Machine Hall is like a Room of Requirement for cultural events: it can be anything you need it to be. Runway show for fashion week? Easy peasy. Dance performance? Pop-up dinner? Mass yoga class? Multimedia exhibitions? Good old-fashioned ragers? Done, done and done. If you can imagine it, or even if you can’t, Machine Hall can probably host it. And best of all, this grand, cathedralic space, which hosts a blend of both private and public events, is right in the thick of the CBD.

Clarence Street is one of the weirder streets in the city because, despite being close to just about everything, nothing much really happens there. It’s filled with warehouses and industrial spaces, the vestiges of old department stores, and Barangaroo’s history as a working wharf precinct. For the last 30 years, one of Clarence Street’s most prominent dormant spaces was the former electrical substation that now houses Machine Hall.

Built in 1930, this substation was responsible for keeping the wharves running, and keeping the trams going, without tripping up the power supply for the rest of the city. The five-storey space was filled with voltage-lowering motors and more circuit breakers, voltmeters and amp meters than you could shake a stick at. But after closing in 1985, the substation and its next-door neighbour, a former tobacco and booze warehouse, fell into disrepair: two heritage-protected venues in need of new custodians and a new direction.

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“A million people looked through it, but the City of Sydney didn’t just want another bar or restaurant,” says Machine Hall director Paul Schulte. “They wanted something with a cultural relevance that the public could enjoy, and we saw an opportunity.

“The vacancy rates of sites around Australia are scary – and there’s no other solution at the moment apart from retail and hospitality. And we want to be those people that can provide a flexible space, doing things differently, that allows people to experience different things.”

The City of Sydney awarded the project to property developer Built in 2017, with a memorandum that the space would be open to the public for cultural events and activations for a minimum of 70 days a year. Its spaces include the centrepiece substation; a workspace and lounge, Third Space; petite creative strategy room Fuse Box; and Clarence Vault Rooms – a members club and CBD offshoot for Berrima Vault House. Heritage architects FJC Studio and design agency YSG Studio worked on the space and have achieved a balance between modern polish and industrial grunge.

Machine Hall makes its money through private brand activations and experiences, which allows the space to be offered for free or at a subsidised rate to local creatives running public events. For Schulte, who has a history in the Sydney hospitality scene, Machine Hall is an opportunity to be an important rung on the ladder of an artist’s career.

“I was given a chance when I was young, so for my whole career I’ve wanted to give that young musician a chance, that young chef a chance, and that’s what I’m truly passionate about,” he says. “When Rolls Royce wants to use a DJ for an event here who they don’t know, that’s relevant and cool, we can bring them together.”

Machine Hall opened in 2023, but refrained from trumpeting its arrival, instead taking time to host its first events and get a feel for itself. Now, after hosting everything from weddings and car launches to monthly DJ sets and a Fuji photo shoot with eagles swooping around the factory floor, it’s ready to step out of the shadows and welcome everyone.

“Seeing people smile and be taken out of their world for a couple of hours is what makes me tick,” Schulte says. “We want to become an incredible institution, and give the centre of Sydney a space that everyone can come down to and experience something that makes them feel good.”

Machine Hall is hosting a bunch of Vivid Sydney events, including Jen Cloher on Jun 6, The Grand Silky Ball on Jun 8, Black Milk on Jun 11, and Deerhoof on Jun 13.