The Pyrmont Incinerator
“And then disappearing…”
I was able to locate very little audio-visual recordings of this building. But I know theyâ??re out there somewhere…
The Pyrmont Incinerator was designed by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin in collaboration with his wife, Marion Mahoney Griffin. Completed in 1936 and demolished in 1992, the building sadly went the way of the refuse it once annihilated.
The Incinerator’s basic function – to get rid of the city’s waste – was unglamorous. But the Burley Griffins the building represented the highest possible accomplishment of architecture, as a fixed embodiment of elemental nature. As befitted such a noble purpose, the Burley Griffins incorporated richly decorative detailed work based on Aztec motifs into the buildings’ design.
At the height of its activity the Incinerator would process more than 100 truckloads per day, each containing over eleven cubic metres of refuse. But with the post-war transformation of inner city Sydney, in 1971 the Incinerator was shut down, and after that it was left to rot. In 1992 the crumbling ruin that had dominated the Pyrmont foreshore for decades was demolished to make way for the Meriton apartments.
Strongly influenced by the ideas of anthroposophy, Walter Burley Griffin was captivated by the very notion of a reverberatory, the â??alpha-omegaâ?? method of waste disposal, the final expression and dissolution of Matter, in which â??matter is practically reduced to primeval elements â?? heat, light, sound and magnetismâ??. According to Marion Mahoney, wife, lifelong professional partner and architect, and biographer of Burley Griffinâ??s antipodean accomplishments:
The Sydney Incinerator erected on the high rock promontory of Piermont [sic] will stand we think as an historical record of 20th century architecture. It is as beautiful, as majestic as unique as any of the historical records of the past. Historically it records the basic fact of the 19th Century civilisation later emphasised by the smashing of the atom.
The Incinerator did not seek to overcome nature, but simply to understand its truth as expressed through its essential forms, tuned to the evidence that time bestows:
The four formative forces which have already manifested in nature express themselves in four basic forms: the Circular, the Triangular, the Wave [or Crescent] and the Rectangular. Within this building, [which is] a powerful expression of substantiality, matter reverses its steps moving from solid to liquid to light to heat and disappears. [In reverberation] it would absurd to say that something has been destroyed (other than form or appearance).
The physical structure of the waste disposal unit was in such a way also emblematic of the ideas of Louis Sullivan, mentor to Burley Griffin throughout the 1920s, who believed the mantra that form must follow function. As such the purpose of its design was to maximise efficient waste disposal â?? and as a result was far more cost-effective than any competing design.
In 1971 the building was closed, and peculiarly, no other use could be found for its ravenous furnaces. Ravaged by rain from without and heat from within, the Incinerator was deemed irreparable, insolvent, and demolished in 1992 amid howls of protest not just from Sydney-siders, but Griffin enthusiasts throughout the globe.
Today the grounds of the Incinerator are inhabited by the Meriton apartments. Even in the closing of the century no trace – let alone ruins – remained of this â??historical record of 20th century architectureâ??, save some ornamental tiles salvaged from the rubble on display at Sydneyâ??s Powerhouse Museum.
Further reading: Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, Edited by Anne Watson, Powerhouse Publishing Sydney, 1996.