Robert’s heritage renewal

At the end of the 20th century, most of Walsh Bay’s old wharves and warehouses were abandoned, padlocked and dilapidated—but also the subject of intense opposition from local residents and heritage conservationists against state government plans to redevelop the precinct.

French architect Philippe Robert (pronounced ‘Robear’) was invited to Sydney in 1997 to advise the NSW Government Architect’s Office on a suitable strategy to preserve as much of the waterfront’s architectural character as possible, while reactivating the sheds for new residential, commercial, cultural and leisure uses.

French architect Philippe Robert, 2000s.

Robert—now retired but then known as an international expert on ‘adaptive reuse’ of abandoned industrial sites and heritage buildings— drew the concept sketch which ended many years of stasis on redeveloping the Walsh Bay precinct.

His key strategy was to cut through, or open at ground level, the southern ends of all the finger wharves that were connected to the shore sheds lining the north side of Hickson Road. This facilitated the waterfront promenade which suddenly allowed public access to the aprons of most of the former wharves (for the first time in a century). Now the Walsh Bay waterfront is popular with many Sydneysiders and tourists, for dining, cycling, fishing, photography, boating and wandering.

Robert’s second crucial strategy was to support replacing the one-storey shed on Pier 6-7 with a new five-storey block of luxury apartments of industrial-modern style. This allowed the proposed development consortium, led by Transfield and Mirvac, to anticipate a profit on the whole project, while paying the high costs of building restorations and repairs.

The government’s team of Robert and Government Architect Chris Johnson countered public criticism of the Pier 6-7 demolition by noting that the original shed was a less significant heritage item because it was never built to Henry Deane Walsh’s original two-storey design (because of First World War economic constraints).

Local architects Peddle Thorp (led by Andrew Andersons), HPA (a division of Mirvac), Bates Smart and heritage specialists Tropman and Tropman worked with Robert and the government to agree detailed designs for the Pier 6-7 and Shore Shed apartments, a row of luxury terrace houses along Pottinger Street, new apartment, commercial and theatre premises replacing the old bond stores between the south side of Hickson Road and Windmill Street uphill, and apartment and office buildings at Towns Place.

After completion of the project in 2002, the Walsh Bay development was awarded the Walter Burley Griffin Medal for Urban Design from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and several dozen other awards.

Philippe Robert was born in Marseille in 1941 and worked with Renzo Piano (Italy) and Richard Rogers (England) on schemes for major sites in France. In 1973 he and Bernard Reichen established their own architecture practice in Paris. Their significant projects include the French Embassy in Qatar, renewal of the former Nestlé chocolate factory in Menier, production facilities for General Electric, and a modern gallery for American art near Claude Monet’s house and garden in Giverny.

Reichen & Robert were described by Australian art critic Robert Hughes as ‘the architectural geniuses of recycling’.

More details

Philippe Robert, 1989, Adaptations: New Uses for Old Buildings. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

NSW Heritage Office, 2008, New Uses for Heritage Places: Guidelines for the Adaptation of Historic Buildings and Sites. Sydney: NSW Government and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Walsh Bay, NSW‘, Mirvac website.

Walsh Bay website.