But the new building is just the tip of this iceberg-of-many-parts. In Parramatta, it will demolish some of that city’s dwindling A-grade listed heritage, specifically the Italianate villa, Willow Grove, and the handsome, seven-part St George’s Terrace.
In Ultimo, it destroys both the elegant adaptive re-use that is the 1988 Bicentenary Powerhouse and the massive saw-tooth tram-sheds that house its priceless collection. The only heritage retained on a site that once centred Sydney’s industrial revolution is the 19th century engine house. What will it be, functionally? Oh, a “cultural presence”.
No surprise, then, that the scheme has garnered international opprobrium. The Powerhouse began with Sydney’s fabulous Garden Palace in the Botanic Gardens. Instigated by Prince Albert as a hymn to design, technology and the decorative arts, it was built in 1879 but burnt down in 1882 with the loss of inestimable treasures. Ten years later it re-emerged as the Technological Museum, in William Kemp’s wonderful Arts-and-Crafts-style buildings on Harris Street (now TAFE) in Ultimo.
This established Ultimo’s science, tech and education precinct, since reinforced by the University of Techonology Sydney, the ABC, the expanded TAFE and the 1988 Bicentennial Powerhouse, all linked by the new Goods Line walkway.
The Bicentennial building, designed by the Government Architect, housed a thrilling collection of working steam engines. Forget the nonsense of interactive screens. We all have those. At the Powerhouse, with its purpose-built boiler-fed steam system, you could watch the great piston-rods chugging and flywheels turning.
Naturally, this has been neglected of late, as has so much of the institution. But in Parramatta, at best, these venerable machines will run at the flick of a switch.
“Sad and unnecessary … shameful” was October’s verdict on the Powerhouse relocation from The Burlington Magazine – the world’s oldest English-language arts journal. It is far from alone.
A 2017 NSW parliamentary inquiry called the move an “act of vandalism”. Recommending instead a new Parramatta Powerhouse “satellite”, it lambasted the government for undue haste absent a business case. When, at last, the government produced a “final business case” the inquiry – in February this year – found it inadequate, failing to comply even with Treasury’s own guidelines.
The inquiry also noted that, while the existing estimate (currently $1.179 billion) is immense, the true costs are likely to blow out further still to $1.5 billion. This is partly because the collection itself is terribly difficult to move – especially the three prize exhibits: the huge and priceless Boulton and Watt Steam Engine (1785), our first-ever train, No.1 Locomotive (1855) and Frigate Bird II, the Catalina flying boat (1944), said to be the heaviest aircraft ever hung in a museum.
So who supports the move? Apart from David Borger, who heads the Western Sydney Business Chamber and was parachuted onto the Powerhouse Board by the Berejikianistas late last year, the Parramatta locals don’t. The North Parramatta Residents Action Group is vocally opposed, in particular to the demolitions.
This is hardly surprising, since the Parramatta Cultural Plan, built on 18 months’ intensive consultation, noted that Parramatta people wanted an art gallery. They also want Parramatta to develop “its own unique cultural identity drawn from the history of the area” and ensure that “Parramatta’s heritage is a cornerstone of future development”.
The new Powerhouse does none of that. It’s an overblown cuckoo in the nest, demolishing local history and equally disrespecting the history of inner Sydney for an institution wholly disassociated from its new richly historic site, locality and city.
But there’s also this. Confident cultures don’t trash existing institutions. They feed them. Cultures with a sense of their future know that it is rooted in the past, so they build, evolve, cultivate and diversify their museums. Think Smithsonian. Think Guggenheim. Think Tate. Museums these days have branches all over the world, using them to enrich other cultures and enhance their own brand.
It’s not as though we have such a surfeit of cultural institutions we can happily drop a few. As the Committee for Sydney noted in November, Sydney ranks 31 out of 33 peer cities in terms of number of museums. It’s almost as though our government, oblivious to both public opinion and expert advice, is determined to make Sydney the cultureless desert of colonial legend.
A far better, cheaper, solution would be to keep and upgrade the existing Powerhouse. Add a separate fashion museum by all means – imagine, for example, the fabulous, current Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson show in the equally fabulous (and still undeveloped) Lands Department building on Bridge Street. Build a site-specific Parramatta Contemporary or hugely overdue Parramatta Museum. Keep, love and use, Parramatta’s precious heritage.
They won’t do this. Why not? Hmm. Could it relate, possibly, to the parallel proposal to flog the Ultimo site for two or more inner-city resi-towers? For that is Gladys’ real Christmas present to Sydney.
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).