Contemporary Design Meets Historical Restoration

A heritage listed former warehouse building in the inner-city suburb of Woolloomooloo, Sydney; now a community hub where historic relics meet modern architectural brilliance.

The heritage building, constructed in 1888, is now known as the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre. The story behind the name is as intriguing as the building itself – albeit tragic. An Australian publisher, community activist and heiress, Juanita disappeared in Kings Cross, Sydney in early July, 1975 aged just 38. The people responsible for her disappearance have never been identified and no trace of her has ever been found; it’s a mystery that carries on to this day, more than 40 years later. The Juanita Nielsen Community Centre was created in her memory, with the aim being to serve the community – just as Juanita once did.

Mulberry Constructions, in conjunction with architects Neeson Murcutt and Growthbuilt, were tasked with the complete historical restoration of this heritage listed corner building – from creating an aesthetically pleasing yet functional interior, through to restoring the original stone exterior. Commissioned by the City of Sydney, the project began in April, 2015 and took nine months to complete with builders laying down their tools in January, 2016. The result? A skillful blend of classic and modern themes, blended tastefully to create a design that is sure to stand the test of time – and plenty of use!

The centre performs a range of functions for the local community; a place to meet, learn and engage. Vibrancy and safety were at the core of this project, and these factors were taken into consideration during the design and build. To this end, the design re-orientates the original entry, re-organises the circulation, and maximises visibility internally – ensuring it meets the needs of a broad range of purposes.

Before construction and restoration of this heritage building could begin, the building was completely gutted and new internal floors were added, as this allowed for complete freedom with regards to the design of the interior layout. It was then a matter of fitting out the shell to meet the needs of the community – while keeping in touch with the building’s history. The 1888 heritage fabric was retained, up-cycled and celebrated. Bare brick interior walls remain and deliver a rustic, time-worn feel, as does exposed timber and iron beams. While the bricks are original, much of the timber has been added – such as the intricate wooden beams that line the upper ceiling and the floorboards on the upper level – however these additions blend seamlessly with original features and work to further extend the heritage feel.

Space was an important factor in the design of this building. High ceilings are extended further by the second level being a mezzanine; clever contemporary design means the central void draws the eyes to the ceiling and creates a feeling of space. This is balanced by the exposed timber, corrugated iron and bricks, as they create a feeling of warmth. The high ceilings that extend into the pitches of the roof also have another function: skylights here allow sunlight to cascade through the mezzanine and touch the ground level, ensuring the building is bathed in natural light.

In terms of layout and facilities, the community centre offers something for everyone. Accompanying a feature floating staircase – in a brilliant golden hue – the building incorporates a lift and accessible facilities to ensure it can be enjoyed by all. A state-of-the-art community gymnasium is fitted complete with new change rooms and facilitates adult fitness classes; new multi-purpose spaces ensure there is ample space for social and creative learning programs for all age groups; and a new outdoor play area and space for children’s programs ensure physical activity is encouraged amongst the younger members of the community. The centre’s entrepreneurial free co-working space provides an opportunity for startups and local small businesses to share a space and communicate with other like-minded people to generate ideas and support each other in their business development.

A wonderful example of contemporary architecture with a heritage twist, The Juanita Nielsen Community Centre historical restoration project has garnered a number of awards since it was rebuilt and restored. At the 2017 Australian Institute of Architects Awards, it collected three accolades: the Greenway Award for Heritage Architecture; the Architecture Award for Public Architecture; and the John Verge Award for Interior Architecture. At the 2017 GOV Design Awards Mixed Use Architecture, it was a Gold Winner, and at the MBA Awards it was recognised with the 2017 MBA Award for Excellence in Construction – Restoration of an Historic Building ($5,000,001 – $10,000,000).

Far from your average community hub, the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre is not merely a place created to serve a functional purpose; it’s a creative space designed to bring out the best in those who visit.