What’s Happening To The Freo Powerhouse?

Words by: Jon Davidson

For many young adults living in Fremantle and Cockburn, the promising smell of wet paint is at risk.

In August this year, Yahoo! news Australia featured a story on development plans from Landcorp and Synergy involving the South Fremantle Power Station. Said plans aim to begin redevelopment of the site into a luxury apartment complex within the next eight to ten years.

Heading south along the coastline from Fremantle, at the outskirts of Coogee, you can find the iconic building. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Freo powerhouse,’ it is an icon of architecture, culture and local history. It is the largest work of infrastructure built in art décor style within the southern hemisphere, according to the city of Cockburn’s local government inventory, which I received from Cockburn council. The same document also awards the power station with an A for “exceptional significance.”

Culturally and historically speaking, the powerhouse is particularly unique. Since its closure in 1985 the building has remained largely unchanged, except for the removal of heavy machinery, hazardous materials and of course, the destruction of every last glass windowpane. This latter element of trespass and vandalism has seen the landmark receive occasional public criticism over the years for its ‘ugly’ nature, made only worse by the accumulation of steel fences and generous servings of razor wire (an engaging alternative to this viewpoint can be read here.)

That is, however, until you step inside.

The building sits right by the shore of the beach, and if you find yourself on the second floor, you’ll find that it offers a stunning view at sunset overlooking the harbour, on top of all the colourful and impressive murals (or “pieces”) adorning the walls. All styles and talents are accounted for – classic murals, stencil work, character and face work, paint rollers, taggers, handwriters and enough crudely drawn dick-and-balls to last a lifetime.

The ‘Powerhouse’ as it currently stands undoubtedly holds the state’s largest graffiti and street art collection. A constant game of push-and-pull is played between groups of trespassing can-shakers and council staff, who go back like clockwork to mend holes and missing sections made in the exterior fences. Every now and then, a guard from a local security company will be signed on to spend the day lingering around the building on patrol, but this apparently does nothing to hold back the waves of aspiring street artists.

Staying true to the nickname, it truly is a powerhouse of urban creativity and human expression.

Fremantle city Mayor Brad Pettit referenced the off-limits “romance” of the place during an interview held in mid-September, when I asked about the importance of its contemporary significance. In this same interview, he revealed good news: discussions between the council of Fremantle and Landcorp have already taken place, and further negotiations are to be settled regarding preservation of the heritage site. However, nothing has yet been officially announced by either side.

“Landcorp see the point,” he said.

As of writing this, the South Fremantle Power Station currently resides within Cockburn city. However, upcoming changes to the borders will see it absorbed into the jurisdiction of Fremantle city. This is just one of many considerations currently being noted by Landcorp in the long process of acquiring the ‘thumbs up’ from the state government to begin redevelopments.

Chief Executive Officer of Landcorp Frank Marra wrote that ‘there is a lot of work to be done’ to realise the vision Landcorp have created.

All I can hope is that this vision does not turn a blind eye towards over two decades of artistic expression.

A digital 360⁰ panorama of the power station’s interior can be accessed here.

Image Courtesy Of: Barney Meyer