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By Julie Power
Mar 10, 2021

Depending on who you ask, the SubStation No. 164 redevelopment on Sydney’s Clarence Street floats like a thought bubble, a glass sculpture, a comma or a water cooler above two solid heritage buildings.

Adam Lindsay, the executive director of Sydney Living Museum and NSW State Archives, said the new seven storey curved glass building was beautiful after a hard hat tour on Sunday.

The project is expected to be finished next month. The office building is supported with a cantilever, and anchored in the old. But even if the old buildings below were demolished, the new building would stay aloft.

Is it a thought bubble, a comma or a water cooler? The SubStation No. 164 redesign at 183-185 Clarence Street. 

The power station and old spirit warehouse will accommodate retailers, coffee shops and cultural events.

Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore said she could see the restored power station’s 12-metre-high machine hall, with its original subway tiles and massive gantry hanging, being used for events.

“Imagine Shakespeare down there,” she said.

The walls of the old machine hall also feature modern circular glass viewing platforms, a nod to the new building above.

Before the band AC/DC – named for alternating current/direct current – was even a thing, SubStation No. 164 was a battlefield for the power wars.

In the early 20th century, the City of Sydney opted to use DC power, and No. 164 was one of five converters built to convert the AC power being generated at Pyrmont into DC power for the city’s lights. After AC won, the lights went out at No. 164 in 1985.

Jono Cottee, the development director at construction firm Built, said many people had over the decades unsuccessfully tried to redevelop the two sites at 183-185 Clarence Street.

Adding to the difficulty was the sites have different levels, street frontages and addresses – one on Kent Street and the other on Clarence.

A winning proposal by fjmt (Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp) architecture firm proposed to restore the heritage buildings and use a giant cantilever to create one above.

Mr Cottee described it as “the anti-extension of a heritage building below rather than just building directly below”.

“It deliberately floats, it’s modern and it sits above, respecting the items below. The existing buildings are left raw, pared and stripped back,” he said.

“There is no fake heritage.”

The decision to retain the heritage facade, floors and columns would also result in a 24 per cent reduction in embodied carbon compared to conventional construction, said Clare Gallagher, the environmental manager at Built, the project’s builder.

In an interview with Sydney Living Museums, she said with so much of cities already built, it was becoming rarer to work on a ‘clean slate’ to create a sustainable building.

The reuse of the heritage buildings and much of the internal building fabric preserved the heritage and contributed to a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of the redevelopment.

“In addition to being textural, character-filled features that are rarely seen in architecture today, if we were to replace the brickwork, steel beams, and timber floors it would create an immense environmental impact,” Ms Gallagher said.

Read more on SMH here.