Scenic World in Sydney’s World Heritage Blue Mountains, can’t claim to leave the landscape untouched, but its response is an example of Green good manners. In a diminishing natural world, eco-tourism is finding reward with the low environmental impact statement. A $30 million upgrade of the historic scenic railway at katoomba’s scenic world, transforms an iconic tourist attraction into a facility that better references its heritage.
A new Swiss-designed train and equally prismatic platform canopies, heighten the experience of place. Situated on the escarpment and nestled deep in the Jamison Valley, 310 metres below, the glazed canopies rest beautifully within their settings. With more than 850,000 tourists annually, Scenic World is the most visited, privately-owned attraction in Australia.
Project architect Troy Diamond of PMDL Architecture and Design discusses the firm’s strategy with Vision’s Peter Hyatt:
This could be considered the dream project because of its extraordinary setting. Was that your firm’s experience?
TD: Yes we have very trusting clients who valued our input into every aspect of the project’s design and function. With that comes the responsibility of maintaining the heritage and setting of such a unique site.
How difficult was it to overhaul and incorporate existing structures, yet define a new identity and building language?
TD: The main challenges were the extremely steep nature of the site, as well as keeping the Scenic Railway in operation for most of the duration of the works. The main structure hangs off the cliff and that created issues unknown on most construction sites.
Was there a standout obstacle or difficulty?
TD: From a design point of view, the main challenge was making sure the parts of the project fitted together within the acceptable tolerances. With moving machinery, there are certain absolutes that come into play, and the norms go out the window. The train carriages, their related machinery, and train rails between platforms, were built in Switzerland and sent via shipping container. Top and bottom station platforms were built locally, with the support towers air-lifted into place.
What do visitors experience now that was previously missing?
TD: Previously the tall, stone-blade facade was installed to hold the prime view back from patrons as they arrive. Once passing through the mineshaft entry tunnel, the patron is ushered into Scenic World and its various functions. Moving through this space you are thrust up and out, onto the top railway station’s viewing platform for the grand reveal, which hangs away from the cliff edge, to create the sense of almost touching the Three Sisters.
Why have you chosen to tease out the experience with the gradual reveal?
TD: To create an unfolding journey. Rather than show one single strong view, we contrast the strong with the gentle; to tease and to woo the patron. Each location has its own delight and story to tell whether the full celebration view of the Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters from one of the open platforms; or part view glimpses through the various tunnels.
The alternative approach to Scenic World via sky gondola from the eastern cliff-top of the Three Sisters is the fully dramatic gateway. Doesn’t this overturn your idea of the gradually revealed view presented by the main top station?
TD: Although this is one of the ‘wow’ experiences, these views are very different to those from the valley. The Skyway cable car provides a huge range of vantage points to view the Three Sisters, the waterfalls and the local flora of the valley floor. The location is simply too great and too nuanced to fully comprehend. And so, each spectacular location builds into the next.
You create a strong sense of light and shade throughout the journey. How does glass help achieve this?
TD: Glass provides an unimpeded view and reinforces the locations the patrons find themselves in. In a way, the design ceases to matter. It becomes about the experience. We’re creating spaces rather than architecture and it’s in those spaces, and movement between those spaces that the real delight occurs.
The site’s difficult coal-mining history lends a certain poignancy and gravitas. How do you balance this history with modern comforts?
TD: The train platform’s strong structural elements celebrate an historic mining language. Its roof glazing provides a transparent canopy, reflecting the forested location and weather extremes where temperatures can vary from sub-zero and snow, up to 40 degrees C. While the upgraded top and bottom station platforms and new carriages provide some weather protection, great effort has been taken to retain the experience of the original train. The heroes are still the historic train ride and setting within a World Heritage-listed location.
Apart from the exhilarating railway incline and high-wire glass gondolas, how else do you ‘keep the experience real’?
TD: We definitely wanted a mining vernacular, rather than pristine European ski-lodge appearance. This is the fifth version of the Scenic Railway and we wanted to retain the essence of the original train. It’s about contributing to the excitement rather than hermetically sealing off visitors from the experience of place. The language of the glass-covered platforms is also consistent with the language of the rail cars and gondolas. It’s a subtle but important consistency.
Why so much emphasis on the authentic experience when a lot of people prefer air-conditioned comfort?
TD: We never could, or ever wanted to entirely shut out the weather in the train or on the platforms. If it is raining, when they reach the valley floor, visitors are more than likely going to get wet. The glass gives some protection from rain and summer sun, while providing warmth on cool days. The Seraphic glass for instance has a 60% cover that balances winter light and summer shade. And the stepped roof faces mean there is always airflow around the platforms. That is all part of the experience in this encounter with nature.
How do you find the right balance between thrill-seeker and highly conservative types?
TD: For some, they will find the top station premium class experience with its transparent stairs too much. Glass, rather than solid structure, is definitely a key to the thrill you experience but also the beauty you appreciate.
How does glazing assist?
TD: Glass allowed us to define space and make those all-important connections larger and more intimate. It really freed us to create this quite ephemeral link to the setting. Viridian’s Seraphic glass roof on the top and bottom stations provides a beautiful dappled shade. Because of the bush canopy there is a constant shedding of leaf and bark debris onto the glass. Self-cleaning glass is a great bonus in that regard. With the variable weather we wanted as much daylight as possible for people waiting on the platforms. The patterned glass alludes to the setting rather than being blatantly obvious. We could have had a heavier, more oppressive statement, but Seraphic glass provides an infinitely lighter, comfortable statement.
How did you transport and handle such sizeable glazing on site?
TD: It was transported by hand and assembled at the bottom station. Where we would normally crane glass, here it had to be reverse engineered so that it could be manhandled onto site, ensuring no design compromise.
The British architect Peter Cook is a great advocate of glass for its capacity to create ‘shimmer, gleam and lustre’. Do you aspire to these qualities for Scenic World?
TD: Linking glass to the mining vernacular of coal and seeing it in that geological sequence of carbon and diamonds is part of the design joy. It’s where the excitement of the ‘diamond’ glass quality comes in to being. Glass definitely provides those qualities of shimmer, glimmer, reflection and transparency unavailable with any other product.
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