Rachel Neeson from Neeson Murcutt Architects  redesigned the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre, transforming an old building that represented a controversial part of Sydney’s past, into a modern, safe and welcoming oasis for the future.

What is one standout feature of the Juanita Nielson Community Centre upgrade, and what gives it so much character?

The building was originally constructed in 1888 as six co-joined two storey warehouses. It was named after the significant local activist Juanita Nielsen, when it was converted to a community centre in 1983. It was a gracious old building. We were looking to create a vibrant, safe and welcoming and place for the diverse demographic of Woolloomooloo. 

We believe that for many people there is a comfort in things that have endured. At every opportunity, the age and stories of the building have been revealed and amplified. So, we worked the architecture to rejuvenate the existing building as a social place without sanitising or gentrifying it. 

We consolidated the amenities and offices along the southern edge of the building and opened up the blind brick arches between the six original warehouse bays to create visibility throughout the entire ground floor. We reshaped the central void as a light-filled social core.

The yellow concrete floor is wholly new. Its colour is purposefully ‘happy,’ alluding to the golden sands of Woolloomooloo. The building has a sort of happy character.

How much did you know about Juanita Nielson before you took on this project, and how much, after learning her story, did it influence how you approached the design?

I didn’t know much about Juanita Nielsen prior to the project but it’s interesting to note that she was last seen [in 1975] at a nightclub that was right across from where our office is now. She came to figure strongly in the design via a famous portrait in which she is wearing a distinctive striped top – she was both an activist and fashion icon, heiress to the old Mark Foys department store.

The Juanita zigzag motif appears in the timber ceiling lining, the zig-zag shutters, the striped black and white canvas awnings - it’s all quite playful.

There was another remarkable woman who influenced the project -  Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, whose work from the from the 1950s and 60s we were strongly drawn to for its striking rawness, its robustness and sense of place and culture. 

What was the hardest part in the repurposing of this building?
There is something about the openness of the warehouse – its flexible bay structure and big openings to the street – that sit comfortably with the aspirations of a contemporary community centre. So, in a sense the repurposing was quite a natural fit.

Less straightforward was the actual construction. Nothing was vertical or plumb. We had to develop an attitude of loose-fit for all our detailing and call regularly on the assistance of the structural engineer and heritage architect throughout the build. 

In your opinion, how much does history matter when you redesign a heritage building? 

For us the history of a place is as much a part of the site as its physical dimension, its topography, its orientation, or its microclimate. We understand our architecture is within the continuum of time. Old buildings, whether they are heritage listed or not, convey a sense of time through their material sense -  we love that.

At the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre, we worked to achieve a rawness that would conjure the original warehouse quality – stripped brick, stripped render, exposed timber, new recycled timber, exposed steel – looking for that sense of time through material.

It terms of sustainability, do you think we should be doing more repurposing of old buildings, and how can we increase this rate?

Community buildings can play a powerful public educative role in sustainable design. The Juanita Nielson Community Centre makes evident its primary environmental initiative, that of ‘up-cycling’ – retaining fabric, improving fabric performance and putting the building to better use. 

What part of Sydney has got the mix right when it comes to urban design?

I think that medium density housing is under-represented in our growing city.  What we see in places like Glebe and in Newtown, with their street life and sense of community remains a model worth pursuing in this city.