Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Armidale Boiler House's unique past

Ahead of its time: Closed in 2000, the Boiler House with award winning Stage 3 design was central to UNE's campus services

Cockatoo Island is one of Sydney’s most popular tourist destinations. There the old dock works with its buildings and cranes has been turned into an exhibition and activity space, adding depth and variety to the visitor experience.

But did you know that Armidale had what could become an equivalent if smaller space, one that won a state architectural award in the same year as the Opera House?

Boilers were central to the industrial revolution. They provided the power and heat required to drive industrial development.

On the Tablelands with its cold winter climate, boilers generated hot water that was then used to heat larger buildings such as TAS 

At the University, the growth of the top campus in the late 1950s created new heating demands. The University decided that a new coal powered reticulated hot water system was the most effective response.

Stage one opened in 1961 in a new facility built at the northern end of the campus. Continued growth in student and staff numbers led to a stage 2 extension in 1965 designed by Leif Kristensen and then a much bigger stage 3 expansion in 1971.

New beginning: the Boiler House with its raw concrete form reveals aspects of industrial life while providing a space for exhibitions and activities including a children's discovery space

While I was aware of the building, I had no idea of its size or architectural significance. Designed by Government design architect Robert Bryant as part of Bryant’s larger scheme for a residential complex in the northern part of the campus, the award winning stage 3 makes creative use of off-form concrete to create an arresting brutalist form.

The boiler plant closed in 2000 and then sat idle for many years. Finally, a small team was formed to look at ways of re-purposing and re-imagining the building, while retaining key links to the past. The team includes the Program Manager for UNE’s School Discovery Program Kirsti Abbott, historical archaeologist Pamela Watson, archivist Ian Stepenson and photographer Terry Cooke.

The concept under development centers on the use of the space as an exhibition and activity area, including a special focus on a children’s discovery space that will link past, present and future.

This approach takes advantage of the building’s unique structure and history, as well as its location on the northern edge of the campus with easy access and closeness to other facilities.

As part of its work, the team is trying to build a full history of the facility, including stories from those who have worked there.

If you have stories to share or indeed would like to find out more about the project, please contact Kirsti Abbott, email kabbott6@une.edu.au, phone 0466 726 525.

An exhibition of Terry Cooke’s photographs of the Boiler House, called Getting into Hot Water, is currently on view in the Dixson Library at UNE.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 August 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

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