Precinct Energy Project

Sep 2, 2013
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Photography by John Gollings
  • Designer
  • Architect PHTR Architects

“Less than half the carbon emissions of a coal-fired power station, twice the efficiency of a typical gas-fired power station…” How persistent since the oil crisis of the 1970s has been the dream of a ‘small is beautiful’ future? Architecture students in the 1960s fantasised – along with members of Archigram – of a world of distributed ‘plug in’ energy sources. While the world has seemingly rolled ahead on the old centralised paradigms, with only computing and information technology running counter, that other future is now at last welling up around us. It seems there are more solar cells on suburban roofs every day, and now here at last in Australia, in Dandenong, as all over Europe, there is a district developed around its own pocket power generator, converting natural gas to electricity and pumping the resulting hot water to the surrounding buildings, where absorption chillers provide cooling when heating is not required.

Engine rooms in the building’s recesses


What then does the new age finally dawning look like? Dandenong is Melbourne’s long underprivileged central business district twin, being rejuvenated by Places Victoria, a state development agency with, in this instance, the vision to embrace the new. Seeking the necessary pipe minimising site central to the redeveloped civic and commercial heart of the city, PHTR Architects were asked to establish whether the power station could be housed in a retained but derelict Masonic Hall. This proved to be an uneconomic proposition, and the architects, expertly shepherded by Nick Shashkoff of Places Victoria, were given three days to develop a design for the cleared site, immediately behind the Masonic Hall.

Plant room services


The new site, on the corner of the newly landscaped Station North Plaza and the City Street Mall leading to the new municipal centre, is in direct line of sight from the railway station. It is a pivot to the public space of the new city. The facade of the old Masonic Hall has the public face that classicism so readily affords, but it faces away.

The architects were asked to celebrate the civic import of this position and also to communicate to the passing public the excitement of this new form of power generation. How long did the design take? Three days. The principles of the design were already known: two rectangular engine rooms at the lower level, with a removable wall to allow the engines to be installed in two stages and to be removed for servicing. An upper level for boilers, another upper level housing radiators to reject heat that is not utilised by the precinct heating system; banks of air intakes and attenuators, acoustic attenuating devices – concrete walls, massive insulation and isolation, control rooms. So the program requirements of two stacked rectangles, with manifolds of ducting at one end and vertically articulated piping fell readily into place.

A Rorschach test image as facade ornamentation


The civic and didactic design took longer to prepare. Around 50 years of thinking backs the design. Walter Benjamin (Arcades Project, 1927–1940), Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964), Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle, 1967) amongst others have been haunting the imagination of Toby Reed (principal at PHTR Architects), whose filmmaking background gives him profound insight into how these thinkers have observed and theorised the changing relations between us and space.

The artists who worked their way through these changes also affect Reed – Andy Warhol (The Factory), Claes Oldenburg (large-scale sculpture proposals – Soft Light Switches, 1964, Giant 3-Way Plug, 1970), Robert Rauschenberg incorporating found popular objects into assemblages and Richard Hamilton ennobling everyday domestic objects, such as a pop-up toaster – all dwell in Reed’s imagination.

North elevation along designated new lane


Rather, as the Masonic Hall has a classical face, Reed faced the long sides of the engine house with perforated screens, one to be read from the railway station,
the other facing what will eventually be a laneway. The forward screen presents a ‘free association’ of abstracted but recognisable elements. Through more transparent bubbles, elbows of pipework can be seen. And running along this face is a LED-messaging canopy. Here too, on the left-hand corner as you approach from the station, there is a large, human-scale socket outlet sculpture. Just around the corner beyond this, on the angled artificial turf demountable wall of engine room 2 is a giant double switch sculpture. These are both enamelled aluminium. The rear screen uses engineering symbols to diagram the processes at work inside, a diagram culminating in a second over-sized socket on the diagonally opposite corner of engine room 1.

Plant room services


The two boiler houses sit alongside each other, but one is canted forward, the other back, as if to suggest that they might work against each other on a crank shaft. Inside there is a palpable excitement that comes from seeing a process in its entirety. The currently installed engine has the scale of a steam engine. It has a persona, a quality that giant plants have lost as we regard them as abstract ‘infrastructure’. The minder of the plant, engineer Florin, talks of them with the sort of affection we remember from Thomas The Tank Engine books. The feeder ducts are lined with beautifully crafted columns of attenuators, making miniature but massive architectures, and these thrill the architects as much as the expanses of aluminium foil that recall US artist Andy Warhol’s Factory.

This remarkable project, a wonderful achievement for Places Victoria, has been decades in the making. How fortunate that project leader Nick Shashkoff found these architects for the project and that his board backed the design almost without hesitation, and that it was built as designed, in those three days.

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