For almost three decades it was a decrepit unused electricity plant languishing by the Brisbane River. Once known as the New Farm Powerhouse, the building had supplied energy to the city's tram network and suburbs.

It was the grand old dame of the industrial age, but after the coal-fired plant was decommissioned in 1971 the Powerhouse soon absorbed a rather curious identity.

Vagrants and squatters moved in and turned the empty, cavernous rooms into shelters.

Avant-garde artists used the walls and floors as canvases, soldiers used the area for training, and boisterous rave parties came and went.

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It was only in the mid-1990s that the Brisbane City Council realised the heritage value of the building and re-acquired it.

The council then faced a dilemma: what to do with a building with such an eclectic history?

It decided to transform the grotty old monolith into a sassy and sophisticated arts centre that would engage and excite Brisbane residents and out-of-towners alike.

Multipurpose spaces are usually versatile enough, but often they seem homogenous, too.

The challenge for Brisbane's arts community was to breathe new life into the Powerhouse without sacrificing its rich past.

The place needed a good clean-up, but the building's character was already obvious.

Inside, generations of street kids had narrated their history on the brick walls, in all hues and tones of graffiti colour. The exposed, spray-painted brick is still intact.

The graffiti has not been painted over. It is displayed as an authentic part of the building's past, and there is no gloss or polyurethane to be seen inside the building.

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Large theatres and rehearsal spaces are designed in a rugged, industrial style. There are stages and chill-out spaces where, most nights, crowds gather for intimate performances by obscure comedy acts and emerging bands.

Suspended near the roof is one of the only pieces of the power station's original equipment not trashed during the "in-between" years: a crane to lift the turbines.

Having been in business for almost eight years, the Powerhouse is giving Brisbane's arts scene a lift, too. The venue takes small, high-risk shows that the larger "mainstream" venues aren't keen on.

Brisbane's arts scene has suffered a tyranny of distance: its theatres, galleries and arts schools have often kept to their own turf. Now, they're using the Powerhouse as a meeting point.

The Powerhouse hosts "serious" events, such as cabaret festivals, and lighter events, such as a synchronised dance-off to Michael Jackson's zombie hit Thriller.

It's all about making culture accessible and non threatening to those of us who aren't arty types.

There is free music and comedy on Sundays, and a weekend farmers' market twice a month in the spacious riverbank area.

Indonesian, African and Pacific festivals have added flavour to the New Farm community.

Now that the Powerhouse has won over Brisbanites, it is reaching out to overseas visitors.

Most New Zealanders go to Sydney or Melbourne for big gigs and theatrical extravaganzas, such as Phantom and Priscilla, but the Powerhouse is helping to promote Brisbane as a creative destination.

The city is also home to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and a popular Gallery of Modern Art.

Although the Powerhouse has a reputation for being unpretentious, it is also developing an upmarket image.

The eateries, Alto and Watt, are classy, but manager Andrew Ross says he is working hard to keep the Powerhouse "real" and wants to introduce a more casual restaurant.

Of all the stories about the Powerhouse's history, the yarn that stands out is a recent one.

A merchant banker came to visit the venue and pointed out the graffiti he had bestowed on it in his youth, as a street kid.

No one is quite sure whether this story is true, or whether it's an urban myth that neatly illustrates the Powerhouse story.

What is certain, however, is that this piece of overlooked architecture is now at the centre of Brisbane's gradual transformation to a cultural capital.

Further information: See brisbanepowerhouse.org.

Jehan Casinader travelled to Brisbane with assistance from Air New Zealand and Tourism Queensland.