Profile: Cockatoo Island

Published:  October 9, 2012
Latoyah Forsyth
Profile: Cockatoo Island

Cockatoo Island’s architectural trajectory spans 130 years of convict, industrial and maritime history. Now, the island converges with the arts.

Cockatoo Island is a chameleon space steeped in convict history and dating back to the First Settlement in 1788. Situated at the junction of the Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers in Sydney Harbour, it’s just a 15-minute ferry ride away from the Opera House in Circular Quay. The island has operated as a convict gaol, a reformatory and industrial school, a dock and shipbuilding yard and, now, a cultural landmark that simultaneously looks forward as a contemporary landmark and tourist destination and backward as a space saturated in a historical legacy of more than 130 years.

Owned by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, a self-funding government agency, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site was opened to the public in 2007 and comprises a mix of convict, industrial and maritime architecture, including solitary prison cells, hand-carved grain silos, a military guardhouse, convict workshops and weatherboard houses, which are located alongside commanding industrial buildings, abandoned workshops, intimidating ground constructs and two dry docks.


Cockatoo Island

Buildings on Cockatoo Island

The 18ha island is not a conventional artistic space, and calls upon local visitors and tourists alike to embrace the non-traditionalist site, hosting a mishmash of major events as well as a selection of fringe projects that seek to cement Cockatoo Island as a flexible venue diverse in programming. In 2011, Cockatoo Island hosted the National Skateboarding Championships, the Red Bull X-Fighters World Series, a concert by Perth band Birds of Tokyo, an episode of MasterChef and street culture festival Outpost Project.

With the aim of establishing Cockatoo Island as one of Sydney’s ultimate cultural landmarks, the vast site has also engineered an industrial canvas-like setting for artistic projects. 2012 has also recently seen Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts event, the Biennale of Sydney, return to both the Upper and Lower Island as part of the themed exhibition focusing on collaboration, conversation and compassion in the face of coercion and destruction (a theme developed by Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, artistic directors of the 18th Biennale).

Turbine Hall

“One of the pleasures and privileges of working at Cockatoo Island is watching how artworks and installations transform our historic landscape. Buildings that once housed prisoners in chains and then witnessed decades of grinding toil are now the backdrop to things of beauty, playful creations and stimulating, thought-provoking artworks,” says Geoff Bailey, executive director of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

Before the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust took ownership of Cockatoo Island in 2001, the site was out of commission and inaccessible to the public. A decade on, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and Cockatoo Island continue to transform the multifaceted industrial space into an emerging cultural destination by facilitating open access to the public with an assortment of programs and events that continue to modernise the reputation of the island and complement its architectural legacy, environmental values and preserved heritage.

“Cockatoo Island is now an emerging cultural destination in Sydney,” Bailey says. “In the past decade, the Harbour Trust has developed programs and events that enrich the city. Our ultimate aim is to establish Cockatoo Island as one of Sydney’s premier cultural hubs, presenting exciting and innovative activities that appeal to a range of different audiences.”

Images courtesy the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust.

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