Friday, February 29, 2008

Opening of Nobbys Lighthouse

Opening of Nobbys Lighthouse

by Dr Steffen Lehmann

I know, from twenty years experience as an architect working with built and cultural heritage, that there are always alternative options and a series of ways in how to design and deal with adaptive re-use projects.

In principle most people are clearly in support of the re-opening of Nobbys lighthouse and it will add another great tourist destination to our city. But there are various ways that such a re-opening of the site could occur. Based on its historical significance, this prominent site needs to be made publicly accessible in a careful, sensitive and sustainable way. The heritage has to grow with Newcastle.

It requires the special skill and attribute of ‘architectural diplomacy’ from the side of the design team.

The aim must be: To achieve more with less!

Working with such delicate built heritage is no easy task. Adaptive reuse projects such as Customs House, The Rocks and Carriage Works (all in Sydney) are recent fine examples and illustrate the great gain that can be achieved by sensitive adaptive reuse.

The Herald has recently published images of what is exactly proposed for Nobbys Lighthouse, and it appears that the best solution is not on the table yet; could there be better outcomes for the community and all Novocastrians?

Many residents in Newcastle East spoke to me over the last few weeks about this project, and there are significant concerns in regard to the proposal to ‘squeeze’ a new structure onto the lighthouse’s platform.

Let’s celebrate the existing, but not overwhelm it!

The current proposal appears to have too much impact on the lighthouse.

The better solution would be to skip the component of overnight stay and put the café or restaurant in the existing old cottages. This way sensitive adaptive re-use would deal in a more respectful method with the precious existing group of buildings.

It is probably one of the most prominent sites in Newcastle and people will line up to eat or drink coffee up there.

Ironically, only few years ago, the proponent has shown how to do it with the Stationmaster’s Cottage: by integrating the restaurant into the existing cottage, without a need for large additional structures.

Is the existing garage misused as an argument to add a large new volume?

The construction of the ugly garage was a mistake, however, it can easily be repaired through its demolition; however, this cannot be used as argument for another inappropriate volume. Once the ugly garage is demolished, it will open up the fantastic view from a one meter raised platform, and freeing up the lighthouse from its congested situation; with demolition of the garage the viewing platform will already be there: there is no need for another raised viewing platform dwarfing and overwhelming the delicate lighthouse structure. Once the lighthouse is free-standing, it can be properly appreciated and will be allowed to play again the role it should play. The garage structure should therefore be removed anyway, as soon as possible. However, no major new structure should again congest the composition of buildings.

Vehicles on the Walkway

Probably the worst idea is the proposal to have vehicular traffic on the breakwater walkway. I believe this is a totally inappropriate suggestion and completely unacceptable for the public. In no circumstance should precious public space for pedestrians be given away for the convenience of cars.

It is unacceptable because it is against any generally accepted method of good planning! Over the last years, we have been constantly working hard to make the city more pedestrian friendly and more enjoyable for walking and cycling (just think of declining health of the population, growing obesity, etc); and here is someone seriously suggesting such a backward-looking and ill-informed idea. Once you have the cars driving up there, no one could ever control vehicular movement to one an hour. Turning this into a driveway would be bad for the community and its public domain.

It can be done without the driveway. For instance, hundreds of heritage-listed precincts with restaurants in the UK, in Italy and many other places are proof that it can work without vehicular access for guests of the restaurant. There is no need to drive up there, with the only exception: 2 vehicles early morning, for kitchen delivery and garbage collection (both at a most convenient time to be agreed on).

In general, the idea to put another curved wall in such close proximity of the historical lighthouse is probably not a convincing proposition. It would always be better if the lighthouse remains the only curved or circular element, celebrated by the rectangular boxes of the existing cottages.

Following the debate over the last weeks, I thought the design team received good advice from Doug Lithgow. Nobody is against a reasonable development and the re-opening of the site. If this team thinks it’s not feasible without the overnight stay component, I would suggest to open up the process and find another restaurateur; there would be many others very keen to get hold of such a wonderful prime location - probably one of the most exposed and desirable locations along the NSW coast.

Newcastle City Council and the Heritage Office:
it’s never too late to revisit a project.

So far, no mistakes have been built. From an independent architectural and planning point of view, I believe we should ask for the best possible outcomes at this outstanding and unique location, even if it has taken some time for this solution to emerge.

Dr Steffen Lehmann
University of Newcastle
20 February 2008

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