The Powerhouse is located in what is now the densest suburb in Australia. With 14,300 people per square kilometre Pyrmont/Ultimo packs more residents into less space than any suburb or town in the nation. I suppose this should be no surprise given the numerous apartment developments completed here in the last decade, notably the repurposing of the wool stores and CSR’s former factories at Pyrmont Point. We recently acquired this large model of the Jacksons Landing development at the Point.
Pyrmont/Ultimo is on the leading edge of a much-debated urban trend towards apartment living rather than the ‘Australian dream’ of single-family cottages in sprawling suburbs. Sydney has historically been Australia’s leading apartment city. Way back in 1934 Melbourne’s Australian Home Beautiful observed ‘Sydney has always, to some extent, been the home of the flat-dweller. For this a variety of reasons may be suggested, the most popular one being that the Sydneysider is more easy-going and less home-loving than his Melbourne brother…’
Today Sydney remains much denser than Melbourne and about twice as dense as Brisbane, Adelaide and other Australian cities. More of Melbourne’s growth is in fringe suburbs than in Sydney, where about three-quarters of new dwellings are built within the established urban footprint.
High density precincts are also more of a suburban phenomenon in Sydney. This is partly due to Meriton founder Harry Triguboff who began building apartment towers in the suburbs back in the 60s, way ahead of anyone else. Since then the NSW and local governments have been encouraging apartment construction around transport hubs. Strathfield town centre was the first such development and it has since been joined by similar ones at Parramatta, St Leonards, Bondi Junction, Rhodes, Parramatta and elsewhere. The suburbs surrounding Sydney Olympic Park are now one of the fastest growing areas in Sydney. In 2002 the NSW government also introduced design regulations to improve the quality of apartment architecture.
When I was researching and co-writing the book Homes in the Sky: Apartment living in Australia (published 2007) the trend towards higher density living was already well-established but little recognised in public debate, which assumed the Australian dream was still dominant. Historically apartment living has struggled for respectability in Australia and part of Homes in the Sky was devoted to the ongoing debate about ‘the slums of the future’. As one reviewer noted:
‘The authors paint an amusing history of the moral panics surrounding the building of flats: in the early 1900s they were a ‘national danger’, tending to destroy family life and ‘not conducive to morality… If flats for the poor were the worst, flats for the wealthy – which comprised the majority of purpose-built blocks before the 1950s – were viewed with suspicion. They lacked the virtues of privacy and space for unconfined procreation, and encouraged fast and bohemian behaviours’.
The moralistic air has largely disappeared from the density debate, replaced by varieties of nimbyism and (frequently justified) fears that urban infrastructure, notably public transport, is not keeping pace with residential development. To some extent this debate is one between generations as older residents seek to protect their investment and low-density lifestyle against new development. It’s worth remembering that Australia’s cities have low densities by international standards and this will not change in the foreseeable future. The revelation that knowledge industry jobs and productivity cluster in Sydney’s high-density areas is also likely to accelerate the density trend.
Pyrmont/Ultimo is a microcosm of these wider trends. Opened in 1893 the Technological Museum’s Ultimo location was an issue for a long time, it’s 1920s director AR Penfold complained that ‘adverse comments by visitors regarding the locality are almost a daily occurrence. They regret that the institution should be situated in such an out-of-the-way position and unsavoury location’.
The ‘unsavoury location’ was actually a vibrant working class suburb built around the wool stores, rail yard, docks, power stations and other industrial landmarks. However by the 1980s Prymont/Ultimo was at its nadir with people following industry out of the suburb. The Powerhouse was part of Ultimo/Pyrmont’s renaissance, helped along by Chinatown’s resurgence plus the arrival of the ABC, Ten and other cultural, education and residential developments. Ultimo today certainly has a buzz about it, potentially to the benefit of the Powerhouse and its many other residents.
Charles Pickett, curator