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National Architecture Awards 2014: let’s look at the heritage finalists

Good heritage conservation is simply good architecture. Bread in Common by Spaceagency/AIA/ Robert Frith Acorn

The heritage shortlist for this year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ (AIA) 2014 National Architecture Awards – to be awarded on November 6 – highlights a new trend in heritage conservation projects.

In the 1990s and early 2000s an experienced cohort of Australian conservation specialists – Robin McKellar Campbell, Allom Lovell, Clive Lucas Stapleton and Partners and a handful of others – dominated the heritage conservation category in architecture awards.

Those firms, and their offshoots, continue to exercise considerable influence on the field. But they have now been joined by a growing group of architectural practices that do not present themselves as heritage specialists.

Three of the four shortlisted projects – by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG), Welsh & Major and Spaceagency – adapt old sites and re-purpose them. Each successfully fuses contemporary design ideas with historical fabric in ways that clearly signals the presence of new life.

Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst

TZG has become something of a specialist in adapting and regenerating historically interesting, underutilised places. The best of the company’s work in this area – Carriageworks Arts Centre (2006) and the Paddington Reservoir Gardens (2009) (both in Sydney and both AIA heritage award winners) – has created outstanding public places with unique physical qualities and architectural character.

Eternity Playhouse by TZG. AIA/ BrettBoardman

TZG is nominated this year for its Eternity Playhouse in Sydney’s inner city Darlinghurst, a small theatre in the old Baptist Tabernacle (1887).

The building’s name is based on the well-known story of Arthur Stace, who chalked the word eternity onto footpaths and buildings in Sydney for decades. He reputedly drew his inspiration from a sermon delivered at the Tabernacle in 1932.

TZG has created a new sign that pays homage to this immediately recognisable graphic signature and keys the building into the wider cultural heritage of the city.

This former place of Christian worship is a classical revival building. While more sober in its articulation than a typical theatrical façade from the period, the architectural language is a natural fit for this new function.

Every one of the 200 seats in the new auditorium is a good one and the whole thing has been neatly inserted into the shoebox-shaped building. The foyer, ticketing, bar and toilets can be reached down a short flight of stairs from the front entrance and are tucked underneath the raked seating of the auditorium.

Old materials have been recycled, new elements are clearly articulated as new, separate and reversible, while original openings and points of architectural elaboration are carefully integrated.

Former Rocks police station

Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA), is behind a second Sydney nominee, the former police station in George Street, the Rocks.

Former Rocks Police Station by Welsh & Major Architects. AIA/ Katherine Lu

Originally designed by James Barnet (1827-1904), its street façade is an engaging, muscular and mannered gateway typical of Barnet’s work. Its adaptation for use as a café, however, is only partially successful.

The new café works tolerably well in the portico and front rooms. But behind this formal front section is the old police lock-up. The small individuated spaces of the cells might have been better suited to a late night bar or club than a morning-focused bakery and café.

The question is whether a café was the best choice for this site, given the constraints imposed by its recognised historical significance.

The architects, Welsh & Major, have carefully maintained the holding cells, with their beaten-up old doors. The firm’s appreciation for the markers of age is obvious, as is their skill in attaching a new steel and glass addition at the rear on Nurses Walk.

They negotiate the point of contact between old and new with great dexterity.

The Bread in Common in Fremantle

The third adaptive use project on this shortlist is another café/restaurant, The Bread in Common, in Fremantle (main image).

In contrast to the obvious constraints of the old police lock up, this old warehouse building furnished the architects, Spaceagency, with great flexibility. Where one more café would hardly be noticed in the Rocks, Bread in Common was seen as a potential catalyst for a relatively lifeless section of central Fremantle.

The project has been nominated in both the AIA interior and commercial architecture categories as well the heritage category in this year’s awards, a testament to the growing recognition that good heritage conservation is simply good architecture.

The Brisbane City Hall

The most admirable project on this list, in my view, is the Brisbane City Hall, a more traditional architectural restoration project.

This very large interwar, municipal complex containing a great public auditorium as well as council chambers and offices, by Hall and Prentice, is a genuine symbol of the city, but was badly abused and in desperate need of renewal.

Brisbane City Hall Restoration by Tanner Kibble Denton Architects and GHD Architects. AIA/LachlanRowe

The conservation project was led by Megan Jones, a director at Tanner Kibble Denton (TKD), a firm with wide-ranging expertise, but one with deep roots in Howard Tanner’s conservation-focused practice.

In addition to addressing all the usual difficulties associated with renewing historic buildings – the introduction of new systems to meet current fire safety standards, new heating, ventilating, and air conditioning and the revitalisation of key spaces – the Brisbane City Council wanted the architects to achieve a notable Green Star rating for the building.

They were awarded four stars in the end, but the process and the result highlighted the significant shortcomings of the Green Star system in relation to the renewal of historic buildings.

Refreshingly, the project was also a pilot for the Green Buildings Council and they have indicated that current assumptions – based on building performance standards and not on life cycle analysis – do not properly reflect the environmental benefits of conserving buildings.

A revision of those assumptions is overdue and there is now a growing body of evidence that can guide such changes to the Green Star system.

While the heritage field is no longer dominated by a corps of recognised specialists in the same way as it used to be, a deep understanding of how older buildings work and how they can be improved will continue to be a valuable asset for the firms, such as TKD, who can foster such knowledge.

The Brisbane City Hall project highlights the architectural skill and technical know-how needed to successfully balance the complex requirements of large restoration projects.

This is an architectural project with significant benefits for the whole city as well as major implications for how we assess environmental impact in the built environment.

Read further analysis of the 2014 National Architecture Awards.

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