The Wangi Power Station Project

Wangi Power Station Aerial Photograph

The Wangi Power Station Project

The Wangi Power Station Project is a project conceived and led by the University of Newcastle’s Professor Michael Chapman in the School of Architecture and Built Environment. The project aims to establish innovative methods for recording and disseminating industrial heritage through a multidimensional mapping of the architecture of Wangi Power Station over time. This project will integrate data from archival drawings, point cloud scanning, drone photogrammetry and geotechnical modelling.

Expected outcomes:

  • an interactive, publicly accessible digital record of the site and its social history and an innovative method that can be applied to other important industrial or significant sites. This will provide benefits by recording a significant and decaying piece of industrial infrastructure and providing a multidisciplinary method for future approaches to industrial heritage.
  • provide a detailed and comprehensive digital record of the building in its current state: this will use a combination of laser scanning and drone photogrammetery which can access all parts of the building in high detail. This information will be integrated to produce a comprehensive and animated 3D model of the building that can be accessed through augmented reality and gaming technologies, and for educational purposes. This will be a pilot project for a national archive of industrial heritage.
  • digitise the existing archive of Wangi Power Station drawings and develop an online interface for access; there are more than 8000 drawings as part of this archive, and none are currently available in a digital form. The project will digitise these drawings, prioritise and organise the collection and then use innovative archival techniques to engage with the material, so that the physical drawings can be cross-referenced with the digital model.
  • provide a 3-dimensional physical and historical mapping of the coal seam beneath Wangi: drawing from a crossdisciplinary collaboration with geotechnical engineering technology, the project will produce a virtual model of the coal seam and mining activity over time, and demonstrate its connection and relationship to the architecture of the power station. This is to visualise and model the important relationship between the geological and architectural histories of the site.
  • produce an extensive social history of the site and its significance: Intended to cater to a broad audience, this will comprise a written anthology and traveling public exhibition. The publication will construct a layered social history of the site through diverse multidisciplinary approaches. The exhibition will use augmented reality and physical models to reconstruct different elements of the building and its history. This will have an online legacy as a digital archive for future generations.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]
Why is this work important?

In 1946 the Electricity Authority approved the construction of a power station in Lake Macquarie by the Department of Railways. Wangi Wangi was the site chosen, and it began operations in 1958 and decommissioned in 1986. As the first power station in Australia built on the site of a coal seam, Wangi Power Station is one of the most ambitious, unique and architecturally significant pieces of industrial infrastructure of the 20th Century in Australia, as its construction shaped the social and physical history of the region and linked architecture with a broader geological, social and economic framework. The proposal aims to use the Wangi power station as a model for developing an innovative approach to digital archiving techniques for significant buildings, where issues of access, safety or ownership prevent physical public access. The proposal will produce an extensive digital archive of the building and its social significance over time, including digital records of the extensive archive of architectural drawings, detailed scanning of the building in its current state, and a mapping of the geological conditions of the coal seam that it is built on top of. The proposal will make these resources available to a broader public through innovative digital platforms, augmented reality, publication and exhibition.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]
The Team

This project builds a multidisciplinary team from architecture, computation, engineering and archival research in order to pioneer a new and innovative methodology for the documentation and dissemination of industrial heritage, in all its forms, applied to Wangi Power Station, as one of the most significant architectural, geological and social infrastructure projects in Australia in the 20th Century. The project will pursue an extensive process of digitally documenting the Wangi Power Station as part of a broader architectural and social history of coal extraction, power production and infrastructural development in post-war Australia.

It will undertake this through four distinct processes:

  1. detailed and extensive point cloud scanning, drone photogrammetry scanning, and digital modelling of the building in its current state
  2. the organisation, priotisation and then digitisation of the extensive set of more than 8000 architectural drawings of Wangi Power Station that currently reside in the UON Archives
  3. the historical and physical mapping of the coal seam that connects the Wangi Power Station with the topographical and morphological conditions of the broader region
  4. the compiling of a broader social history of the building, including its construction, operation and subsequent dereliction through a publication, exhibition, and digital and physical modelling of the site, all to be included in an online archive. This is intended as a pilot project and starting point for a future online archive of industrial architecture. It will be the most extensive, rigorous and multidisciplinary exploration of industrial heritage ever undertaken in Australia.

In addition, collaboration will involve the GLAMx Living Histories Digitisation Lab, as part of the Cultural Collections section of the university library. GLAMx oversees Work Integrated Learning (WIL) and offers the opportunity for UON student WIL participants to learn invaluable digitization procedures augmenting their skill set and future employability. The GLAMx lab has facilities to digitise any form of human expression and has access to a range of archives, collections and media, and digital technologies. Drawing on GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) professions across conservation, archival science, librarianship, digitization, metadata and data management, curatorial and digital heritage sectors, 3D scanning and Virtual Reality technologies.  GLAMx provides cutting-edge expertise in digital skills for the many sectors across the university, transforming a range of physical formats into digital objects using a variety of digitization, 3D scanning and visualisation technologies.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]

Wangi Power Station is one of the most ambitious, unique and architecturally significant examples of industrial infrastructure from twentieth-century Australia. It is a state heritage listed monument, with national significance for its architectural, geological and social significance. As the first power station in Australia built on the site of a coal seam, its construction in the late-1950s also coincided with a vast program of infrastructural development intended to electrify and subsequently modernise regional New South Wales, effectively shaping the social and physical history of the region and linking architecture with a broader geological, social and economic framework. Both the building and its history therefore shed light on the relationship between architecture, resources and energy production in Australia, in turn revealing substantial overlaps with today’s national discussions surrounding energy generation, supply and security.

