About-face: how Australian architects rethought the ‘wild west’ facade as a nod to conservation

<span>Petersham’s Majestic Theatre in Sydney’s inner-west has been renovated into an apartment block while maintaining the character of an old cinema and skating rink.</span><span>Photograph: Brett Boardman Photography</span>
Petersham’s Majestic Theatre in Sydney’s inner-west has been renovated into an apartment block while maintaining the character of an old cinema and skating rink.Photograph: Brett Boardman Photography

In the 1980s an odd kind of construction began to appear in Australia’s city centres. In response to pleas to retain heritage structures amid a building boom, compromises were struck that preserved the facade of an old building typically two or three storeys high, dwarfed by a glass and steel high-rise behind it.

It was a concession to history rarely offered during the demolitions of the 1950s and 60s, but Hannah Tribe, the principal architect and founder of Tribe Studio, calls it “empty facadism”.

“We were just keeping a kind of wild west, thin amount of heritage fabric to enliven the street and respect the quality of craftsmanship,” she says.

“It felt very pastiche, like wearing a mask.”

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By 1992 the National Trust had established a policy on facadism, concluding that it was “a political compromise between demolition and preservation” and “not a conservation process”.

Now, with a greater appreciation for the possibilities (and emissions benefits) of adaptive reuse, architects have come up with a much wider variety of ways to integrate older structures that have outlived their original purpose. But no one would argue that they have all been successful.

Paul Downton, a retired architect and the author of Ecopolis: Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate, says there is a “lack of imagination” in the way historic buildings and facades are incorporated into large new developments.

“It’s almost as if they assume you don’t look up too much,” he says.

Downton says plans for the 32-storey redevelopment of Adelaide’s heritage-listed Newmarket Hotel are a prime example of design that is out of touch with the building it is trying to preserve.

“It’s not saying hello, it’s not shaking hands, it’s not trying to dress in some similar way to say that they belong to the same club,” he says.

“It’s just wildly different.”

The Newmarket is not the first heritage dispute in Adelaide. In 2020, community opposition to plans for a similarly large redevelopment, which would have led to the demolition of the art deco Sands McDougall building, resulted in the heritage listing of the intricate facade. It is now a small piece of a 15-storey glass shopping centre.

How much to keep?

The National Trust recommends minimum retention standards for facades, including keeping visible sidewalls and retaining significant internal features such as stairs. Also commonly recommended is the use of setbacks – the retention of some structure behind the facade, anywhere from 10 metres in depth on small industrial sites and shops, to up to 30% of the depth of larger buildings.

But for Philip Thalis, the founding architect at Hills Thalis, it is not always about rules.

“We favour not mandating setbacks generally,” Thalis says.

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“We favour an architectural relationship between the new and the old that has both respect and distinction, and that’s quite hard to do.

“It’s very rare that just keeping the facade is a meaningful thing. Buildings are three-dimensional objects so it’s important to keep the facade as part of the three- dimensional fabric of the building.”

Thalis, who won the this year’s Australia Institute of Architects gold medal, says there are two main tendencies when approaching heritage adaptations: either the new is a copy made to look exactly like the old, or it is the opposite, clearly distinguishable from the existing building.

But he says this formula is simplistic and misguided.

“There are certain times when you should be more respectful and there are certain times when you can afford to be braver,” he says.

“It really does depend on the quality in the form and the extent of change that you’re proposing.”

The Hills Thalis restoration of the Majestic Theatre in the Sydney suburb of Petersham was one opportunity for bravery.

Built as a theatre in 1921, it became a cinema in 1953, then a roller skating rink in 1979, before closing in 2003 and lying vacant for almost a decade.

New life came in the form of apartments. Large aluminium screens on balconies that face laneways make way for light to flood the living space. The internal atmosphere of the building is retained, with remnant stairs, red radiators and old skating rink signs in the foyer. Stained glass windows on the theatre’s facade, covered over during the building’s time as a cinema, were also restored.

Such adventurous conservation projects require confidence and sophistication, Thalis says.

“People are becoming box-ticking rule appliers, rather than actually having a mature, detached, informed judgment.

“You need to think, really, from first principles.”

Building on the past

Tribe says Australia’s facades are precious not only for their aesthetic and character, but for the labour and construction of the build, from stone masonry to window joinery that “just doesn’t exist any more”.

In George Street, one of the main streets of the Sydney CBD, Tribe Studio is about to begin an extension to a heritage-listed Victorian facade, featuring a setback terrace, before extending the building up 14 storeys in line with neighbouring buildings.

Setback recommendations may aim to stop facades being ruined, but Tribe says they can “look stupid”, particularly in street mall strips. George Street will not be one.

“In a lot of cases … it sends structure through a part of the original fabric that probably doesn’t want it,” she says.

“To have big columns coming through at some weird predetermined setback level might not suit the existing structure.”

Tribe hopes the building’s stone additions will catch golden hour like historic sandstone around the CBD, and says buildings should express and respect the city’s colonial and pre-colonial past, as well as offering optimism for the future.

There are examples that reach for the stars.

An old chambers building in Melbourne was added to and became a new Hilton hotel. Taking account of neighbouring buildings brings similar considerations into play even when there is no possibility of keeping a facade. An entirely new build in Sydney by Tony Owen Partners mirrors the surrounding brick warehouses: its first three commercial floors were built to match the height and style of the adjacent heritage-listed warehouses, as well as an extension to house modern apartments with mosaic windows rising above.\

Tribe’s restoration of a non-heritage listed substation in Darlinghurst is another high achiever, winning several heritage awards in 2019.

Opposite an old printing warehouse, the substation’s brick facade now features an extension made of glass bricks instead of clay ones, and extends upwards directly in line with the building’s original profile.

“Because there’s an electrical substation, at the risk of being a bit naff and literal, we wanted it to glow, like a lantern, to be a real celebration of night-time light,” says Tribe.

“We thought it would be a way of creating safe night-time access for people … for young women going home at night.”

The 50 sq m footprint remains, with three storeys “shoehorned” into the site. If setbacks on heritage facades were mandatory, there would have been next to no living space available to restore, and the night-time glow would not extend to the street.

“I want to make buildings that people look back at in 200 years’ time and say: you know, this is still relevant,” Tribe says. “Let’s keep this.”