Following its original conversion by Vivian Fraser in the 1980s, Hassell have picked up the figurative baton and remodelled the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf. Giving the existing facilities a touch up, along with the minor adjustments of structural elements has given the building a completely different outlook that harks back to the building’s history.
Originally a wool warehouse, Wharf 4/5 is located at Dawes Point. The building’s locale is one of metropolitan grandeur, and despite the 1980s rework, The Wharf was in dire need of a facelift to encapsulate the dynamism of the theatre itself. Hassell worked in collaboration with Charcoalblue, a theatre design consultancy group, as well as heritage-listed building experts Tropman & Tropman to bring the renovation to life.
Hassell sought to improve the circulation of the building, as well as maintaining the ‘all-under-one-roof’ mantra, that is characteristically embedded into the DNA of the theatre company. Playwriting, set-building, archives, rehearsals and, of course, performance, all take place at The Wharf, and it was important for this to remain the case. The removal of a concrete fire tunnel that was erected in the 1980s renovation freed up circulation in both directions and gave Hassell the ability to add a corridor along the western wall at the back of house, which has provided production companies with the ability to move sets easily between the workshop and the two theatres. The subtle raising of the ceiling — that has also allowed for the seamless moving of sets — has provided space for a theatrical rigging system that is now of first rate quality. All of these alterations, coupled with the addition of a recording studio, vocal coaching spaces and function room, have furthered the ‘all-under-one-roof’ philosophy of the STC, and subsequently, the building itself.
The two theatres within The Wharf have been remodelled in a bid to increase capacity and accessibility. Wharf 1, the bigger of the two, now has a capacity of 350-420, depending on which seating configuration is utilised by theatre companies, those being End On, Corner and In the Round. Wharf 2 contains retractable seating, with its maximum capacity sitting at 160. Larger productions possess the option of retracting concertina skyfold doors that separate the two theatres, that ultimately turns the two theatres into Wharf 3, with a maximum capacity of 580.
The materials and textural palette adopted by Hassell channels the earlier conversion conducted by Vivian Fraser. The practice wanted to re-implement the white volumes with more depth than the previous renovation, which utilised plasterboard. Finely-grooved timber panels were painted with Blitz Total Sealer, an STC-developed paint developed by the company’s Neil Mallard during the pandemic. The high gloss finish juxtaposes the honest timber finishes of both ceiling and floors, and is boosted further by the thin white steel rods that act as balustrades and handrails.
Accessibility was at the top of Hassell’s priority list, with the practice able to add safe exits to the concrete apron exterior thanks to the removal of the concrete fire tunnel. The implementation of two extra public lifts and one goods lift, as well as an upgrade to the assistive listening systems offered by the theatre company outline the practice’s desire to make The Wharf a safe and enjoyable theatrical experience for all. The rehearsal rooms and offices at the back-of-house now also contain more floorspace, ensuring that those who control the theatre company’s inner workings are afforded the same conditions as those viewing the productions in the audience.
Hassell has worked within the restrictive confines of heritage-listed building regulations to reinvigorate STC’s The Wharf with modernist conventions. The changes have improved accessibility and comfortability for both audience and back-of-house members, and has furthered the ‘all-under-one-roof’ premise that guides much of the theatre company’s approach to performance. The Dawes Point site, that was originally a woolshed, now marries contemporary high gloss white joinery with the rugged textures of the floor and ceiling’s timber, to enhance the heritage-listed theatrical space with a range of modernist flourishes.