New beginnings for the former Pentridge Prison with new public Piazza

ASPECT insights
New beginnings for the former Pentridge Prison with new public Piazza
  The former Pentridge Prison in the northern suburb of Coburg has undertaken a transformation, turning a decommissioned landmark of controversial history into a new residential and retail precinct.

“ASPECT Studios is dedicated to transforming brownfield sites in our inner cities into thriving new communities, that also protect and value their past lives and the deep histories of places and people,” said Kirsten Bauer, Landscape Architect and Director of ASPECT Studios.

The prison operated for almost 150 years before officially closing in 1997, and during that time was the main remand centre for the Melbourne metropolitan area.

Pentridge’s long serving role as a prison housing some of Australia’s most infamous criminals infused the site with challenging narratives, making it essential to have an innovative approach to interpretation and a considered response to the emotional and traumatic place it holds in many hearts and minds.

ASPECT Studios collaborated with NH Architecture on the original master plan that gained approval from Heritage Victoria and have subsequently completed the main part of the development of ‘Pentridge Coburg’ alongside Sue Hodges Productions (SHP) and PTA Landscapes, allowing the opportunity to build on the history of Pentridge as well as being part of its future.

The depth of the site’s cultural significance guided its redevelopment, where considered design elements recognise the history entrenched at Pentridge. The monumental size and classical style of the nineteenth century buildings contribute to their architectural significance making it vital to acknowledge the importance of the sites past whilst making room for new beginnings.

ASPECT Studios sought to find a balance between the significant and dark history of the site, its heritage fabric and the need to create a new contemporary square that was welcoming for the community.

Positioned in the heart of the precinct in what used to be the parade ground or mustering yard, the new Central Piazza sits between the heritage protected bluestone buildings, and next to the new retail centre and cinema designed by architects the Buchan Group.

The spatial arrangement of the Central Piazza reflects the area that was once used as a prisoner parade and assembly ground, and the entry and arrival sequence from Champ Street has been reflected in the ceremonial entrance to the Piazza.

Core to representing this arrangement, the marking of the historic mustering lines of the prisoners in the yard are embedded into the Piazza through simple concrete lines and crosses marking each prisoner, a piece of the interpretive approach developed between ASPECT Studios and SHP.

Large quantities of hand carved bluestone blocks were extracted by the prisoners themselves to build the buildings and walls from the adjacent former quarry that is now Coburg Lake. These blocks are reused to create seats, edges and a water play sculpture. In this way honouring the labour and craft of the individual and a connection back to the geology that has marked this site so dramatically.

Connections into the walled enclosures were identified and delicately stitched back into the surrounding environment through the reuse of materials forming an intricate bond with the former prison lines. Additional elements interpretation of the stories and mementos of prison life are subtly infused throughout the site, accessible to all, an invitation to a deeper exploration to access the past. These stories are also infused into the wayfinding signage, also delivered by ASPECT Studios’ specialist inhouse wayfinding and signage team.

Pentridge is now in the early stage of a revitalised chapter, and by altering the perspective from a neglected traumatic space to one of Melbourne’s cultural assets, the site lives on to see a new era where there is much to learn and reflect on.

The Piazza supports the redevelopment plan of a renewed lease of life for the heritage listed building and grounds by incorporating the use of rescued materials from the original site ensuring the prolific stories hosted by the space are not lost or forgotten.

This recent development adds almost 6,500m2 of public open space to Coburg and will allow the Piazza to grow into a viable outdoor venue for art or cultural activities, entertainment, and as a lively hub for residents, locals and visitors to enjoy.