Wangi Power Station ceased operations in 1985, and was sold to private owners in the early 1990s. In the period since its decommission, Wangi Power Station has undergone widespread decay and vandalism and is now in a perilous state as far as its preservation is concerned. If the building and its history remain undocumented, this nationally-significant example of industrial infrastructure will most likely disappear entirely.

Wangi Power Station is one of four coal powered fire stations that line the shore of Lake Macquarie in New South Wales, providing a physical reminder of the dramatic expansion of the electrical grid in post-war Australia. This expansion was an attempt to modernise the technological conditions of the state’s economy through the provision of reliable and affordable electricity to its growing number of households and industries.

Of the infrastructure deployed in order to meet these ends, the Wangi Power Station was undoubtedly the most architecturally significant due to its hybrid steel and masonry construction (one of few examples in Australia), its size, its extensive architectural documentation and the attention to craft and detail evident in its construction. The building itself took ten years to construct and in excess of one-thousand workers, radically altering the social and physical landscape of the region in the process. At its height, it supplied one-third of the state’s electricity.

By assembling a multidisciplinary team with demonstrated expertise in archival methods, architectural history, digital technology, computational modelling, data procurement and management, creative practice, and geotechnical engineering, as well as engaging with innovative and emerging digital technologies, the project will establish a rigorous method for documenting and disseminating significant historical buildings which are either unsafe, inaccessible, or imminently threatened. This is intended as a pilot project for a public digital archive of industrial buildings in Australia that provides access to these important, and often overlooked monuments of our social and national history.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]
Notwithstanding existing resources concerned with the preservation of public and cultural buildings, equivalent examples for industrial and infrastructural heritage remain scarce. This is despite the fact that developments such as the Wangi Power Station are inextricable from the social, economic and political processes that have shaped contemporary conditions. This project will therefore address the significance of industrial heritage to Australia’s twentieth-century development more broadly and its importance in documenting this social history.

In pursuing the aims outlined above, this project will adopt a number of new and emerging methods in the documentation and dissemination of industrial architecture and its contemporary significance. The process of scanning and recording the building engages with emerging modes of technology in architecture, that are perfectly suited to projects such as Wangi, where access to parts of the site are unsafe, and the complexity of the architecture require large amounts of detail. Point Cloud scanning is an extremely accurate form of recording the three dimensional properties of a site or building, and has become popular in a range of architectural contexts. While it is highly accurate, it is limited in terms of the ability of the scanner to collect detail hard to see or reach areas. Drone photogrammetry is an emerging method of developing 3D scans of objects, and is only just beginning to be applied to architectural environments. While it is less accurate than point-cloud scanning, its advantage is that is much more comprehensive and can access all parts of the building, and particularly those not visible to a point-cloud scan. Both processes accurately record the surface, as well as the materiality of the architecture. The combination of these two processes provides an incredibly large amount of information and detail that can be cross-referenced to provide a highly accurate 3D model, not just of the form of the building, but the texturing of all of its surfaces, and the layers of history beneath. Using equipment that UON already owns, the project will provide an extensive digital model of the site and its geology, pairing technologies and processes to create a unique and comprehensive data set of the architecture and its context: both geological and social.

While laser-scanning techniques have been used in industrial heritage previously, the pairing of point-cloud scanning with drone photogrammetry provides an innovative and emerging methodology for producing accurate and comprehensive accounts of complex and large scale architectural sites three-dimensionally. Equally, the use of digital software in the dissemination of this information, particularly engaging computer-gaming technologies, digital animation and augmented reality systems, provides an innovative way of thinking about industrial heritage more broadly, not just as a static moment in time, but as a continuous layering of data over time, and at different moments.

These distinct, but interrelated data sets will be linked within an interactive 3D computer model, allowing the cross-referencing of each element of data against the next. This 3D model will be made publicly available as a resource for further use by social and architectural historians and the broader public. The use of augmented reality software will allow a non-academic audience to experience the historical operations of the building, its animation, its broader geography and its unique architecture in virtual space. This has clear educational and cultural benefits for connecting diverse audiences with the archival material and its significance. The use of digital animation processes that can reconstruct the workings of the power station, its construction and its geological footprint, allow for extensive amounts of data to be made available and cross-referenced in ways that have not been possible in more traditional forms of heritage documentation.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]
Innovation and Significance

Applying a multidisciplinary approach to these processes, and operating in an integrated digital environment, will provide an innovative framework for collaboration, enabling independent project tasks to be undertaken before their integration into a virtual model. There are currently very few examples of collaborative projects between architecture and geotechnical engineering, despite the centrality of this relationship to industrial architecture in the 20th Century.

