CarriageWorks at the old Eveleigh Rail Yards, near Sydney’s Redfern Railway Station by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG), is a superb example of the adaptive reuse of a former industrial building. Recipient of the prestigious Greenway Award for Heritage at the recent Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter awards along with another award in the Public Architecture category, it is a major addition both to the architectural and performing arts landscapes of Sydney.
The project was originally proposed as a bookend with the city’s other great performance space, the Sydney Opera House. If that venue is primarily home to the establishment-high-end high-culture orchestral, operatic and dramatic performances-then CarriageWorks was to take the opposite extreme, accommodating contemporary circus, physical and street theatre and experimental dance. With this more gritty, urban and counter-cultural body of work to accommodate, a disused industrial building offered a perfect opportunity.
But there was also plenty to lose here. It would have been easy to spoil this building, to obscure the awe-inspiring scale of heavy industrial production, to sanitise the life out of it through reconstruction or over-zealous conservation, to make the whole thing too fussy or too cute. Sometimes the challenge for an architect lies in restraint, in knowing when not to intervene or in doing just enough to render a building usable without losing its individual character and history. And in this case, the architect has managed this balance, opening a bold and forthright yet respectful conversation between the current and original building fabric.
New concrete ‘boxes’ or ‘carriages’ have been disposed around the former factory floor, housing three new performance spaces of varying sizes, a public bar, cafe and amenities, rehearsal rooms, offices and all the associated back-of-house spaces required by a major performance venue. What is really clever about these insertions-carved and cut away as the need arises-is that they happen within the building’s existing structural grid. The original cast-iron columns still march back through the building, now in a canyon between towering concrete walls, and this dramatic new colonnaded space acts as circulation as well as a sometime exhibition and performance zone.
Tim Greer, principal at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects (TZG), says that this strategy of making every space flexible, a potential stage, was part of the architects’ broader strategy: to think differently about the theatre typology, to blur the boundaries between public and private, back and front of house, patron and performer. Greer observes that this desire to make a genuinely non-hierarchical performance space particularly suited the specific kinds of work staged here. Street-theatre performers, for instance, are accustomed to being resourceful and building their own sets in situ.
There are three designated performance spaces, named according to the numbering of ‘bays’ on the original factory floor, and the foyer can also be used as another stage. Likewise the spaces between the rehearsal rooms have been left deliberately residual and unplanned, open to endless possibilities. However, the idea has its boldest realisation in the three levels of balconies overlooking the main entry and foyer, which work as audience assembly and circulation spaces-and equally as platforms for performance as well as showcases for the crowd itself as a spectacle. This idea of the audience as part of the show, of the theatre experience beginning the moment you walk in the door, has many historical precedents. For example in his design for the Paris Opera, completed in 1874, architect Charles Garnier famously made the entry foyer and sweeping public stairway into as much of a dramatic space as the stage.
CarriageWorks extends some of this theatricality to its urban strategy, with an inclined viewing platform off the street and new entry ‘sign’ constructed of reused trusses in an amusing allusion to the cancan. Standing beneath it, looking towards the front façade with its dramatic new red-orange entry, it is fascinating to see that the surface of the dark brick walls remains stained and weathered, with even a stringy encrustation of electricity wires left in place. This willingness to leave a building slightly disordered and worn is rare among architects.
This commendable lightness of touch has allowed the building to retain its character-its lived-in, grungy liveliness. Indeed this whole project is a model of progressive, adventurous, engaging heritage architecture.
Since opening, the building has not only been the location for arts performances and festivals but is one of the hottest venues in town for launches, events and parties. And this is because this building is super-cool. Whoever said that heritage architecture was boring and conservative was completely wrong. CarriageWorks proves its street-cred beyond any doubt.