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"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."
Not in my backyard
As Sydney expanded in the 20th century, the city needed a second waste incinerator.
Until then, waste was disposed using an existing incinerator in Moore Park, or towed out to sea and dumped. The latter method continued on into the 1920s, despite public protest about rubbish washing up on Sydney's beaches.
In 1932, plans to build a second incinerator in Moore Park were met with resistance from locals and the state government, so the City instead opted for Pyrmont. Land had been resumed for development in the inner-western suburb, but the economic downturn of 1929 meant tenders were not let. Despite the cost of excavating a site from the rocky terrain, the idea of using Pyrmont was met with little protest as the area was already quite industrial.
The Pyrmont incinerator was finally completed in 1936 and commissioned in 1937. A stunningly modern cubist-inspired building with richly decorative detailed work based on Aztec motifs. It was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, the designer of Canberra, and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin.
Heading picture: west elevation of Walter Burley Griffin's incinerator showing decoration inspired by Central American designs. SRC 21028. Originally from book Pyrmont Incinerator SRC 725.9.
An enduring landmark
A generation on, with the two designers subsequently regarded as among the greats of 20th-century architecture, the City of Sydney was presented with a new set of challenges. The utilitarian urban structure was now a prominent landmark and the internationally renowned architects believed they had designed more than just an incinerator. Marion Mahony Griffin observed in 1949 the incinerator "will stand, we think, as an historical record of 20th-century architecture".
The incinerator was operational until 1971. When it was decided to raze the stack, there was a push to preserve the building, just as a similar Burley Griffin-designed incinerator in Willoughby had been converted into a restaurant. Although industrial Pyrmont was no Moore Park, there were some signs the peninsula was changing and a growing number of preservationists thought the building had been "cleverly sited".
Pyrmont’s transformation from industrial to residential had been a slow process. While Labor councils had pushed for more homes to be built in the area, Macquarie Street had other ideas. In 1965 it released plans that the area remain industrial. Another state government plan in 1971, when only 2000 people lived in the suburb, again favoured more industry. But in the same year, the City advocated residential development in most of the peninsula.
The City’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 economically unviable.
In 1976, the City released a plan for substantial residential development in Ultimo, Pyrmont and Haymarket. And by the 1980s, the area’s railway goods yards disappeared under the Darling Harbour Authority's tourist and entertainment complex.
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 had resolved to restore the north and west façades, as recommended by the National Trust, but did nothing, and in 1983 the City Planner recommended an immediate study because the building was decaying rapidly. At this time the City was considering the possibility of using the site for housing and in 1985 resolved to zone the are for residential use.
Procrastination and decay
At the same time the then 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 de-industrialised and neighbours started appreciating its water views.
The City was uncertain of what could be achieved at the site and in 1986 offered it for sale to Main Roads. These negotiations were dropped however, when a private company, Balmain Brewery Limited, offered to buy the site. The City agreed, provided the company would restore or replicate the incinerator, including rebuilding the chimney, which they themselves had removed to an acceptable height.
But by the time development consent was obtained in mid 1987, the elected coucillors had been replaced by City commissioners, who decided the covenant could be lifted, as the Heritage Council had no preservation plans for the building.
The proposed development had been for a small brewery and large restaurant and tavern to be incorporated within the restored incinerator structure. The commissioners urged this application be put into action fast.
But the required conservation study carried out on the project recommended 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, thanks to the inaction of the owners, Sydney City Council.
After much wrangling between developers, the Heritage Council, local residents and developers, the City approved the site’s demolition with the proviso that some artefacts be saved and used "either in the new development or in an interpretive facility on the site". The artefacts included 10 square metres of fluted tiles and the remaining frieze at the base of the chimney. Demolition was postponed until the proposed dense residential and commercial plans for the site had been approved, so the site would not stand undeveloped for an indefinite period. In April 1992 the City further reduced any obligations on the developers, Meriton Apartments, by allowing the "interpretative facility" to be placed "off the site". The final permission to demolish was issued on 6 May 1992, and the building came down the next day.
Architect Marion Griffin had thought the building would stand as a monument. It would never have occurred to her that it might not stand at all.
Based on Shirley Fitzgerald's book Sydney 1842-1992, Hale & Iremonger, 1992.
Last updated: Tuesday, 5 May 2015