The Firkin Crane, Ireland’s National Centre for Dance

We’d love to hear from you about favourite old Sydney places that are being used in new ways.

Hello…and welcome to the first of several guest blog posts I’ll be contributing to the Historic Houses Trust blog in the lead-up to the unveiling of the Hyde Park Barracks Domes currently undergoing restoration.

A classical musician doesn’t usually have the opportunity to wander into other domains like architecture so this particular project is a real treat. In my capacity as a member of Polyartistry, I’ll be creating some activities with my colleague Matthew Aberline and the wonderful HHT team around these domes.  Poly’s main brief is simple: we want to know what you think about things, and then we use those thoughts to create new works of art, or to animate spaces and ideas in myriad ways.

What does butter have to do with dancing? A quick detour in Google to see what butter + dance turns up directs me to a low-fi animation of a piece of butter dancing to “pump it” by the Black Eyed Peas …interesting… but not the only connection between butter and dance.

Reimagining and reclaiming spaces once used for industries that have been relocated for a variety of reasons is nothing new, and in August I found myself working in what used to be a Butter Factory on a dance performance that is based on a book written in the 1920s. Ireland was an international centre for butter making – and the Firkin Crane was one of the buildings that formed part of the Butter Exchange in the 19th century, which was the largest in the world at that time. Now the Firkin Crane continues its life in the Cork community as Ireland’s National Centre for Dance and the sense of industry and producing an essential product continues, but this time the product is art.
In our old spaces, we find remnants of the way life used to be – socially, economically and culturally – and we can be inspired by what used to take place there in order to influence what we create there in the present. There are so many examples of imaginative ways in which we’ve reclaimed spaces that were once utilitarian in value and now house centres for creativity and ideas. Here in Sydney, Australia, The Historic Houses Trust maintains a number of our most significant spaces, providing us with a window into our past in order that we might see those spaces as significant pieces of the puzzle that makes present-day Australia what it is.

The Hyde Park Barracks has been an important place for Australians without most of us realising it, so accustomed are we to skyscrapers and modern design, technology and a much flashier way of making our spaces. But what HPB symbolises for us is the birthplace of modern Australia – the beginnings of everything that we see around us today. The vision of people like Macquarie provided the foundations for our modern skyline, both in an aspirational, but also a practical, sense. What really cemented the idea that Australia could be a modern, civilised nation that might one day rival any other country in the world? Two elegant, simple wooden domes that were the beginnings of a vision for our nation in which we were free people rather than an oversized penal colony at the end the world, equal to other societies, and just as capable as anyone else of creating a community in which people could work together to build a better future. Perhaps today it seems like a humble beginning, but imagine starting with nothing but bushland, creating all of our early settlements, having to improvise and make do with what was at hand: the domes, being decorative, represented a completely different view of what we might be capable of. Architecture has for a long time had a function of inspiring us to better things – whether it is feats of engineering once thought impossible, or representing a level of magnificence beyond our everyday imaginings. How often do we stop to look at the skyline, though, and consider the meaning of it, to read in the outline of our surroundings the traces of belief in our capacity?

Tell us about your about favourite old Sydney places that are being used in new ways.

Scott Carlin talks thorough the installation of the 2nd dome onto the southern guardhouse of the Hyde Park Barracks.

Sean Johnson, Clive Lucas architects and John Wallis, builder on site at the Hyde Park Barracks today. Photo Gary Crockett

Convict architect Francis Greenway incorporated his characteristic calotte ‘skull cap’ domes in several projects such as over a stairhall at the nearby Supreme Court (1820-27) in King Street. The Macquarie Lighthouse, South Head (1819, demolished 1883) was designed with domes over linked pavilions, a similar composition to the HPB gate lodges. The dome of the fountain, Macquarie Place (c1817, altered 1840s, demolished c1882), emerged from a shaped blocking course or parapet, like those of the Hyde Park Barracks guard houses.

Image: Fountain, Macquarie Place, engraving from Joseph Fowles, Sydney in 1848, Historic Houses Trust, Caroline Simpson Library & Research collection

Nash’s Foley House 1794, Haverfordwest sourced from wikimedia commons here

With Greenway’s design of Hyde Park Barracks (and 80 known works and attributions) a case may be made for his acquaintance with John Nash (1752-1835) and emulation of a range of motifs evident in Nash’s commissions such as:

Relieving arches in series reading as blind arcading (as in HPB main block exterior ground floor treatment)

– Nash’s Foley House, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 1794
– Llanaeron, Cardiganshire, 1794
– Whitson Court, near Newport, Monmouthshire, 1795
– Hereford Gaol, 1796
– The Warrens, Brayshaw, Hampshire, 1800-02

Enclosed gables (as in HPB main block exterior, east and west elevations)

– Nash’s Ffynone, Pembrokeshire 1792-96
– Foley House, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire 1794
– Glanwysc, Llangattock, Breconshire c. 1795
– The Warrens, Brayshaw, Hampshire, 1800-02.

