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Australian manufacturing hasn’t died, it’s just transformed. It employs thousands and makes a massive economic and cultural contribution, but the loss of industrial lands to high-rise residential developments is now its biggest threat.

In their workshop, where shelves are lined with an assortment of life-like latex faces, Adam Johansen and Damien Martin create masterful on-screen illusions.

They are prosthetic make-up artists who in 2016 shared an Academy Award for transforming most of Mad Max: Fury Road’s cast into post-nuclear-war rabble-rousers.

“We designed and applied things like scars, tumours and bruises for each shoot (think Charlize Theron at the end), but the tricky part was keeping those features in place during all the frantic action,’’ Martin says.

Their studio, Odd, in Sydney’s inner west is part of a lucrative manufacturing renaissance in Australia which needs to be acknowledged and nurtured if it is to survive, according to a University of Wollongong collaborative study.

The study focus was on the fusion of creative and traditional manufacturing enterprises of the type found in the Carrington Road industrial estate in Marrickville, which is earmarked for demolition to make way for proposed high-density residential towers.

For too long we’ve been ready to assume that Australian manufacturing is in decline when, in fact, it has simply undergone a change from what it was in the 1950s and ’60s.

Professor Chris Gibson

Developer Mirvac has applied to re-zone the 700-square metre strip of century-old industrial land to build more than 2000 units, in buildings up to 35-storeys high.

Industrial land re-zonings of this type are not unfamiliar in cities around Australia, says study lead author Professor Chris Gibson, and are one of the dynamics threatening to de-rail the rapidly evolving model of creative manufacturing.

“For too long we’ve been ready to assume that Australian manufacturing is in decline when, in fact, it has simply undergone a change from what it was in the 1950s and ’60s when it was all about big factories and assembly lines,” says Professor Gibson, an economic geographer from UOW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities.

“It’s much different now: lots of mundane repetitive work is done by robots and most of our manufacturing growth is about specialised products undertaken by small- and medium-sized enterprises with an increasing interface with creative industries.”

Manufacturing re-invented

The interim study (which also involved researchers from Monash University, Queensland University of Technology and University of Technology, Sydney) used Carrington Road precinct to better understand this creative re-invention of manufacturing in terms of what it looks like, its value to the economy and what it needs to flourish.

With more than 200 enterprises and up to 1800 jobs at stake, it was chosen not only because it hosts both creative industries and manufacturers, but more crucially it has a critical mass of enterprises whose function and product bridge both sectors.

Professor Gibson says the report contains overwhelming evidence – statistical and empirical – that comes out in favour of protecting and preserving diminishing stocks of inner-city industrial land.

Culture adds an enormous amount of value to places we live in and there has to be spaces set aside for creating and providing that culture.

Mark Adams, Erth

“Yes, we need to house more people but the question is at what cost?’’ he asks.

“There is a lot of pressure on that precinct to be redeveloped for residential real estate but I’d argue that it is strategically important not only for those businesses, it’s important for the whole of Sydney.

“It’s a key manufacturing focal point for a range of everyday products the whole city relies upon, as well as important clusters of theatre, film and television enterprises.

“If Sydney wants to be a global city with these types of industries it will need proximate inner-city spaces for these backstage production companies, gourmet food processing, events companies and micro-enterprises.”

Adam Mada, magician and event manager. Photos: Paul Jones

Buzzing activity

The precinct stretches over seven blocks and is portrayed in the report through an on-the-ground audit as a “lively hub” of enterprises involved in the manufacture of everything from pool chemicals and cosmetics to ceramics and performance props.

Martin and Johansen’s Odd workplace is part of a predominantly creative cluster in the Myrtle Street studios, a building at the northern end of the precinct. The cluster buzzes with activity and bulging scheduling pads as an assortment of creatives like Emily Buttle work under the one roof.

Buttle, head of Empress Stilt Dance, trained as a sculptor before deciding 20 years ago to turn herself into a moving sculpture through stilt dancing. She makes all of the costumes at the site for what is now a team of stilt dancers who perform all over Australia at cultural events.

We need to be in a city-zone to retain the contacts within our industries. To leave would be the worst thing possible at this stage because we're all developing and growing together.

