Casula Powerhouse: Celebrating Art, Community and Cultural Diversity

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Casula Powerhouse: Celebrating Art, Community and Cultural Diversity

[media]The Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre is one of Sydney's most ambitious regional arts centres. The history of the site weaves together a lost riverside pleasure garden and industrial landscape of 1950s Sydney with the cultural and indigenous melting pot of post-war immigration and the rapid western suburbs expansion. Yet it is also a later story of how redevelopment and local community involvement managed to transform an abandoned derelict power station into a lively hub of multicultural arts, creativity, local employment and a sense of belonging.

Municiple garden and post-war powerhouse

The Casula Powerhouse is located on the banks of the Georges River, within the City of Liverpool. Prior to European settlement the site was an important gathering place for the Gandangarra, Tharawal and Dharuk tribes who used it as a hunting, fishing, midden and meeting place. When Europeans arrived they renamed it Georges River and continued to use it as a site for picnics and waterside recreation. It was known as 'the garden of the municipality' and between about 1910 and 1950 hundreds of people would travel to the locality on summer weekends to enjoy the picnic tables, gazebos and boat and changing sheds which nestled amongst the climbing roses and fruit trees of the 'pleasure gardens' [1]. As the Fairfield newspaper The Biz reported in 1930:

The popularity of Casula as a pleasure resort was demonstrated on Saturday last. There were many picnic parties there, numbering over 500 persons. The spot is an ideal one for these outings. [2]

Twenty years later this pleasurable idyllic picnic landscape was gone. In 1950, with the demand for electricity increasing due to the post-war wave of immigration and the expansion of Sydney out into the Western suburbs, the site was chosen for the Casula Powerhouse (then known as the Liverpool Powerhouse). It was one of four 'kit' buildings brought over from the United States by the Westinghouse Corporation; other powerhouses were erected at Port Kembla, Penrith and Lithgow. In 1955 the 250 foot stack was erected, replacing four original shorter chimneys after the local residents had complained that the smoke from the powerhouse dirtied their washing. [3] The shiny, slender stack remains today, the only vertical element for miles.

Casula Powerhouse was decommissioned in 1976. The site, buildings and machinery were bought by the Liverpool City Council in 1978 for $75, 000. The Council in turn sold the turbines to the developing city of Calcutta in India. Over the following decade the building became derelict and stood idle, an empty and redundant industrial blot on the landscape, attracting only vandals and vermin. In 1985, after much debate in the local community, the residents of Liverpool decided by plebiscite that the site and building (recently zoned for community use only) should become an arts centre.

A place to celebrate diversity

In the early 1990s, while Mark Latham was the Mayor of Liverpool, the Powerhouse was allocated funding from the capital works program being offered through the Office of Local Government for community infrastructure projects. This was a one off initiative to stimulate employment and economic development in regional areas across Australia. At a time when funding for the arts was being drastically cut elsewhere this was a remarkable and timely opportunity for Casula. The arts centre was born out of a government funded economic stimulation policy but also the community's desire for a place where local art and theatre, craft and culture could thrive and flourish, where local artists and poets – mainly from the South West Sydney region– would have a place to perform and a place to share.

Today the arts centre is a striking and successful example of the adaptive reuse of a former industrial site into a contemporary multi-arts venue. It was designed by Peter Tonkin of Tonkin Zulaikha Architects who sought the collaboration of a number of artists in designing parts of the building and embraces both heritage and contemporary design. When work began in 1992, historical preservation underpinned the alterations. Many of the original features of the powerhouse were kept so the building retains its industrial aesthetic. According to Peter Tonkin:

…if it was original to the building we would leave it there, no matter what it was. Thus artifacts, objects and surfaces within the building remain to speak powerfully about its history and use. [4]

Indeed, in 1996, for their 'sympathetic adaptation of an industrial structure' [5] the project was awarded the Merit Award for Conservation from The NSW Chapter of The Australian Institute of Architects, the President's Award for Recycled Buildings and an Access Citation from the National Chapter of The Australian Institute of Architects.

The Powerhouse opened its doors in October 1994. It was always intended to be an arts centre responsive to the indigenous, local and multicultural communities of the western suburbs. With over 150 languages spoken in the immediate area, the range of events and productions held here aim to 'represent culturally diverse stories that allow our audiences to reflect on the world.' [6] According to the centres artistic vision, the Powerhouse is 'a vibrant space where ideas, art forms and philosophies fuse – we celebrate cultural diversity.' [7]

Indeed the long catalogue of events and exhibitions that have been held here certainly reflect the centre's philosophy of telling stories and celebrating the contribution of the communities which make up multicultural western Sydney. Popular exhibitions have included a vibrant and diverse range of social and cultural themes such as 'Dresses and Dreams: Migrant Brides in Australia' (1995) 'Arabmade: An Exhibition of Contemporary Arabic-Australian Art' (1998), 'Niti: Serbian Textile Traditions' (2005), 'Buddha in Suburbia; Greater Western Sydney' (2005), 'I Love Pho' (2006) 'Chutney Generations: An Australian – Fijian-Indian Cultural Extravaganza' (2007) and 'Engagement and Self-Determination: Australian Muslim Women Artists' (2012) to mention but a few. [8]

Public art projects

Of more permanence than the whirlwind of fascinating yet temporary exhibitions is the 600 square meter Koori Floor at the Casula Powerhouse. In 1993 the Director John Kirkman invited the indigenous artist Judy Watson to design the floor of the arts centre. Her love of the land and the centrality of land in her art led her to design the floor with the intention of drawing viewers' attention to where they stand, to make them think about the history beneath their feet. Inspired by Western Desert art, Watson's floor also pays homage to local Aboriginal heritage with the names of the three different language groups which originally converged in the area – Tharawal, Gandangarra and Dharuk inscribed in stainless steel and inlaid in the Koori Floor. Traditional hunting activities on the Georges River such as fishing, trapping and canoeing are portrayed and Watson also refers to the River by invoking 'the long snaking shape that curves about the Floor's surface, rhythmically connecting the broad expanse of the work'. [9] Local Aboriginal school children provided the handprints that are embedded in the floor.

