Burley Griffin Incinerator
by Dorothy Outram
In use: 1937–1971. Demolished: 1992.
For much of the twentieth century, newcomers to Bank Street were truly astonished by the sight of a substantial building overlooking Blackwattle Bay.
This was no ordinary structure. Its massive rectangular form, decorated with patterned concrete tiles, could only call up the wildest of fantasies. What on earth could it be?
One glimpse of the 40-metre smoke stack, and the possibilities immediately narrowed.
This remarkable building was actually an incinerator, capable of dispatching around 1100 cubic metres of household rubbish every single day.
Designed by renowned American architects, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, the Pyrmont Incinerator represented both the old and the new.
Its shape brought together ancient Mayan architecture and ultra-modern Cubist forms. Its decorative tiles, representing the four elements ̶ earth, water, fire and air ̶ spoke of the incineration process itself.
But the most remarkable feature (found in all Burley Griffin incinerators) was the use of reverberatory furnaces ̶ an invention from ancient times, normally used for melting metals, but adapted for incineration by Melbourne engineers John Boadle and Vasilie Trunoff.
No longer would workers have to risk their lives shovelling foul piles of rubbish directly into the mouth of a roaring, open furnace. No longer would they have to rake through steaming piles of fine grey ash to remove partially burned items.
Instead, refuse would be picked up by a ‘grabber’ attached to a travelling crane, and then fed into chutes, each one connected to its own separate furnace on the level below. Here, garbage was transformed by contact with air heated to an extremely high temperature. All that would remain was ash, clinker and steam.
In 1968, air quality tests conducted under the NSW Clean Air Act found the combined emissions from the Burley Griffin Incinerator and its near neighbour, the Pyrmont Destructor (a smaller relic from 1910) did not meet the required standard. Various remedies were suggested and some tried, before both incinerators were shut down in September 1971.
After much public protest and government delay, the Burley Griffin Incinerator was finally demolished in 1992.
Soon after, in keeping with the urban renewal initiatives of the time, the site was occupied by the Meriton apartment buildings, now seen on the corner of Bank Street and Quarry Master Drive.
Peter Y. Navaretti, ‘The Pyrmont Incinerator and its Precedents', in Anne Watson (ed) Beyond architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin in America, Australia, India. Sydney, Powerhouse Publishing, 1998
Shirley Fitzgerald & Hilary Golder, Pyrmont Under Siege, 1st edition, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1994
Shirley Fitzgerald & Hilary Golder, Pyrmont Under Siege, 2nd edition, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 2009