Emily Buttle, Empress Stilt Dance

“I’ve experienced communal work spaces all over the world and this is by far the best place I’ve worked in,” she says.

Buttle says she felt let down but not surprised on hearing about the re-zoning proposal last year. “Most people working in the arts think Sydney is a bit of a lion’s den, where it’s hard to survive and thrive.

“It’s a sensitive industry and we are really good at adapting but we do need to exist. Most of us feel that the rent and attitudes towards us are quite commercially aggressive, which is stifling a lot of the creativity and culture.

“It will be terrible for us and the wider community if we have to pack up. We need to be in a city-zone to retain the contacts within our industries. To leave would be the worst thing possible at this stage because we’re all developing and growing together.”

Carrington Road company Erth makes large dinosaur puppetry and theatre shows. Photo: Paul Jones

Professor Gibson says these anxieties, which are shared to some degree across the precinct, are addressed in the report’s eight recommendations. They include increased retention of industrial zoning in inner and middle-ring Sydney as well as security of tenure for tenants.

Mark Adams from Erth, a company that makes large dinosaur puppetry and theatre shows, says improved security of tenure would be a dream come true because the idea of a possible move is crushing.

“It has put the wind well and truly up us … we could re-locate to somewhere like Eastern Creek but who would want to come that far out?” He says it is about time the contribution that precincts like Carrington Road make to the local and wider economy was recognised.

“I’ve seen lots of gentrification of spaces in Sydney over the years, some of which have been done really beautifully. But it’s quite depressing to look at some of these high-rise blocks that have sprung up in Mascot, Wolli Creek and Rhodes.

“Culture adds an enormous amount of value to places we live in and there has to be spaces set aside for creating and providing that culture, as we do here.”

Mia Penn, aka The Raisin Did It, makes clothes from vintage and rare fabrics in Sydney. Her suppliers and support services are all within a 2.5km radius. Photos: Paul Jones

Creative industries want space not charity

While many of the businesses have an arts or cultural focus, Professor Gibson says the issue was never about subsidising this sector but rather one of preserving industrial land that enables manufacturing to make a vital contribution to the city’s economy.

“We’ve tended to conflate the creative industries with the arts,” he says. “Some people take the view the arts is somehow about frivolous activity that has no serious economic clout, and at best is something we should bestow with a bit of charity.

“But that’s a misrepresentation. It is true that cultural and creative industries are connected with artistic pursuits like theatre and film but the report shows, through on-the-ground research, that they are increasingly interfacing with manufacturing enterprises.

“They are often global, vibrant businesses that are making and distributing a range of products. They want space to do that, not charity.”

An academic analysis of what they're doing in Carrington Road is ground breaking and so valuable to the inner west and Sydney. It's the sort of thing councils and the state planning departments could really learn from.

Inner-West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne

Inner-West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne, who described Mirvac’s proposal as “monstrous, absurd and out of context with the local community” at a public meeting last year, applauds the report’s analysis and wider ramifications.

“It articulates in detail why the precinct is valuable to Sydney’s arts scene and the modern manufacturing sector,” he says.

“To do an academic analysis of what they’re doing in Carrington Road is ground breaking and so valuable to the inner west and Sydney. It’s the sort of thing councils and the state planning departments could really learn from.

“The broader community’s perception is that manufacturing is in decline and that it’s inexorable so it doesn’t matter if you lose industrial lands. This report clearly shows it is actually in transition and demonstrates why we have to protect these spaces.”

Bill Lau from Kings Knitwear, Sydney’s last woollen knitwear factory. Photo: Paul Jones

Save it or lose it

Professor Gibson says he is cautiously optimistic about manufacturing’s future.

“I’ve just come back from the UK and Japan where manufacturing is on the rise again and there is a renewed appreciation for the more contemporary version of what it’s all about.

“If we are not careful, this kind of manufacturing may be lost to cities like Sydney and Melbourne, which have found themselves in a state of frenzy over residential real estate development.

“The risk is that when the apartment block development boom ends, which it will, we will find we’ve lost key spaces of the inner city that were housing hundreds if not thousands of enterprises and jobs.

“It might be important to build apartment blocks in the short-term but what we lose potentially is Australia’s next Silicon Valley, and that translates to decades and decades of economic and job growth.”

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