FEATURE: Transforming Howard Smith Wharves is an exercise in preserving history

Words by Mark Damant, Principal, Director, Global Leader - Workplace Architecture, Global Technical Stream Leader, Woods Bagot Brisbane

"I would wager there is going to be a profound change to the way Brisbane city relates to its river and to the immensely well-connected public places along it."

The true re-imagination of the Brisbane River in the city has been in play now for maybe five to 10 years. Brisbane has re-engaged with the river in a really nice way, and the development of Howard Smith Wharves will be transformative from a public space perspective at that section of the city.

We know Howard Smith Wharves will provide an essential stitch between the Riverwalk going east towards the bayside and then to the CBD itself. The other thing Howard Smith Wharves will do is provide linkages up the cliffs into Fortitude Valley and New Farm. That doesn’t really exist at the moment and I think it's really going to change the way the CBD engages with the entertainment precinct of Fortitude Valley in a big way. It will really sync them in a way that has never explored before.

But converting and transforming Howard Smith Wharves into a purposeful, remarkable asset for Brisbane has taken cast of dedicated and synchronised city-shapers. Here’s a look behind the thinking that has gone into bringing it back to life.

An asset for a truly connected Brisbane River

The focus on Howard Smith Wharves as a fiercely proud piece of public space means it really has something for everyone. And that is vital for this type of project.

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From the free parkland and the free events to weddings, functions and as a resident of the hotel, this project is a bit of a beacon for what Brisbane is rapidly becoming as a new world city.

There will be retail and huge tourism benefits but ultimately Howard Smith Wharves will be seen as a community-building, place-building asset. For me, standing under that bridge is going to be a site that evokes memories and comparisons to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. It feels like that.

It has a monumental, almost relic-like atmosphere but it also has very fine-grain scale - vegetable and herb gardens, for example - that children can come to and relate to as well.

If you toss yourself forward let's say five to seven years, and the Dexus development at Eagle Street Pier proceeds - and hopefully they do proceed - I would wager there is going to be a profound change to the way Brisbane city relates to its river and to the immensely well-connected public places along it.

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Re-imagining Howard Smith Wharves for the new Brisbane

For us it was about making sure we understood what the words Howard Smith Wharves meant to the broader history and the maritime history of Brisbane - understanding the heritage of why things are the way they are.

Council had a pretty clear mandate about the amount of public open space the site had to have - it's very much public space. Working with Urbis through the landscape design and the provision of a really world-class public open space was the next step. We had to make sure the public open space was working and those linkages up the cliffs to Fortitude Valley and New Farm were well positioned to ensure bicycles and pedestrians had access from all sides.

Only then do you really start to delve into the architecture.

The architecture was in two parts. One was opening up the heritage to get access to the view and the amenity of the river into the sheds, into the interior of the sheds and also back into the park.

Then there was the creation of a new building on the remnants of a structure that was knocked around by the flood. That building really looked at the roof form as being sympathetic because it sits between two heritage buildings. The view down to that building from the cliffs at New Farm was really important to us as well because we didn't just want a big flat roof. We wanted a building that was finer grained and used timber and organic materials that weather nicely. Because the material for the shed is going on steel it will soften and weather, and you get that lovely patina that will grey off in time. You want the timber to look like a well worn jacket, as if it's always been there.

We didn't want something shiny and sharp, so a lot of the detailing is deliberately quite simple. We tried to keep the detailing in the design quite understandable and honest. Nothing is hidden - it's all open and exposed, truthful and honest. You can see the structure of the shed, you can see the fixings of the timber, you know we're not plastering over it, we're not painting everything. It's all quite raw and organic.

Linking Brisbane’s people to their heritage

The heritage and authenticity in Brisbane today is precious, especially for a site like Howard Smith Wharves. Alongside the Queens Wharf development, the heritage of Brisbane is about to be celebrated like never before.

In particular the history and heritage of the river will be explored and amplified - it is, after all, the reason why Brisbane was settled here. The big opportunity for Brisbane, however, is to more effectively link its people to public places like Howard Smith Wharves. We’re about to have a game-changing asset on that part of the river - the big challenge is ensuring people can access it easily and truly celebrate it as a public space.

Getting those linkages to be more continuous will naturally create more places to stop and pause and create spaces for more celebrations along the river.

Looking west there are a lot of bridges and I think the evidence is there to show that the more bridges you have, the more connected your people are to their city. They don't necessarily have to be car bridges - pedestrian and public transport bridges are perfectly fine. But that sense of continuity and being able to explore and experience the full length of the Brisbane River from the bay eventually would be amazing.

Extending that connected thinking all the way to Moreton Bay is something that should be on the agenda. Moreton Bay is unbelievably beautiful resource that is difficult to experience unless you have a boat. I think giving people an opportunity to City Cycle all the way to the bay ultimately would be amazing. I would also love to see some more availability for private boats in the Brisbane River, to have short-term moorings in and around the CBD would really help the sense of activation and festival that we sometimes miss.

It also has to be said that the cast of companies creating Howard Smith Wharves, especially Hutchinson Builders, has been unbelievably good to watch. Everyone is working together because this job has needed more love than most other jobs would normally need.

Howard Smith Wharves has been crafted into an epic public space because everyone understands it's not about money.

It's about delivering a wonderful gift to Brisbane.

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