Inside the Collection

Inspired by an Incinerator

Exterior crumbling walls Pyrmont incinerator building with scaffolding
Pyrmont Incinerator. Image Powerhouse Museum 1992

Well not just any incinerator. The Pyrmont incinerator was rather special, it was one designed by Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) in 1935. Memorable on the Pyrmont skyline for fifty years the incinerator or reverberator has inspired responses from a variety of artists even after its removal from the landscape.

The Pyrmont incinerator was one of the largest and grandest in design and one of the last designed by Griffin before leaving Australia for India in 1935 where he died in 1937. The Griffin Mahoneys (Marion Mahoney 1871-1961) played an important part in bringing new and individual design ideas to Australia, specifically to Sydney (and of course Canberra) in the 1920s and 30s with the Castlecrag development and the municipal incinerators.

At the incinerators demolition in 1992 the Museum was there filming, photographing and collecting the tiles that covered the incinerator and the massive gates.
Recently a Melbourne artist Nicholas Mangan has been attracted to record the tiles as part of his own art work scheduled for an exhibition at Artspace in April 2011.

Filming a Pyrmont Incinerator tile at the Castle Hill Discovery Centre
Filming a Pyrmont Incinerator tile at the Castle Hill Discovery Centre

Nicholas says

My attraction to the Walter Burley Griffin Pyrmont incinerator began with an image from the Powerhouse Museum archives of the building in a state of severe decay. Although I knew the building was situated in inner Sydney on the once industrial waterfront it appeared displaced.

Only hours before the building was demolished staff from the Powerhouse Museum were able to pry some of the ornamental elements from the buildings façade.

Detail of the Pyrmont Incinerator tiles, displaying geometric patterns
Detail of the Pyrmont Incinerator tiles, Powerhouse Museum 1992

I began to think about a project concerned with the history of this building departing from this one particular image. I photocopied the image and pinned it to the wall of my studio. There was something very Romantized/picturesque about the image in the way the building was framed, it also spoke to me about lament – About the attempt to capture the passing of a moment, out of context and somehow out of time.

My original idea was to tell the story of the demolition of the Pyrmont incinerator though the photocopied achieve material and through the function of a photocopier itself; drawing a connection through carbon -the incinerator reducing matter to carbon and a photocopier using carbon to reproduce.

The ornamental relief of the Pyrmont incinerator was heavily inspired by pre Columbian architecture of Meso America.
Architectural historians have tied Griffin’s references to the “Mayan Palace of the Governor” of Uxmal in Yucatan, Mexico. Griffin had in fact traveled to the Yucatan on a field trip. In its last days before being demolished the Pyrmont incinerator’s resemblance to a Mayan ruin is uncanny. Overgrown in tundra shrubs and trees, crumbling and covered in it’s own sacrificial soot and ash.

Different external angle of the Pyrmont Incinerator
Pyrmont Incinerator. Image: Powerhouse Museum, 1992

Another artist who was inspired by the Incinerator was jeweller Nicholas Rohan, who looked at the delicate patterns and embellishments on the concrete tiles of the surfaces of the incinerator. Rohan created created a series of brooches and cuff links

White Minimalist brooches based on the exterior building of the Pyrmont Incinerator made by Rohan Nicol
2005/181/1 Brooches (3), ‘Marion and Walter Burley Griffin Reverberatory Incinerator Series’, bone / metal, designed and made by Rohan Nicol, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, 2004 – 2005 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The incinerators sculptural form is reflected in the shape of the pieces. The material used is animal leg bone referring to the trail of cattle which were herded past the incinerator on their way to the abattoirs on Glebe Island

Artist Jane Bennett whose paintings documented the industrial landscape of the Pyrmont peninsula from 1986-1996 comments on the rapid changes in the area, including the demolition of the Incinerator.

The bulldozers arrived on a public holiday, I still thought someone was going to stop it because I knew it was so controversial I couldn’t believe what’s happened. I did a large charcoal drawing showing the first bite of the bulldozer. When I came back from overseas in 1988 everything had been scraped clean. Not just a case of a couple of apartment blocks being built. The whole topography had changed. It started with the Walter Burley Griffin incinerator being pulled down.

Pyrmont Incinerator painting of exterior by Jane Bennett, 1991
Pyrmont Incinerator painted by Jane Bennett, 1991

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