Hemispherical domes (as in HPB gate lodge domes)

– Nash’s mausoleum of Thomas Nash, Farnigham, Kent, 1778
– County House, Stafford, Staffordshire, 1794
– Sundridge Park, Bromley, Kent, 1799
– Balindoon, Co Sligo c1800
– Design for Bulstrode House, Buckinghamshire 1801-02
– The Quadrant (west side), Regent Street London, 1809-26

Australian colonial architecture may be seen as provincial as the architecture of Greenway’s native Bristol. However, Greenway’s architectural competence and association with John Nash (later the Prince Regent’s architect and the architect who recast Regency London in classical garb) lifted him above many of his peers in Sydney or the English provinces. His shingle-clad Hyde Park Barracks guardhouse domes in their ‘primitive’ simplicity gave Governor Macquarie’s principal Sydney street a metropolitan sophistication.


Broadbent, James and Hughes, Joy, Francis Greenway architect, Glebe NSW, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 1997
Mansbridge, Michael, John Nash a complete catalogue 1752-1835, New York 1991

John Wallis of Noel T. Leach Builders has prefabricated the south dome’s frame at ground level for an understanding of Greenway’s unusual design. The domes were constructed of curved timber ribs (cut out of solid pieces of Eucalyptus sp hardwood) braced with substantial circular plates and vertical studs and covered with Forest oak (Casuarina torulosa) shingles overlaid on narrow battens.

Greenway designed his domes as self-conciously stripped back elemental forms, a ‘primitive’ tendency favoured by Regency architects such as Sir John Soane which was possibly ultimately inspired by the writings of the philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The drum, largely hidden behind the parapet, lifted the dome above the surrounding sandstone roof, giving it a floating quality.

Photo: Scott Carlin

The reconstruction of the Hyde Park Barracks’ twin guardhouse domes has been guided by two pieces of evidence – the diameter of the dome is defined by a pronounced dripline on the carved sandstone roof and the diameter of the drum is defined by the surviving circular hardwood double base plate.

This original double base plate was made up of many hardwood segments that were marked with Roman numerals cut with a single chisel blow. This tells us that the dome was probably prefabricated at the Sydney Lumber Yard (corner of Bridge and George Streets) before re-assembly on site in c1819. A double plate was used for strength.

The northern dome was removed in the early 1860s (probably owing to breakdown of the shingles and ribbed structure) and the guardhouse roofed over with corrugated metal sheeting. Two cut-down vertical studs (or forked tenons) also survived the reroofing and were discovered by archaeologists in 1982. The base plate and studs have been re-incorporated into the new northern dome structure.

Image: Northern guardhouse drum with two rings of hardwood – one above the other – connected with vertical studs. The darker timbers are pieces rescued by archaeologists in 1982 and re-incorporated. Photograph by Scott Carlin

The original drum structure was made up of short semi circular lengths of hardwood that were marked with handy roman numerals, to help workman build it on site. This tells us that the dome was probably prefabricated at the Sydney Lumber Yard, corner of Bridge and George Streets, before re-assembly at the Barracks in 1817-19. The present reconstruction has involved prefabrication by John Wallis of Noel T. Leach Builders. The components of the south dome will be assembled on site for the Domes Breakfast talks on Wednesday 29 June 2011. Photo Gary Crockett

Architects and historians turn up in all sorts of funny hats. The new ‘hat’ seen hovering above the guardhouse is a prototype dome assembly, here for a final fitting before going in for good. Great to get a sneak (although brief) glimpse. Issues were sorted in a matter of minutes, with the dome returned to the workshop for some last finicky adjustments. Photo Gary Crockett

map showing location of 11 Australian Convict Sites added to World Heritage List in 2010

The Historic Houses Trust’s decision to reconstruct the guardhouse domes follows the inclusion of Hyde Park Barracks (HPB) with ten other Australian Convict Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Built to house the convicts engaged in Governor Macquarie’s ambitious public works program, the Barracks is itself a product or organized convict labour. Hyde Park Barracks interprets a significant aspect of the evolving Australian convict experience from 1788 to 1868 – the creation of the HPB compound represented the designation of places of incarceration. Previously the whole of the Australian continent had been regarded as a place of exile and, while military personnel were housed in barracks, convicts had been lodged throughout the town. The Barracks saw 50,000 convicts pass through its gates between 1819 and 1848.

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