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Walsh Bay in Sydney, once a historic port but now transformed into a cutting-edge performance precinct, has a rich cultural and architectural history.
Originally built in 1912, the now four-fingered wharf would scale the height of a 40-storey skyscraper if it was placed vertically rather than expanding out across the water.
Pier 2/3 includes new amenities for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Bell Shakespeare Company and the Australian Theatre for Young People.Credit:Brett Boardman
Initially conceived as general cargo storage, the buildings fell into disrepair in the 1970s until recent times when they became a major cultural hub in Sydney – home to the Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Sydney Dance Company and the Sydney Choir (in Pier 4/5) and, more recently in Pier 2/3, new amenities for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Bell Shakespeare Company and the Australian Theatre for Young People.
When Tonkin Zulaikha Greer architects first inspected Pier 2/3, it was little more than an empty shell, fortunately still endowed with many of the heritage-listed building’s features – timber floors, worn timber columns and even the hydraulic presses.
Working with Hassell and heritage specialists Tropman & Tropman Architects, what was a two-level building is now four levels, including two mezzanines.
Commissioned by Creative New South Wales and built by Richard Crookes Constructions, what was literally an empty shell received top honours in this year’s New South Wales Architecture Awards, including the Greenway Award for Heritage and the Public Architecture Award.
Given the strict heritage controls, a new glass enclosed lift was added to the exterior along with balcony gantries.
Some of the original timber was carefully restored and any new elements, such as steel walls to create new spaces, are dark and recessive.
Tonkin Zulaikha Greer also used glass in some instances that allow spaces to extend indefinitely and, in the case of the lobby for Pier 2/3, provide a thoughtful; contemporary insertion with a striking mild-steel staircase.
“Like the theatre that’s performed here, it was important to create a degree of theatrical magic,” says architect Peter Tonkin, director of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, who estimates that approximately 25 per cent of the space was given over to flexible performance requirements and events, including the recent staging of the Sydney Biennale.
“But these spaces were for conferences or events, such as cocktail parties for 1500 people,” adds Tonkin.
Given the need to hold larger events, there’s now also a full commercial kitchen.
While many new amenities have been included, such as heating, working with such an important heritage structure negated the inclusion of air conditioning.
“That would have meant a considerable amount of insulation (both walls and ceilings) that would have impinged on the rawness of the structure.
Before its renovation it was little more than an empty shell.Credit:Brett Boardman
But you can easily open the sliding panels and receive cross ventilation from the breeze coming off the water,” says Tonkin.
When new structures have been included, the steel walls are in dark grey, evocative of a container.
With mirrors set above, they appear to be transitory rather than a fixed addition to the building.
Other fine detailing can be appreciated in the Rebel Theatre, the name given to the Australian Theatre for Young People.
Designed to accommodate 200 students, it was conceived as an intimate space that allows for close interaction with the performers.
Timber-battened walls over acoustic fabric deadens any sound from the tooting of passing ferries or helicopters.
One of the most sumptuous interiors at Pier 2/3 is a rehearsal room, located on the upper level.
With its rippled plywood ceiling and curvaceous walls edged in brass (so precious violins aren’t scratched), there are also three layers of glass to ensure the Australian Chamber Orchestra can fully enjoy this state-of-the art facility.
And while not obvious from an initial glance, the perforated holes in the rippled plywood ceiling are quotations in braille from leading musicians.
While the accolades for Tonkin and his team are extremely gratifying, it was the opportunity to work with a creative team of architects and consultants, together with a visionary client, that continues to resonate.
“When you’re fortunate to work on these projects, there’s an energy and drive from the start [the project was initiated in 2016] where everyone is striving for excellence,” adds Tonkin.
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