Project Review: Refurbishment of the Tilbury Hotel

The Tilbury Hotel must once have been one of those classic ‘old man’ pubs – dark and smoky, full of darts, and betting, and the musty fug of time’s slow passage. It is located in the inner Sydney suburb of Woolloomoolloo, which presently balances the encroaching influence of high-end, high glamour development against an established urban character based around medium density social housing. To the regulars of an older age and era, the Tilbury today would be almost unrecognisable, comprehensively refitted and redesigned as it has been by architects Joel Farnan and Michelle Findlay. The exterior of the building may have remained largely unchanged – its heritage façade spruced up, its timber cleaned and restored, and its fabulous ornamental tiles intact. But internally, a revolution has occurred, in both architectural and sociological terms.

The changing of the sub-cultural guard can first be seen, at a superficial level, in a series of non-architectural clues. The pub’s menu, for example, is written in the rarefied language of the foodie afficionado, and one wonders how some of the pub’s old denizens would cope with risotto and gruyere, let alone tarte tatin. There are no chips to be had here, no televised sport, and no smoking indoors. The pool table is pale grey, the doors to the bathrooms are clear glass, the principal decorative effect comes from the display of stored wine. These small moments, when taken together, could be read as an archaeology of demographic drift. But the change is also rendered in architectural terms: for one thing, the spatial logic of a classical pub – of a series of enclosed and interconnected rooms – has given way to a general open expansiveness, the flooding inwards of light and space. Many of the internal divisions have been removed, and on the ground floor there is a clear visual connection across the front bar and through the depth of the building. This space has also been opened and connected with a courtyard lounge area at the back, and with its mature frangipanni tree, timber decking, and reflective pool, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more pleasant place than this to spend a sunny afternoon in Sydney.

Of course, the strategy of gutting an existing building and reversing its spatial logic is hardly a new idea. These days it can sometimes seem, in Sydney at least, like the default strategy for domestic renovations and conversions, especially of inner-urban terraces. There it often also involves blurring the boundaries between inside and outside with ambiguous hybrid spaces and diaphanous edges, and generally abandoning enclosure and isolation in favour of openness and light. This is a vast generalisation, of course, but it seems ubiquitous enough to hold some truth. What is interesting about the use of such a strategy in the renovated Tilbury Hotel is that this is a public, rather than a private, living space. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the architects, who point out that the etymology of the word ‘pub’ derives from ‘public house’, and who set out to undertake the alterations at a kind of expanded domestic scale. There are allusions to this ‘homeliness’ throughout – on the upper level in particular, which was formerly used as guest accommodation, the clustering of armchairs, coffee table, floor rug, and standard lamp around a gas fireplace is a witty reference to the pub as living space, a home away from home. And this is another clue to the building’s changed occupants and their changed mode of occupation: in spite of the cliché, there actually is a sub-culture of young urbanites, whose fridges really do only contain alcohol and left-overs of takeaway food, who live a social, nomadic life largely outside of the domestic environment, to which they return only to sleep. For such people, it is quite conceivable that a pleasant, airy, comfortable pub like this could become a second home, and this is clearly one of the intentions behind the refit.

Any new project in the hospitality industry will bear the necessary burden of novelty – whether it sets out to be ‘fashionable’ or not. The beautiful people are as fickle in Sydney as they are elsewhere, and many of them will soon be looking for a change, for the next new stylish hangout. The trick seems to be to ride out this initial and inevitable period of newness as gracefully as possible, and then to settle into place as the established local of a new generation of regulars. The architects claim that they have consciously attempted to avoid ‘trendiness’ in the design, and it is certainly true that in the quality and finish of its materials, as well as the sophistication of its design, this fitout appears to be here for the long haul. The pallette is dominated by conspicuously expensive, quality materials – leather, zinc, tile, bronze, and timber – which will develop a patina as they age; this is no cheap and flimsy surface treatment to be ripped out and rotated the moment it begins to look tired. The architects have displayed a deft hand in coherently tying the fixed elements of the refit – including a new first-floor bar and deck at the rear, and the extensively remodelled bathrooms, kitchen, and utility spaces – with a range of more transient and portable furnishings.

Farnan and Findlay custom-designed much of this furniture, as well as some of the light fittings, and worked in collaboration with bronze worker and artisan Philip Sticklen on other detailed elements such as the wine racks and water fountains. The furniture is both sumptuous and plentiful: there are leather banquettes, upholstered chaise longues, armchairs, and sufficient stools, benches and chairs to suit every possible mode or form of gathering. The architects note that their client, an experienced publican, had very clear ideas about the program, about how a pub works to facilitate or inhibit communal interaction. It is tempting to read the infinite flexibility of the furnishings – stools which can become tables, benches which can become back rests, and everything equipped with handles for increased mobility – as a reflection of the fluidity of such contemporary social relations. No longer does one go to the pub and sit at an isolated table with one’s friends, it seems to be saying. One goes to interact, to rub shoulders; and the social possibilities, the potential permutations and combinations, are endless.

Of course there is still another, larger story here, of inner-urban gentrification and displacement, and of the role of architecture and commercial development in this process. That would be a story of the new, sleek, and stylish taking over from the old, shabby, and worn. The renovated Tilbury is a new generation pub, and the ways in which the architects have designed it to occupy and alter the shell of a venerable old establishment provides a fascinating document of social and demographic change. It may eschew fashion, but there is nevertheless something timely about this fit-out, in the sense that it can be read as revealing a particular moment, and some particular and salient aspects, of contemporary society and culture in Sydney.

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