Between 1930 and 1938, Walter Burley Griffin and Eric Nicholls designed thirteen municipal incinerators in various Australian cities. Built in the heart of the Great Depression, these odd little buildings must have been a creative and financial godsend for Griffin, an architect whose splendid dreams were too often thwarted by unsplendid clients. The incinerators, which often sat in suburban streets, were ‘green’ infrastructure avant la lettre, fascinating both as urban history and as a possible model for the urban transformations required by the 21st century.
By 1930, Griffin had been pushed out by the functionaries in charge of building Canberra, the vision which had brought him halfway around the world, and Castlecrag, the ideal bushland suburb he designed on Sydney’s Middle Harbour with his wife Marion Mahony, was barely progressing due to the Great Depression. The incinerators resulted from an unlikely partnership between Griffin, his junior partner Nicholls and Nisson Leonard-Kanevsky, a Russian immigrant, Griffin client, future Castlecragian and founder of the Reverberatory Incinerator and Engineering Company (RIECo).
As Australian cities grew, the disposal of increasing quantities of discarded lamb chop bones, chip wrappers, soup tins, worn out fedoras, nightsoil and broken beer bottles became a serious problem. Traditionally, household garbage was either burned in sooty incinerators, buried in landfill or dumped at sea. Reverberatory incinerators, patented by Kanevsky’s partner John Boadle, were far ahead of their time. Placed on sloping sites, gravity fed the waste through from hoppers at the top to sealed furnaces where it was burned at a very high temperature. The hot combustion gases were recycled to dry the incoming trash so that it would burn even hotter, eliminating noxious emissions and smoke. The small amount of resulting ash was usually reused as fertilizer or a base for roads, while excess hot gas could be used to run boilers. Griffin and Nicholls’ architectural skill was intrinsic to their success, assuaging nervous local Councils by ensuring that the surprisingly diminutive incinerators fit into their suburban contexts (hygiene remains under-appreciated as an explanation for modern architecture). With Kanevsky’s instinct for commerce and Boadle’s engineering skill, RIECo cleaned up, so to speak, dominating the trash burning business throughout the decade.
Of the thirteen incinerators designed by Griffin and Nicholls, seven remain, a rate of attrition which is both a shame and a kind of miracle given the pragmatic nature of the buildings and their location in now desirable suburbs. In Sydney there are two, at Glebe and Willoughby, both now big-time heritage items floating in a heaven festooned with interpretive signage. The Willoughby incinerator, more intact, perhaps thanks to neglect and its location next to a park, has just been opened to the public as a combined exhibition space, cafe and artist’s studio.
The unwieldiness of Griffin’s career and the beautiful strangeness of his style can make him seem more opaque than his contemporaries. Compared to the more orderly trajectories of Le Corbusier, Wright and Mies, Griffin is difficult to characterize. He was an adventurous architect and a sensitive urban planner, almost a contradiction in terms among the ludicrous Radiant and Broadacre cities of the modernist era. Of the buildings he managed to realize, many have been altered or demolished. Of his urban plans, Canberra is barely a shell of what it could have been, and Castlecrag, from which we should be learning so much, is marred by the many incredibly ham-fisted houses which continue to be built there. Griffin remains virtually unknown in his home country, a disregard partly the result of his incessant globetrotting and partly by his style, which is modern but something other than modernist.
If Griffin were a writer, he would be a ‘difficult’ novelist, and his incinerators a series of exquisite short stories. Though their authorship was disputed between Griffin and Nicholls, who ran the Melbourne office from which his mentor was often absent in the 1930s, the clear and nonnegotiable functional requirements of the incinerators make them a manageable gateway into the sensibility of an architect who could have, had he only stayed in Chicago, et cetera et cetera, been one of the most renowned of his century. The incinerators belong to a tradition of ‘serialized architecture’, whether as consciously ordered as Peter Eisenman’s numbered houses of the 1970s and 80s, or as circumstantial as Palladio’s villas, which probably deserves its own book. Any architect able to keep an office running while conceptualizing a series of anything is not doing too badly.
There is a pleasing tension between the domestic scale of Griffin’s incinerators (Willoughby is smaller than most of the houses across the street), their comfortable placement on their sites and the singularity of their ornament. For Griffin, even more than for Wright or Sullivan, ornament was never a crime. One might see clear references to pre-Columbian, art deco or Mesopotamian antecedents (the demolished Pyrmont incinerator — by far the largest of the series — was one of very few Griffin buildings to use consciously anthroposophical ornamentation) but Griffin is so interesting because he always slips out of your grasp. His buildings are beautiful, but never conventionally so, a state of grace which can make them appear almost ugly at first glance (we should remember how ugly many of the early colonists found the Australian bush). On a continuum between an architecture of sculptural unity (a tendency running perhaps from the Parthenon, past the Crystal Palace to latter-day Zaha Hadid and all of Santiago Calatrava) and composed fragments (most Renaissance architecture, John Soane, all but the latest Wright, most Corb, all of James Stirling and many others great and small), Griffin is very much at the latter end. His buildings are carefully wrought from moment to moment, dependent on the natural circumstances of a site and on the unapologetic prominence of their ornament.
At first glance, the design of the Willoughby incinerator seems determined by subterfuge — the requirement to pretend to be a house, a trick perhaps inadvertently reinforced by the chunky beige picket fencing used too liberally in the current restoration. The gable ends are prominent from the street, more so even than the inevitable smokestack, so that the extent of the building as it steps down the slope is not immediately apparent. Many Australian buildings behave like mullets (the haircut), tidy in the front and scraggly in the back (look at any country pub — the building, I mean). Clambering around Willoughby, it becomes clear that the incinerator is too visible from all sides to have a ‘back’. It is embedded in its context. Like the Sydney Opera House, its appearance shifts forcefully as you move around it. From the sides there is a liquid quality to the way the building drops down the slope between two curving sandstone retaining walls. Flat on from below the building almost becomes its elevation drawing, much taller than from the street and yet somehow still pocket-sized.
The restoration, by SJB architects, allows visitors to descend from the street above, through a gully-like courtyard lined with heavy sandstone into what is now a small but pleasant gallery space on the lowest level. The restoration has been handled sensitively, if anonymously, creating the kind of polite heritage-space often found in Sydney. If the effect is a little bland, then is surely preferable to demolition by neglect, intent or facadism. The new addition which really converses with Griffin is Sydney architect and sculptor Richard Goodwin’s Exoskeleton Lift, a faceted stainless steel “ode to Griffin” which seemingly melts over the the top of what would otherwise be be a very ugly elevator core. Willoughby Council (burdened, in other news, by an ultra-salacious corruption investigation — local papers must dream of being able to use the headline “FREE SEX”) deserves credit for seeing the project through and creating what is likely to be a cherished community space. The incinerator is also the start of the Griffin Federation Trail (PDF map here) which leads to Castlecrag, 2km to the northeast.
The last matter is garbage, for it continues to pile up sight unseen in landfills, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In a more ideal world the history of the reverberatory incinerators might inspire our governments to embark on a contemporary reprise of the project. In Denmark, ultra-efficient modern incinerators process waste cleanly, producing substantial amounts of clean energy (the plants do emit some CO2, but this is preferable to the methane which would otherwise be emitted from the landfill). The plants are so inoffensive that, as the New York Times reports, even wealthy danes are happy to live next door. Local governments of the 1930s showed unusual vision in commissioning the RIECo incinerators, many of which were eventually shut down in the face of local opposition. Our society is richer now, and far more timid.
2 Small Street