DMR. These negotiations were dropped however, when a private company, Balmain Brewery Limited, offered to buy it for $1.1 million. The Council agreed to 51.35 million, provided that the company would place a covenant on the contract of sale which ensured restoration or replication of the incinerator including reconstruction of the chimney, which they themselves had removed, to fan acceptable height'.

By the time development consent was obtained in mid 1987, the elected Council had been replaced by City Commissioners, who decided that the covenant could be lifted in view of the fact that consent contained the condition that a conservation plan be submitted to the Heritage Council for approval. This was a clear watering down of the conditions, as the Heritage Council had no preservation plans for the building and the owners were required merely to address 'the demolition, or alterations, in whole or in part, of any section of the incinerator', and 'the desirability of reconstructing the incinerator chimney'. The proposed development was for a small brewery, a large restaurant/tavern, incorporated within the restored incinerator structure, and the Commissioner's urged that this application be speedily processed. Subsequently, however, the required conservation study carried out by Colin Crisp of McBean and Crisp Engineering recommended that the details of the building be carefully recorded and that it be physically replicated, including the stack. The present building was too far deteriorated to save. This deterioration, which had been greatly accelerated by the removal of the roof and chimney in the 1970s, could be attributed only to the inaction of the owners, the City Council.

The Crisp Report and the opinions of other experts that the building was beyond redemption resulted in a mixed response. The relevant heritage organisations endorsed the idea of replication, as the best possible realistic option, while angry conservationists argued that it was being demolished by studied neglect. The new owners, Balmain Brewery Limited, presumably did not welcome the idea of replicating the incinerator, and by mid 1988 there was talk of building housing on the site, which would involve the incinerator's demolition. By early 1989, restoration 'to a level to be determined', and the erection of a multistorey office/warehouse/ industrial building was being discussed. In exchange for retaining part of the incinerator, appropriately landscaped and commemoratively signed, the company wanted a substantial increase in the floor-space ratio (FSR) to allow much taller buildings, arguing that the approaches to the Glebe Island Bridge necessitated the extra height.

In April 1989, the company's architects, Lawrence Neild & Partners, maintained that it was 'socially desirable to conserve what now remains of the important Walter Burley Griffin Incinerator', while in May they were urging an increase in FSRs because any delay would mean that work could not begin soon enough to save the incinerator. The original application for constructing a brewery – a much less ambitious project than what was now being mooted–was allowed to lapse in June, and in the second half of 1989 plans were being worked on for a residential/ commercial complex, again preserving part only of the incinerator, and still requiring higher buildings than the current code permitted. In August, Balmain Brewery Limited authorised Meriton Apartments to act for them, and in November 1989 this company lodged a Development Application for a $52 million 16-level residential/ commercial building, incorporating part of the incinerator as the shell for a swimming pool. In December, Balmain Brewery Limited, which had bought the property for $1.35 million from the Council in mid 1987, sold it to Meriton for almost $8 million.

Meriton's proposal met with some resistance from interested parties, with the Ultimo/Pyrmont Study Residents' Advisory Committee of the Council wanting to know how the developers intended to deal with Tinkers Well. This was a heritage item of greater antiquity than the incinerator, having been the original source of fresh water on the peninsula, but one which no-one had apparently mentioned up until this time. The Council asked the company for a Conservation Study, identifying all items of historical significance. With regard to the central sticking point, the Heritage Council said it had no objection to using the incinerator as a swimming pool, but objected to the scale of the proposed development, arguing that it would not conserve the heritage significance of the site. The Council's Planning Department suggested that the mass and scale of the proposed development would in fact obliterate the most significant natural feature of Pyrmont Point – the sandstone promontory. It was fairly clear that the permission to depart so greatly from the present planning controls would not be granted, and that the argument that permission should be given in exchange for retaining the incinerator did not carry weight. By now the Planning Department was not concerned to save the building, if it ever had been. There was reference to 'the dubious merit' of retaining it in a fragmentary form, and an opinion that 'to be of relevance the building should be retained completely'. This option, it was widely agreed, was no longer viable.

Meriton Apartments withdrew its application for the site. While it may have been fairly certain that under the current controls the application would not have succeeded, the real control of planning within the city had moved away from the Council to the State-appointed Central Sydney Planning Committee, set up in 1989. Overall planning of a 'City West Urban Strategy', which includes Pyrmont, was taken over by the State Department of Planning. Although the contents of its regional environment plan are not yet finalised, and although the gazettal of any changed planning regulations for the area were probably still some time away, indications were that more intensive development would be considered.

In the meantime, Meriton Apartments made a new submission to the Council not to build, but simply to demolish the incinerator. The Council asked for documentation on conservation options. The report drew heavily on previous studies. It argued that because of advanced deterioration the only conservation option was total reconstruction. That was of dubious value it claimed, and 'could only have tenuous links with the continuity of Griffin's original architectural concepts'.

Other interested parties argued that it could be stabilised, and that conservation was important. These included the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. The Heritage Council, which had never been strongly supportive, was now positively inconsistent, argued that the Institute of Architects' proposal to conserve the entire building was 'essentially responsible, were it not for the state of the building'. It recommended retaining fragments of the building.


The Council approved the demolition, with the proviso that some artifacts be saved and used 'either in the new development or in an interpretive facility on the site'. The 'bits' included ten square metres of fluted tiles, the remaining frieze at the base of the chimney and so on. The company was also prevented from demolishing until its proposed dense residential/commercial plans for the site had been approved. The reason given for this was to minimise the possibility of the incinerator being demolished and the site remaining undeveloped for an indefinite period. In April 1922 the Council further reduced any obligations on Meriton Apartments by agreeing to the possibility of the 'interpretative facility' being 'off the site'. The final permission to demolish was issued on 6 May 1992, and the building came down the next day.

Marion Griffin had thought the building would stand as a monument. It would not have occurred to her to think that it might not stand at all.


Reproduced with the permission of the author, Shirly Fitzgerald.

Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size