Parramatta powerhouse design inspired by Sydney’s Meccano set

Architect Steven Toia stopped under the Sydney Harbor Bridge to marvel at the engineering, the time and labor involved, and the beauty of the deceptively light and delicate latticework that spans its arches.

The evocative shadows of the trellis and their ability to support six times the load of a conventional building inspired Toia and the French and Japanese architects who designed the new $915 million powerhouse Parramatta to make the structure the star of the show.

To do this, they turned the building inside out.

At Parramatta, a structural lattice exoskeleton will support a superstructure of vertical, flexible hyperplatforms. That means the 30,000-square-foot museum currently under construction will be strong enough to hang a squadron of planes.

Its largest showroom has a door big enough for a modern day barn-buster like the late Henry Goya Henry – flying through a barn with the doors open and under telegraph poles – to land a plane (a small one).

Goya Henry, a famous mocker and pilot, was the first (and illegally) to fly under the Harbor Bridge in 1936. His aircraft, the Jolly Roger, an Australian-made Genairco VH-UOG aircraft decorated with skull and crossbones decorations, was purchased for $125,000 from the powerhouse in 2007 and has yet to be displayed.

The structure’s presentation was about “bringing science and art together,” said Toia, a director at Genton, the Australian firm that worked with French and Japanese architects Nicolas Moreau and Hiroko Kusunoki to win the 2019 design competition.

With the foundations almost complete, some parts of the massive steel structure used on the ground floor are already stored in Wollongong, said Tom Gellibrand, Infrastructure NSW’s manager of projects.

Depending on the weather, contractor Lendlease expects to begin erecting the steel structure on site over the next few weeks, like an oversized Meccano set.

The system is modular so the parts snap into place for the public to see.

Some steel beams span 42 meters, and the largest single piece is almost half the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool, Gellibrand said.

“I think it’s going to be pretty exciting (and fast) to see,” Toia said.

Compared to the Harbor Bridge, which took 1,400 workers, 6 million rivets and eight years to build, the two wings of the Parramatta Powerhouse, with their 18,000 square meters of gallery space, are expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

The steel lattice of the Harbor Bridge was created with rivets. In contrast, the latticework at Parramatta was created using plasma machines that cut the lattice design into the stainless steel plate.

An artist's rendering of the $915 million campus for the Powerhouse Museum, slated to open in Parramatta in 2025. The powerhouse will also overhaul its Ultimo house for $500 million. A private fundraising goal of $125 million has been set for the two projects combined.

An artist’s rendering of the $915 million campus for the Powerhouse Museum, slated to open in Parramatta in 2025. The powerhouse will also overhaul its Ultimo house for $500 million. A private fundraising goal of $125 million has been set for the two projects combined.Credit:Moreau Kusunoki and Genton

This uses significantly less steel without sacrificing strength.

The outer latticework, about 700 millimeters from the building’s glass walls, made the building transparent, encouraging visitors to look out and the public to look in, Toia said. It changes size, going from monumental at its base to human as it ascends.

Much of the steel structure was prefabricated abroad, coated with fire and rust-resistant white paint, and built to last so the Harbor Bridge, made famous by comedian Paul Hogan, doesn’t need constant painting.

To minimize the risk of delays encountered during COVID, Lendlease, which won the $502.8 million construction contract, has broken down supplies by procuring components from suppliers around the world and Australia, including those in near the site.

Toia said the museum’s brief required a design that would allow for flexible programming, a long design life of 100 years, and pillar-free spaces.

The architects and engineers see the changing shadows of the trellis as an ever-changing work of art.

To develop the concept, Toia, Moreau and Kusunoki worked with Jun Sato, a civil engineer known for taking inspiration from nature, and engineers from Arup.

Sato compared the effect of the shadows from the trellis in the new museum – which will fall across the glass – to being outdoors in a forest. “When sunlight shines through trees, we feel good,” he said.

The largest of the seven exhibition rooms, called Presentation Space One, is a column-free space that is 55 meters long, 39.5 meters wide and 18.5 meters high.

To accommodate large community events, this space opens up the entire length to the public area overlooking the river, Toia said.

Lisa Havilah, Executive Director of the Powerhouse Museum, said the exoskeleton means “incredible spaces in the Powerhouse are completely pillar-free.”

“They are of epic size,” she said. They would give the museum the opportunity to create “incredible immersive exhibitions”, host international blockbusters and showcase the collection.

“It was this concept of lattice, lattice and more layers of lattice.”

Lisa Havilah, executive director of the Powerhouse Museum

The use of trellises on the Harbor Bridge was raised by the architects at the very first presentation, Havilah said.

“It was this concept of lattice, lattice and more layers of lattice. What they wanted to do was be economical in terms of using this structure to make it feel light but also engineered to absolutely support the building.”

Havilah said a key part of the design brief was to create a museum to house the structure.

“So it’s not a museum of surfaces. It’s a museum made of steel, concrete and glass. And so its form stays true to what it does.”

Before finalizing the design, Toia, Moreau and Kusunoki spent days touring Sydney and Parramatta getting to know the collection.

The two companies had a lot in common. Both are young – Genton was founded in 2010, Moreau Kusunoki in 2011. Both have won prestigious awards, Genton winning the Prix Versailles for his design of the Reservoir train station in Victoria.


The “Jolly Roger”, a Genairco biplane manufactured by the General Aircraft Company of Mascot in 1930.Credit:Collection of the Power Plant Museum

The Franco-Japanese duo was also asked to design a Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki, but it never materialized. They also have ties to some of Japan’s most influential architects, including SANAA, the architects behind the new wing of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Moreau Kusunoki has won most of his work through international competitions, which the architects say offers a rare opportunity to ‘dream’ in a more sheltered context. “It helps us break through our own stereotypes,” they said.

Since Toia, Moreau and Kusunoki won the design competition in 2019, the proposal to build a museum in Parramatta — on the banks of a flood-prone river — has taken a hit. The design is a milk crate, he said herald Art critic John McDonald, and the museum resembled more of an entertainment center and mall than a museum, according to a parliamentary inquiry.

There were other influences besides the Harbor Bridge, Toia said. It was the 1880s wrought-iron Eiffel Tower in Paris – decried as a “tragic street lamp” before it was built – and the first-ever museum of the powerhouse in the glass-and-iron-framed Garden Palace, which was located in what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

An old photograph of the Garden Palace which burned down on September 22nd 1882. It housed the first Powerhouse Museum.

An old photograph of the Garden Palace which burned down on September 22nd 1882. It housed the first Powerhouse Museum. Credit:

The Garden Palace, built for an international exhibition, has faced similar objections to those at Parramatta over the past five years.

It was overpriced at £250,000 and had water problems (too little compared to the criticism of building a new museum next to a flooded river). No one could agree on its focus: whether it should be rural in nature or house the latest in industry and manufacturing from around the world.


Just as critics have attacked the powerhouse’s move to Parramatta and the subsequent decision to keep the old museum at Ultimo and build a new one to serve Sydney’s west, that is herald asked why build a garden palace if the town hall was not yet finished?

1878 the herald wrote, “We initially objected to this matter, but it has gone too far… We must influence the flow in a positive way.”

The palace survived only three years, burning to ashes at dawn in September 1882, destroying priceless objects. Some survive in today’s Powerhouse collection.

The Parramatta project’s lead structural engineer, Arup’s Kengo Takamatsu, said the benefit of the lattice structure in the exoskeleton is resilience and strength. “Even if a structural member is damaged or removed, the load can be redistributed very efficiently,” says Takamatsu, who worked on the project for three years.


“It also exceeds standard load requirements – Powerhouse Parramatta’s exoskeleton structures support six times the load carried by columns in a conventional commercial building with the same number of floors.”

Takamatsu, who studied engineering and architecture in Japan, said the structural challenge required looking beyond thick walls and columns and harnessing the ability of an exoskeleton structure to be strong enough to withstand the very heavy loads of a long-span, multi-story building carry.

“In addition, the structure must be able to withstand an earthquake that occurs every 2,500 years or extreme wind speeds to ensure structural integrity for a 100-year lifespan.”

In Parramatta’s final plan, the architects positioned the two wings of the new museum away from the river and also created more public space that sits above the flood risk zone.

The Morning Edition Newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Login here. Parramatta powerhouse design inspired by Sydney’s Meccano set

Justin Scaccy

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