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Written by: Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, Photography: Brett Boardman
Architecture can be both a creator and a mirror of culture – the two, over time, are indivisible. As a part of the culture of Sydney for over 100 years, the former Burton Street Tabernacle grew as its community developed and saw, probably at its zenith, the inspiration of Arthur Stace to write in copperplate across the streets of Sydney, the word ‘Eternity’ that he had heard ‘ringing in his ears’ at a sermon in the church. As the population of Darlinghurst changed, the church fell into disuse and disrepair. Marking this cultural shift, the site was acquired by the City of Sydney for a renewed community-focused purpose.
The city’s cultural and strategic teams worked with local arts providers to determine the use – and occupant – of the old church – a small, speciality drama theatre for the burgeoning but underaccommodated Darlinghurst Theatre Company. As the project direction was set, three aspects of ‘culture’ became fundamental to the design, construction and management of the place: culture and heritage, culture and performance, culture and the community.
As a listed Heritage item, Heritage conservation was a clear determinant of the project, one that TZG was keen to see as a celebratory and positive aspect, not a laborious constraint, which is an approach that has informed our work for over 20 years. That it was a constraint to the complex and diverse program required of a performance space became obvious as the early planning was developed, in all regards.
Simply fitting the required number of seats within the lovely room of the original church was a difficult task, while the sheer amount of plant and soundproofing necessary for an inner-city theatre was even harder. Hopefully this delicate juggling of conserved fabric and new engineering is not a distraction to the appreciation of the complete work, with the rich history of the place sufficiently evident in the reused elements, patinated surfaces and conserved decoration of the Playhouse.
The performing arts are one of the major definers of culture and so a new theatre is an event to be celebrated, demanding not only the best possible relationship between actor and audience, quality acoustics and sightlines, but a sense of the drama of the event itself, a processional and rich journey from the outside world to the world of the play. This was a major design aspiration for the Playhouse, created by reworking a dank and dark basement into a new multi-level foyer, where the audience plays out its own drama of social interaction and anticipation.
Culture is the product of a healthy, vibrant and engaged community and the city has proven a very successful agent in fostering local communities with a statewide focus. The innovative Darlinghurst Theatre Company had proved its success in its old premises and had a clearly articulated agenda for the new space, one that not only brought new drama to a wide audience, but also included teaching, events and outside theatre use as important parts of its program. By opening up the building to the civic space of Burton Street, soon to be enhanced by a revitalised community centre and streetscape improvements, this connection to the locale is celebrated in the architecture. By the careful conservation of the fine freestyle classical exterior of the building, uniquely executed in polychrome brickwork, the long-standing public role of the building remains.
The Eternity Playhouse brought together a committed client, an articulate and passionate user and a durable and well-suited piece of good Victorian architecture. It was a great experience for TZG, the team of consultants and the builder, and we hope it will stand as a symbol of Sydney’s culture for many years to come.
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