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Willoughby Incinerator revived

The Willoughby Incinerator by Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls is adapted as an artist’s studio, gallery and cafe.

Design Statement

The Willoughby Incinerator, completed in 1934, is a remarkable piece of early Australian industrial heritage. Designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls, the building is sited at the edge of what is now the Willoughby Centennial Parklands.

The building terminated incineration in 1967 and lay dormant until undergoing adaptive reuse works in the early 1980s to convert the building into first a restaurant and then a small office building. Vandals, fire, a lightning strike (that forced the removal of the ornate chimney top) and a series of unsympathetic additions all badly damaged the original fabric of the building. In 2006 SJB and GML were appointed by Willoughby Council to prepare documentation for the adaptive reuse of the badly damaged and maligned building.

No “as built” drawings were ever completed, so the building was 3D-modelled from old and various other bits of information. This initial phase of “CSI Architecture” enabled a clear understanding of the original building, what may have laid beneath the additions made in the 1980s and the potential of the spaces once these unsympathetic additions were removed. Importantly the modeling of the building enabled the clear and concise communication of the building’s potential to a huge variety of stakeholders; Walter Burley Griffin Historical Society, NSW Heritage Council, the local community, the client, council officers, councilors, consultants and the builder appointed for the demolition and rectification works.

The new gallery interior.

Image: Brent Winstone

In its original state, the incinerator was a symbol of sustainability – removing the dumping of waste into waterways and using the production of heat (generated in the incineration process) to create steam for bitumen boilers and/or the sterilizing of household sanitary pans. In 2012, the incinerator is once again a golden example of sustainable practice. The building is small. There is no air conditioning and it can be occupied without the use of lighting most of the day due to its small footprint and shallow plan. This is an active building, if you are cold you put on a jumper, if you are warm you take one off. The gallery keeps a reasonably stable temperature due to the massive nature of the original stone and concrete building materials and deep reveals to the windows. It is however not a gallery for fragile works, instead being programmed for more robust artworks and sculpture.

The reuse of materials and operational efficiencies are good for the ecology, while the adaption of space to facilitate modern requirements demonstrates a level of social and economic sustainability that Walter Burley Griffin might never have expected an incinerator to achieve.

The Willoughby Incinerator has been adapted to house an artist-in-residence studio, a gallery space and a cafe and community meeting place. This project was about doing as much as necessary and as little as possible. From a design perspective we understood that the role of the team was not to compete with the original architecture but to restore and support the original vision. It is imagined that this building will at some time in its future change use again. As the current community morphs organically into new one, a new and more appropriate use may arise. This next use, whether it be in thirty or seventy years, will be well supported by this adaptive reuse. The loose fit approach pursued in the current adaptation will stand this important little building well for the future.


Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls
Site details
Location Sydney,  NSW,  Australia
Category Commercial / public buildings
Type Adaptive re-use, Heritage
Project Details
Status Built
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