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Expansive and raw – Sydney’s newly restored Walsh Bay Arts Precinct

Pier 2/3 at the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct has been beautifully restored by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects. Director Peter Tonkin walks us through it.

Expansive and raw – Sydney’s newly restored Walsh Bay Arts Precinct

The restoration of Pier 2/3 at the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct has reached completion, with the new facilities opening their doors in March.

Designed by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, the work has seen an old wool shed at Dawes Point restored into a state-of-the-art cultural institution. The pier has provided a home to a trio of much-loved Sydney arts institutions: The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Theatre for Young People and Bell Shakespeare.

The revitalisation project is part of a pipeline of projects undertaken by Create NSW to invigorate the harbour city. It provides a premier arts destination that will become renowned on a national and global scale, and will give innovative opportunities to cultural works.

Tonkin Zulaikha Greer director, Peter Tonkin, was glowing in his praise for the completed project.

“I think it looks amazing. It’s such a big project that you can’t sum it up in a few words. The biggest thing is that it still feels like an industrial wharf. It feels expansive, as opposed to being divided into little boxes, which in fact it is,” he says.

“It’s a whole series of very heavily air conditioned and acoustically sealed boxes. And the effort on behalf of all stakeholders have ensured it remains a big timber wharf.”

“TZG retained and reused a number of existing elements, looking to maintain and honour the history of the pier.

“It was essential to keep the character. There’s nothing like these buildings anywhere. Sydney has got a bunch of these wharves currently being demolished. They’re just so unique, you couldn’t build them now. They become a survivor of a particular phase.

“They were beautifully designed at time, incredibly efficient for loading stuff onto ships, and they have a completely different use. But you want to keep that rawness, that industrial character, the beauty of the timber.”

Large sections of the roof were raised to increase usable performance space and accommodate the required lighting and sound equipment, and retractable seating banks were installed to deliver flexible performance spaces.

Minister for the Arts, Ben Franklin, says the Perrottet Government is delighted to unveil the space.

“After two years of carefully transforming an empty wool store into a premium 21st century space for the arts, Pier 2/3 welcomes the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Theatre for Young People and Bell Shakespeare as its new resident companies,” he says.

“I look forward to seeing the reactivation of the Precinct from March when the resident arts companies on Pier 2/3 welcome audiences and participants into their new spaces – including the Biennale of Sydney, in residence at Pier 2/3 until June. The evolving story of Walsh Bay Arts Precinct now shifts into the hands of the many artists who will transform this precinct in new and unforgettable ways.”

TZG’s expertise in delivering projects in both a heritage-listed and arts context made them the ideal candidate to refresh the space. Tonkin believes it was crucial to enhance the visitor experience.

“I think Viv Fraser back in the 80s when he put the theatre at the end of Pier 4/5 for Sydney Theatre company grasped the fact that these are big buildings and you need to experience the size of them to appreciate them. And so that’s one of the things we were trying to do. We made the architectural promenade as Corbusier put it as interesting as possible, so you move through and around and up,” he says.

“We used nice materials in the public spaces that reflect the industrial character without trying to mimic it, and we tried to grasp an air of theatricality, the rich brass, timber and mirrors.”

On giving three of Sydney’s favourite cultural institutions a forever home, Tonkin is succinct.

“It’s great and they’re all so happy. I think that’s what really makes jobs like this worthwhile. The performing arts companies, the performers, the staff, they’re all lovely here and for mine that’s the reward.”

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian Theatre for Young People and Bell Shakespeare are now rehearsing and practicing in their new spaces at Pier 2/3, with visitors able to attend events in just a few short weeks.

The 23rd Biennale of Sydney, presented until 13 June 2022, has a number of art installations located at Pier 2/3, where audiences will be able to experience international and Australian artists as part of its free program.

Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects

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