Depending who you ask, Sydney’s grungy, graffiti-slashed Hibernian House on Elizabeth Street, near Central Station, has been around forever. Well, at least since the 1920s, when it originally housed a bunch of misfit poets and artists from the UK. Word is that Nick Cave and Kylie once sojourned on the roof during a brief tryst in the ’90s. That’s the great thing about Hibernian; nobody will ever give you a straight answer.
The City of Sydney, which has been collecting official information on the heritage- listed concrete labyrinth for years, certainly gave it a shot. It points to the more reputable Hibernian Society, an Irish Catholic benefit organisation, that erected the building in 1913 and leased it for the next 65 years.
Way back when, Hibernian housed a wide variety of specialist professions, such as tailors and printing-press workers. Ever since, it’s become a hive of activity for all sorts of creative types, attracted to the location and (relatively) cheap rent. It’s also proven a magnet for kids who want to practise their graffiti, theatregoers who like drinking booze from paper cups, small businesses that revel in making their own rules and party animals that revel in breaking them.
Hibernian is a goddamn maze. It’s so heavily soaked in tags that every floor and stairway looks pretty much the same. Sounds echo through the building, even when it seems like nobody is around. Though despite all this, it can be remarkably calm. Nobody seems too surprised to see you, but they’re not overly welcoming, either.
Herein lies the truth of Hibernian; they know how to party, but they’re much better at working hard. As one particularly prickly resident I run into on Level 3 tells it, “I don’t think we want your publicity. All you’ll do is bring more fucking private school kids here who want to spray-paint their crap everywhere. We work here. It’s not a bloody theme park.”
We probably should have taken his advice, but Hibernian is one of Sydney’s few remaining anonymous treasures. And contrary to old mate’s protestations, there are quite a few places open to the public, including yoga and dance schools and the Old 505 theatre.
Broadsheet knocked on the doors of four long-term residents to ask them why they still call Hibernian home.
Suite 102: Andrew Southwood-Jones
Digital Fabrication Designer
By the time you read this, Andrew Southwood- Jones, one half of the award-winning team behind Kink Studio, will have vacated Hibernian, citing (of all things) a lack of space. Kink, which works with artists and architects to design everything from small laser cuttings to gigantic installations, was attracted to the building three years ago because of how cheap it was. “Our space was really run down,” he says. “But it was great, we could do anything we wanted with it.”
“It’s a family, they look after a few warehouses around the city,” Southwood-Jones says of the owners. “They’re all in the same condition, actually. Basically their strategy is: don’t do any upgrades, because if you do that you have to get the council to approve it. No maintenance, but [they can charge] the same rent as new office buildings. It’s a pretty sweet deal.”
Noise comes standard in the building, but Kink has no problem with that. In fact, it’s responsible for a lot of it. “I was surprised how patient our neighbours are. Lots of people live here and we’ve been upgrading our studio and making heaps of noise late at night, but nobody ever complained.”
As for the fabled parties, Southwood- Jones has seen it all: “There’s a whole heap of random people here, there are these parties on the weekend. Sometimes there’s naked people running around, throwing stuff from the rooftop. Usually it’s pretty safe, though. The police never come.”
Southwood-Jones says he’s sorry to be leaving Hibernian, and that visiting architects and designers always marvelled at the office. “They’re always amazed that a building like this exists in the middle of the city. Because it’s so underground when you go in, it really doesn’t feel like anything else.”
Suite 302: Jason Gardner
Easily the cleanest, most schmick chapter of Hibernian, Jason Gardner’s Suite Hairdressers has been in business for more than two decades. With the majority of its clients finding Suite via word of mouth, Gardner has had solid trade for six years at Hibernian without ever having any obvious street presence.
“You just don’t get this kind of square metreage anywhere in town. And we don’t need to be in a mall or shopping centre,” he says. “We rely on our clients to be our PR machine.” Gardner says the building functioned as a semi-residential property for about 30 years, up until the owners did a full upgrade to the building, which, “scared a lot of them out.” He reckons that while Hibernian may have had a reputation as a squatters’ haven in the past, it’s now populated by rent-paying businesses, artists and bands.
That doesn’t mean the grime has disappeared entirely. While he loves working at Hibernian, one thing that really ticks Gardner off are the vandal taggers. “The graffiti’s beautiful. The tags, really disappointing. They should all lose a finger every time they tag, I think.”
Suite 104: Isabella Manfredi
World-conquering Sydney rock band, The Preatures, has called Hibernian home for four years, though lead singer Isabella Manfredi’s relationship with the building stretches back to the parties she attended here in her teens. The band recorded its last two EPs in its studio here, affectionately called The Doldrums, as well as the overdubs for its much-anticipated debut album.
“I jumped at it,” Manfredi says of her decision to take over the space from friends in the band Seekae. “There isn’t any other place like Hibernian. As long as you respect your neighbours and pay your rent on time, you can pretty much transform the interior of your space however you like, which means heaps of weird, wonderful shit goes on.
“A lot of what Hibernian is based on is don’t ask, don’t tell,” says Manfredi. “There are a lot of things structurally wrong with the building but it’s the blind eye that allows most of the creativity to happen.”
“I love the sound Jack [Moffitt, guitarist and producer] gets from this room, I think it sounds different and [most like] ‘us’. It has a certain class to it, which is ironic for a building that smells of rats and piss,” she deadpans. “I want to get straight back into recording new material as soon as we’re done with this record.”
Suite 506: Love Ariel
Multidisciplinary Artist and Musician
If there’s a high priestess of Hibernian, it has to be LoveAriel, a painter and musician who runs artist residencies out of her rooftop suite, The Shadow Lodge. Ariel has spent five years developing her loft into a fully functional creative Mecca, with everyone from sound engineers to writers renting out studio space. It’s now full of her own artwork, as well as a complete live set-up for her band, Firesaint, to rehearse and play gigs in.
Ariel has bounced all over Hibernian, sharing studios with renowned artists such as Kill Pixie and Numskull before taking over her current digs. But though she loves working here, she says the place isn’t without its challenges. “Yeah, it’s hard to get into and it’s also a pain in the arse,” she says. “Plus, it’s expensive. Well, it was [back] then, anyway. Now it’s cheap in comparison to everything else.”
Like Manfredi, Ariel was originally attracted to the hedonism of Hibernian, but also stresses the practicality for those who play in a rock band. “I can practice music and not get evicted. You can do that in Marrickville, or whatever, but you pretty much can’t do it anywhere in the city aside from Hibernian. “[My location in the building] means I’m quite lucky. I can have parties and get away with it as long as I make sure it’s OK with everybody. But even then, it creates problems. Some tenants really don’t like it.”
As a longstanding tenant herself, Ariel can’t ever imagine leaving the Shadow Lodge, or Hibernian. “I do want a garden and things like that, but if I moved somewhere else after this, I’d end up commuting to get back in here and work anyway. All my stuff is here!”
342 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills