Upgrading the historic Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal

by FM Media
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Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal has been given a new lease of life, writes JOHN POWER, thanks to a $10 million upgrade of Wharf Shed 3, a heritage-listed structure dating back to 1914.

First impressions are always profound, and the first thing cruise liner passengers now see when they disembark at Cairns, Queensland, is the stunningly rejuvenated Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal – a multipurpose facility designed for the enjoyment of visitors and local residents alike.
Upgrades to civic facilities are notoriously difficult to master – we’ve all witnessed the twin bêtes noires of civic building refurbishments: designers who prioritise contemporary fashion over diachronic function, and commissioning agents who allow immediate shock value to dominate long-term social value.
Thankfully, the redesigned 1300-square metre Cairns Terminal at Wharf Shed 3 displays no such shortcomings. On the contrary, not only does this creative redesign respect the best elements of the century-old structure (notably its magnificent original materials and cavernous internal spaces), but it also introduces an unobtrusive modern aesthetic that is mature enough to doff its hat to Father Time.
The freshly upgraded building, designed by Arkhefield in association with Total Project Group (TPG) Architects, is used as both a cruise liner berth and as a place for public and private conventions and events for up to 600 people, making it an important community asset and cultural venue.
The brief for the project, as outlined by the architects, “was to refurbish the building in a manner that was respectful to the heritage fabric, but converted the shed into a state-of-the-art multipurpose space to be used as a function and exhibition space when cruise liners are not berthed”. Similarly, the consequent conceptual framework noted, “The key design philosophy for the project was to retain as much of the heritage fabric as possible and to create contemporary insertions containing necessary amenities required for operations, as well as openings into the existing fabric. The insertions had to be easily discernable and ‘polished’ using materials which are sympathetic to the heritage fabric.”

Prudent materials selection is the cornerstone of the success of the project, which celebrates a combination of exposed timbers and metalwork. The boldest and most striking design innovation is a network of large windows. The original building – with its extraordinary internal timber frames – was closed to external inspection, but the addition of large windows unveiled these treasures to the outside world and simultaneously brought a lightness and openness to the whole façade. In the meantime, ease of maintenance and practicality are forefront considerations. According to Arkhefield associate Karen Ognibene and TPG principal director Roger Mainwood, durable materials requiring minimal maintenance were chosen for the new insertions to the building. Examples include:

  • Colorbond stainless steel wall cladding, which encases existing galvanised iron sheet at high level, where wash down of salt air is less likely to occur naturally with rain
  • Colorbond Ultra steel roof sheet, which encases existing galvanised iron sheet
  • coating of all exposed new steel with a Dulux Weathermax system
  • coating of existing steel cladding with a Dulux Weathershield system
  • either off-form concrete or rendered masonry, requiring little to no maintenance, on all new external walls, and
  • oversized hardwood timber decking boards or concrete for all new external floors.

Clearly, the building retains a great deal of its original materials, while additions are sympathetic to existing templates. It is worth highlighting the use of polished concrete flooring, for instance, which thoughtfully marries the old-fashioned solidity of a concrete slab with the contemporary slickness of a polished surface.
As the designers have stated, “All restoration of the cargo doors, timber columns, clock tower and bollards by a heritage carpenter and all material replacement was carried out with ‘like for like’ materials. This included replacement girts from recycled wharf timbers salvaged from other wharf sheds, Fielders Z600 barrel roll profiled sheeting manufactured on a heritage press in Adelaide, and salvaged door hardware for the cargo doors.
“The existing single skin corrugated iron fabric had no thermal insulation properties and the numerous holes and openings in the fabric made it almost impossible to seal the building sufficiently to fully air-condition. As the core design philosophy was to retain the existing fabric as raw as possible from the interior, the new insulation and corrugated iron sheeting was applied as a ‘skin’ on top of the existing fabric, creating an effective insulated sandwich panel of new and old.
“Any new materials used for the insertions or as the external skin are sympathetic to the heritage fabric, but clearly distinguishable.”

It is evident that materials and insertions adhere artfully to the integrity of the original design and ambience of the building, but it is important to acknowledge that ongoing maintenance considerations have also been taken into account.
“As Ports North is the owner and operator of the facility, ongoing maintenance and building running costs were critically important to it,” say Ognibene and Mainwood.
“While the exterior materials were strongly influenced by the harsh climatic conditions, we also applied the same robust logic to the interior finishes. The polished concrete floor is resilient to spills and robust enough to handle both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. The main shed walls have been retained as unpainted galvanised iron and timber, while the interior finishes in the amenities are fully vitrified wall tiles and durable stone and recycled timber joinery.
“The mixed mode air-conditioning system was strongly influenced by ongoing running costs; the air-conditioning is designed to cool the building sufficiently to work together with Big Ass fans, which then maximise air movement. There is considerable cost associated with air-conditioning in a volume of this size, which is not used on a daily basis.”

While the upgraded building represents an evolution in the life of the structure, the designers and its civic protectors have handled the process with a measure of delicacy. For example, whereas similar structures, like the ferry terminal in San Francisco, feature full-building shops and cafés, a farmers market etc, the Cairns Terminal treads lightly on its historical terrain, introducing new applications sparingly and leaving plenty of room for growth, both within its own four walls and in the nearby, yet to be refurbished, Wharf Shed 2.
“The retail outlets inside the terminal are of a temporary nature – mobile display cases designed to accommodate anything from jewellery to tropical fruit,” say Ognibene and Mainwood.
“The building’s location has the benefit of strong pedestrian links to the Hilton Hotel and Reef Fleet Terminal, where there are numerous shops and restaurants. As the precinct grows and demand is realised, additional retail will be accommodated in the adjacent Shed 2. Tenders for its upgrade are expected to be called early next year.
“Although there isn’t retail on-site, a major focus of the shed has been to transform it into a state-of-the-art multipurpose space that can be used as a function and exhibition space when cruise liners aren’t berthed. It was an important part of the urban renewal of the wharf precinct, and it’s now a tourism and cultural hub for Cairns. There are limited waterfront function venues in Cairns, so the space is ideal for this purpose.”

As mentioned, there is a strong heritage interpretation element to the facility. Indeed, clear signs and totems allow visitors to enjoy a commentary on the prior uses and activities associated with the site, and these displays also reinforce the value of the building to the growth of Cairns.
“The history of the site and the building, exports from the site and anecdotes from previous occupants are told via a series of totems in the landscape, plaques on the street furniture, a timeline which carries through the interior of the shed, and oversized black and white photographs printed on the walls,” explain Ognibene and Mainwood.
“Arkhefield and Total Project Group worked closely with Converge Heritage + Community and Dot Dash to design all of these elements and to tell the stories.”

Both Ognibene and Mainwood say the project revealed important lessons about sympathetic upgrades to heritage buildings. Their advice to other professionals charged with modernising the design and operational efficiency of older public assets is as follows:

  • consider how insertions into the existing building fabric can be easily reversed
  • ensure the details and materials of the new, inserted elements are distinct, yet complementary, to the existing fabric, and
  • where possible, find creative ways to tell the story of the history of the site, which are more meaningful than plaques alone.

Photography by Scott Burrows, Aperture Photography.

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