City's transformers in disguise spark interest

On a quiet street in Sydney, a grand old building with decorative brickwork and a balcony appears - at first glance - like other Art Deco-style apartment blocks in the area.

But a closer look reveals it to be - not a condo - but an electricity substation, built by the government almost a century ago during the city's electrification.

The building, in residential Randwick, is typical of one of the city's more peculiar features.

Across Sydney, impressive facades have been used to disguise substations so that they fit in with the surroundings. In industrial areas, the substations look like factories; in the central business district, like office blocks.

Built mainly in the early 1900s as the city expanded and became electrified, these facades have become a celebrated part of the cityscape.

Sydney-based artist Matte Rochford, who has spent the past five years photographing and documenting them, said the facades add colour and beauty to the city's streets.

"They are these buildings that you never need to go inside - you never need to have anything to do with them," he told The Straits Times.

"But if you do start to notice them, you can unlock this interesting network of buildings with an interesting history that continues to grow."

The tens of thousands of substations spread across Sydney and other cities transform voltage for household usage. Some emit a barely discernible hum.

In recent years, however, some substations that are no longer used to provide power have been turned into something else again - cafes - or featured in art exhibitions.

And with property prices soaring, some have even been turned into real houses and apartments.

At the aptly named Substation Cafe in the inner city suburb of Alexandria, visitors can dine on gourmet sandwiches and salads in the former substation.

The cafe appears small from the outside but opens onto a garden so that the venue can seat about 30 people.

The owner, Mr Ram Stern, opened the business two years ago after looking around Sydney for an "interesting building".

"It is a beautiful turnaround for the place," he told The Straits Times. "It is very deceiving - if you blink you miss it. People are used to these buildings because they are everywhere. They are not used to a big garden with a coffee shop."

A book published by Energy Australia in 2004 to mark the centenary of Sydney's electrification says early substations were large to house old transformers and switchgear.

"These substations could be built in Art Deco, Spanish Revival, California Bungalow or any other style," said the book, titled Electrifying Sydney.

This article was first published on November 11, 2014.
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