The methodology allows for the effective integration of the architectural, geological and social histories of the site, through the effective combination of the computational model, the geological mapping and the physical archive of drawings, which are all equally significant to the social history of the region. The innovative methodology will allow the processes of archival digitisation, architectural scanning and geological mapping to occur simultaneously, prior to being integrated and cross-referenced sequentially in the digital environment. Developing a robust, open source method for collaborations such as this is a key aim and outcome of the project, which can henceforth be reapplied to other architectural contexts and multidisciplinary collaborations, particularly in the domain of industrial heritage.

The team has secured both the co-operation of the owner as well as in-kind support to facilitate the project if this application is successful. The digitisation and organisation of the physical archive will take place in the first year of the project. The remaining time will be allocated for the analysis of the results of these processes. The scanning of the building, using laser-scanning and drone photogrammetry will take 12 weeks, with further visits required once the data has been assembled in order to collect parts that have been missed or to correct imperfect data. Drone photogrammetry is dependent on stable weather conditions, and so will be undertaken intermittently when conditions permit.

All of the scanning is expected to be completed in the first 18 months of the project, with the remaining time to collate and refine the data, animate elements of the model with Cinema 4D motion-graphic software, and develop an online platform for dissemination using the Unity3D gaming platform and augmented reality. The exhibition and book, including a detailed physical model of the building and coal seam, will be completed in the last year of the project.

[Image Credit: Professor Michael Chapman]
The Archive of the Wangi Power Station in Cultural Collections, Auchmuty Library

The University of Newcastle’s Archives in Cultural Collections (Auchmuty Library) took custody of over 9,500 plans as part of the “Mining and Power Collection” comprising 11,000 plans. It was originally donated by Coal & Allied (Rhondda Colliery) to Lake Macquarie City Library in 2000 and housed adjacent to Morisset Library in temporary storage. That arrangement came to an end when it was realised by the library were unable to properly manage the archive, nor provide adequate public access to it; and subsequently having been informed of their impending eviction from the existing premises, approached the University for help.

In consultation with UON Library Management, Cultural Collections agreed to accept the Collection because it was in keeping with our Coal and Allied mining related archives and NSW State Archives holdings.  The Collection was eventually transferred to the University in May 2009. In contradiction to the Significance Report, from our preliminary sorting at the time we soon realised the Lake Macquarie Power Station/Wangi Wangi Power Station plans comprised around two thirds of the estimated 11,000 items in the Collection. They also represented the complete construction plans of the facility. Since 2009 funding through the University as well as NSW State Archives and Records has enabled the entire collection to be rehoused in new plan cabinets, and the entire collection being listed. Digitisation still remains to be done, and this project may enable part of that objective to be accomplished as well.

Wangi Power Station Archive Documentation

Assessment of Significance – Lake Macquarie City Library – Coalmining and Power Collection. Prepared by Hunter History Consultants Pty Ltd in association with John Shoebridge. June 2008 (1.2 MB PDF File)

Preservation Needs Assessment. Coal mining and Power Collection. Lake Macquarie City Library. International Conservation Services, May 2009. (5.2 MB PDF File)

[DRAFT] Heritage Precinct Area Plan: Wangi Power Station Complex. December 2015. (8.1 MB PDF File)

Wangi Power Station Plans Drawer List. Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. (5.9 MB PDF File)

Professor Michael Chapman,
School of Architecture and Built Environment, UON


Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories
Cultural Collections GLAMx, Auchmuty Library, UON



3 thoughts on “The Wangi Power Station Project

  1. Marvellous initiative!
    My father- Mark North (1918-1974) – a “Lysaghts’ man” – was a civil and mechanical engineer and, as his teenage daughter, I wbacame his amanuensis when he wrote his papers for the Australian Institute of Engineering journal. I learned to appreciate the rigour of the engineering mind. I am writing about him now and recovering the story of his work as a designer and constructionoverseer of the machinery that manufactured the Owen Gun at the Newcastle plant in WWII.

    My mentor and guide, Vera Deacon, is energetically steering me towards a recovery of his story
    And you know what that means with Vera ..

    Dad would love this project of Professor Michael Chapman and bhis team, with its implicit respect for the socio-historical archiving of the products his and my father’s profession.
    Viva HLH!
    Marilla North

    1. Hi Marilla

      Back in the 1980’s I was renting a home in Wollongong and whist mowing the back yard I would inevitably bump into and curse a concrete block adjacent the garage. The owner of the home let me know that the concrete form was in fact a pickling tank used in the manufacture of the Owen gun at Lysaghts , Port Kembla.
      So I suspect the manufacture or part operations was also undertaken in the Illawarra.

      Bob Wainwright

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