Repurposing old and historic buildings is nothing new when it comes to both urban and rural communities. Go to any Australian country town and you are more than likely to find an old post office or bank that has been converted to a coffee shop or b’n’b. In the big cities many fine old buildings have been spared the wrecker’s ball by taking on a new life, often far removed from their original use.
Look around Sydney and you will see many examples of buildings reborn. The nine storey Marcus Clark structure at Railway Square, with its distinctive central dome, was once one of this city’s finest department stores. Originally built in 1928, it was acquired by the Sydney Technical College in 1966 and now houses a bustling TAFE complex. The current Downing Centre courts had a similar retail life as the European inspired Mark Foys store, complete with its landmark piazza and an upper level ballroom.
We usually associate court buildings with monolithic Victorian style edifices and the Downing Centre, despite a number of renovations, still looks very much like a swishy up market department store. However the heritage listed building now serves a major legal function with its Liverpool Street stairs the scene of many pre and post court interviews, captured by the omnipresent TV camera crews.
Last week we learnt of a similar rebirthing in the lockdown city of Melbourne with Palace Cinemas announcing the opening of a 15 screen cinema complex in Coburg’s once notorious Pentridge Prison. Some two million dollars has been injected into a restoration of the old hellhole which will include a 6,500 metre piazza and historic reminders of the jail’s somewhat sordid past.
Not surprisingly they have promised a mini festival of ‘prison’ movies, like Shawshank Redemption and Chopper to mark the opening but the prison/cinema complex could also serve a new punitive function. Rather than fine citizens for not wearing masks and other COVID indiscretions, magistrates could sentence the guilty to prolonged screenings of certain movies, a kind of cultural flogging that would certainly act as a deterrent. Fail to socially distance and you could find yourself confined to a cell watching 20 consecutive screenings of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia or every Vin Diesel movie ever made. And no popcorn or choc-tops for the wicked.
Back here in Sydney the perfect opportunity has arisen for some creative rebirthing before an imposing new structure has even been opened. James Packer’s phallic like monument to greed and excess at Barangaroo has a huge question mark hovering above its 75 storeys. If Crown are declared unfit to hold a casino licence in Sydney, the building could soon become a $2.2 billion white elephant.
If a fire sale follows, the State Government should be first in line to snap up the building and turn it into either public housing or subsidised accommodation for essential workers, like those health personnel who have performed so tirelessly during the current pandemic. Rename the tower, the ‘Berejiklian’ (as in the Berejiklian at Barangaroo – a nice ring eh), and promote it as an everlasting gift to the people of NSW for their COVID co-operation.
There’s probably not a building standing in Sydney today, that sometime in the future might find itself reinvented to house a totally different facility. Even the Sydney Town hall might morph into a giant pizza hut. The State Government should move now, snap up Packer’s tower of Babel, and repent for the sin of the sale of the Sirius building at the Rocks.