Backyard blitz: the Ultimo Goods Line makeover

ASPECT Studios with Choi Ropiha Fighera

When does a backyard become a front yard? The forthcoming makeover of the disused rail corridor from Sydney’s Central Station to the Powerhouse Museum will not only redevelop a hitherto neglected part of Ultimo – the suburb described in the entertaining blog ‘Penultimo’ as ‘nowhere in the middle of everything’ – it will significantly reorientate the buildings that border it. Unveiled as the ‘Goods Line’ in November 2012, the new plans for the client, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, transform what started life in the mid 19th century as a busy freight rail system to the Darling Harbour goods yards into a stylish pedestrian and cycle-friendly ‘linear park’.

Inevitably, the Goods Line has been compared with New York’s spectacularly successful High Line, a 1.6 kilometre section of what was once a West Side elevated freight line reborn as a landscaped public park. But as the Goods Line’s designers – ASPECT Studio’s Sacha Coles and John Choi of Choi Ropiha Fighera – like to point out, the two serve very different functions. At 20 metres wide by 500 metres long the Ultimo line is shorter and is elevated only along its Darling Drive edge. It does, however, offer significantly more potential in terms of connectivity, human interaction and cultural engagement. Whereas the High Line is largely a passive recreational destination, the Goods Line will provide a much-needed, non-vehicular thoroughfare linking Central’s Devonshire Street tunnel with Darling Harbour and the numerous institutions and agencies along its way, including UTS, TAFE, the ABC, UTS’s new Frank Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing Building and the Powerhouse Museum. Indeed, it is the mix of stakeholders bordering the pedestrian ribbon that has got everyone excited, presenting as it does the unique potential for a dynamic, ‘culturally-led’ space where history, design and technology can enhance the experience of people moving and interacting along its length. In a city notoriously driven by competing interests, this collective vision to give Sydney something out of the box, is both refreshing and precedent-setting.

Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Frank Gehry

Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, Frank Gehry

The global ‘starchitect’ culture that has defined contemporary architecture has been much derided, but it may be that we have one of the profession’s greatest luminaries to thank for the visionary thinking that is giving the Goods Line its special character. Frank Gehry’s crumpled, cartoony brick Business School is a plucky and enterprising strategy by UTS to expand its campus and ramp up its corporate image: when completed in mid 2014 – about the same time as the Goods Line – it will no doubt be the centre of much media and critical attention. But arguably more interesting is the spin-off this raising of the architectural bar will have on the surrounding precinct. While the first stage of what was called the Ultimo Pedestrian Network (UPN) from Central Station to Ultimo Road was a functional, but modestly-conceived revamp that Coles and Choi believe lacks ‘identity’, the second stage (Goods Line North) – from the Ultimo Road bridge to the Macarthur Street end of the Powerhouse’s Harwood Building – is a significant step-up in creative thinking that will provide a new experiential dimension for commuters and local community users alike. The UPN, now called the Goods Line South, will be redeveloped in the second stage of the project.

Rendering, Aspect Studios

ASPECT Studios with Choi Ropiha Fighera

According to Sacha Coles, the shared pedestrian-bike connector will ‘create a new type of public realm that allows a whole range of activities along it.’ Late 2012 plans include Wi-Fi-enabled ‘study pods’ cantilevered dramatically into the fig trees above Darling Drive, a series of stepped terraces at the end of Mary Ann Street that will double as tiered seating for a range of outdoor performances or presentations (think ABC concerts, mini film festivals), and an ‘activity carpet’ with play and exercise equipment and, for the less physically-active, ping pong tables! A long multi-purpose, table-top structure will function as a workstation, meeting venue or even a catwalk (think TAFE’s adjacent Fashion  Design school).

Rendering, Aspect Studios

ASPECT Studios with Choi Ropiha Fighera

Opportunities for public art installations are planned, as are interpretive historical interjections by Sydney graphic design practice Deuce Design that reference the area’s industrial past. While the City Farm slated for the northern end of the Goods Line has now been relocated to Sydney Park at St Peters, the elegantly-minimal, multi-function ‘Transformer’ pavilion planned for the area adjacent to the Powerhouse will be an important flexible structure for functions and events that engage with the city and the community. In a nod to the neighbourhood’s industrial history, the Goods Line will be paved in what architect John Choi describes as ‘beautifully-crafted’ precast concrete planks that will also be adaptable for seating and balustrade configurations. As a counterpoint to the concrete surfaces, and in combination with the existing mature trees lining Darling Drive, landscaping with a mix of native and exotic plants and grassed areas, will soften and shade the walkway.

'An early 20th century photo looking north towards the original Ultimo Power House, Tram Depot on the left. Government Printing Office Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

‘An early 20th century photo looking north towards the original Ultimo Power House, Tram Depot on the left. Government Printing Office Collection, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

While the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building will have an entrance fronting the Goods Line, the Powerhouse – currently entered via hectic Harris Street – will have the opportunity to reorientate some of its programs into what was once its rather unlovely backyard – and in recent times a much-sought-after staff carpark. For the museum, in particular, with its design/science collecting and exhibiting remit, the exciting makeover at its back door offers unique challenges to extend its audiences and to work with other stakeholders in programming collaborative activities. With the radical redevelopment of Darling Harbour to its north and the dynamic new Goods Line to its south – both intensively design-driven projects – the Powerhouse will be uniquely placed to energise and optimise its design agenda. For Ultimo generally, the new project is a chance for it to become, finally, ‘somewhere special in the middle of everything’!