Other public art projects that have been incorporated into the Powerhouse are the great expanse of windows created by Robyn Backen and the hundreds of tiles in all of the buildings amenities. They were made specifically for the site by people from Liverpool and the South West area in Outhouse to Arthouse, a workshop under the supervision of ceramic artist Tom Strahan of Albury. [10] Giant flower pots for Casula Railway Station were commissioned by the arts centre in 1996 to make a dynamic connection between the railway station and the Powerhouse. They symbolised the rejuvenation of the area but also stand tall and proud to commemorate the pleasure gardens of the early twentieth century and to reflect Casula's long lasting relationship with Italian market gardeners. [11] The Powerhouse is truly a melting pot where traditional indigenous, historical, industrial and local community participation has fused to create an intriguing, flourishing and culturally sensitive vibrant arts space.

Themes of reconciliation, reclamation and redevelopment are woven throughout the history of the Casula Powerhouse, as are cultural diversity, celebration of difference and social inclusion. The community and the Liverpool City Council transformed an abandoned power station into a flourishing regional arts centre that reflect these themes and embrace multiculturalism. [12] Today the centre houses an international standard exhibition space, a 326-seat multi-purpose theatre/performance space; artists' studios and residency spaces and new offices. Climate controlled storage facilities have been installed for the collection of over 30,000 items. Landscaped, green open spaces have returned to the site and there is a weaving garden, the Alice Klaphake amphitheatre and 20 hectares of parklands.

The history of the Casula Powerhouse and the land it was built on is rich and varied; from pleasure garden and riverside retreat to a heavily polluting industrial power station, abandonment and dereliction and finally to the desire of the people of Liverpool for an arts centre reflecting the diversity of Western Sydney. In microcosm, the arts centre is a beacon of culture as a means of education, empathy and community identity however diverse and different that might be on the surface.

References

Casula Works: Public Art at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Casula, NSW, 2000

Jock Collins, 'The Other Sydney: Cultural and Social Diversity in Western Sydney' in J Collins and S Poynting (eds), The Other Sydney: Communities, Identities and Inequalities in Western Sydney, Common Ground Publishing, Melbourne, 2000, pp 34–60

Helen Grace et al (eds), Home/World: Space, Community and Marginality in Sydney's West, Pluto Press, Annandale, 1997

Stephen Hodge, 'Disadvantage and 'Otherness' in Western Sydney',Australian Geographical Studies, vol 34, no 1, April 1996, pp 32–44

Kathleen Mee, 'Dressing up the Suburbs: Representations of Western Sydney' in in K Gibson and S Watson (eds), Metropolis Now: Planning and the Urban in Contemporary Australia, Pluto Press, NSW, 1994, pp 60–77

Diane Powell, Out West: Perceptions of Sydney's Western Suburbs, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 1993

Zora Simic, ''What are Ya?': Negotiating Identities in the Western Suburbs of Sydney During the 1980s', Journal of Australian Studies, vol 32, iIssue 2, 2008, pp 223–36

Notes

[1] The Biz, Friday 25 November 1932, p 7

[2] The Biz, Friday 7 November 1930, p 6

[3] Indeed, pollution and degradation of the natural environment soon came to characterise the area. The plant was coal and oil-fired, and its large oil and water tanks remain on site, as do parts of the heavy concrete ground works used for loading coal from the railway

[4] Peter Tonkin, 'Creative Architecture at the Casual Powerhouse' in Casula Works: Public Art at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Casula, NSW, 2000, p 22

[5] Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November 1996, p 17

[6] The Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre website, http://www.casulapowerhouse.com/, accessed online 23 May 2014

[7] The Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre website, http://www.casulapowerhouse.com/, accessed online 23 May 2014

[8] 'Dresses and Dreams: Migrant Brides in Australia, 7 October – 23 November 1995; 'Arabmade: An Exhibition of Contemporary Arabic-Australian Art', 27 February–5 April 1998; 'Niti: Serbian Textile Traditions', 5–26 February 2005; 'Buddha in Suburbia: Greater Western Sydney', 27 August–22 October 2005; 'I Love Pho', 8-17 June 2006; 'Chutney Generations: An Australian-Fijian-Indian Cultural Extravaganza', 16 December–24 February 2007; 'Engagement and Self-Determination: Australian Muslim Women Artists', 12 May–8 July 2012

[9] Hannah Fink, 'Treading Lightly: The Koori Floor at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre' in Casula Works: Public Art at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Casula, NSW, 2000, p 27

[10] According to Gillian Mccracken '…it was envisaged that through this participative project Casula Powerhouse would begin to be embraced as a vital, local cultural resource and a place of enjoyment' in G Maccracken, 'Outhouse to Arthouse' in Casula Works: Public Art at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Casula, NSW, 2000, p 37

[11] Sadly, the pots were removed during renovations to the Casula railway station

[12] The centre has also been greatly supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, the NSW Ministry of the Arts and the Western Sydney Areas Assistance Scheme

.