At the centre of the Hyde Park Barracks renewal project is the seamless union of old and new, including the precision installation of a passenger lift.

The bold and innovative renewal of the Hyde Park Barracks explores the convict, immigrant and asylum eras of this place. Visitors follow a narrative that leads them through the three floors of the central barracks building. Until now, the upper floors could only be accessed by stairs. To ensure that the visitor experience is accessible to all, we needed to find a way to insert a passenger lift into this exceptional UNESCO World Heritage-listed building, designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, constructed using convict labour, and completed in 1819.

Guiding the design

To guide the scoping and design phase of the project, SLM undertook a study of historic sites in the US, Europe and Australia where lifts had been introduced. We identified that a feature of successful designs was a strong contrast between the old and the new – a finely balanced juxtaposition of the modern lift in its historical setting.

Criteria were then developed for the lift design and installation. In particular, the lift must be clearly a contemporary addition to the building. It shouldn’t ‘upstage’ the historic fabric, but should be a recessive element of very high quality. It should be structurally independent and involve the least amount of change to the building, touching the historic fabric as little as possible. The potential for archaeological remains to be disturbed or discovered during the works must be considered early in the design process. The lift also needed to be designed to be removable in the future, again with the least possible impact on the historic fabric.

Location

The next question was where to install the lift. The first principle of addressing access issues in historic buildings is to consider architectural opportunities and visitor circulation. The barracks building originally had two staircases, located opposite each other in the north and south halls. The staircase in the south hall had been removed by 1887 to make room for government offices. In 1979–81, when the building was converted for museum use, these infill rooms were removed to once again reveal Greenway’s well-conceived south hall design.

The scoping study identified the south hall as the preferred location for the lift, in that it references the original staircase location, creates no external visual intrusions, fits with the established visitor circulation, has the least impact on heritage fabric – and in particular doesn’t involve penetrating any original fabric – and has low archaeological potential.

A minimalist glass lift

A cantilevered glass lift was selected as the most suitable style for the south hall. The lift provides unobstructed views of the hall’s well‑proportioned Georgian door and windows by offsetting the motor, rails and counterweight to the east side of the lift structure.

To minimise disturbance to the colonial fabric, a concrete lift pit was built in the south hall, 1.9 metres wide, 2.5 metres long and 0.8 metres deep. The pit was designed to take the structural load of all the lift elements – including the steel‑framed superstructure, the cantilevered lift, and the low‑iron glass curtain-wall installed at each floor. This ensures the structural independence of the 11.4-tonne lift within the building and eliminates the technical challenges involved in resolving the detailing of intersections between new and old structures.

It’s much easier to create a complementary counterpoint to an outstanding building. Greenway’s south hall provided the classical idiom and rules of composition for the lift project. The lift design exhibits the stylistic attributes of minimalism in architecture, and goes further than the Georgians and Greenway by eliminating all ornamentation in its execution. The colour palette of the lift was restricted to warm greys, including garnet‑blasted and brushed stainless steel.

Vitally, the new lift means that all visitors to the renewed museum, whether they take the staircase or the lift, will follow a similar path as they make their way through each level of the building to immerse themselves in the history of this highly significant place.

Watch a video of the lift installation: slm.is/hpb

  • Looking along long wooden floored hall to 'ghost' staircase.

    The south hall before the lift was installed.

    Photo © Chris Bennett/Evolving Picture

  • Wooden floored hall with glass lift installed.

    The newly installed lift in the south hall at the Hyde Park Barracks.

    Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Plan of building with red circle superimposed over part of it.
Original plan of the Hyde Park Barracks, attributed to Francis Greenway, c1816–17 (detail; circle indicates south hall). National Archives, UK: MFQ 1/236/11

Hyde Park Barracks lift project team

SLM Heritage Team

Gartner Rose, building contractor

Johnson Pilton Walker, design architects

Taylor Thomson Whitting, structural engineers

Norman Disney & Young, mechanical engineers

GML Heritage, archaeologists

Lucas Stapleton Johnson, heritage architects