Modern architecture is a lot like modern art – you either love it or hate it. Working in a rapidly growing CBD with a relatively new built-up environment is a bit like wandering through an art gallery of ever-changing exhibitions. While Melbourne has preserved many of its old masters, modern building design has always been contentious. Mid-century design (circa 1945-1965) is currently enjoying a renaissance in interiors, but our landmark skyscrapers from the 1960s building boom haven’t enjoyed the same patronage.
A prime example sits right opposite my office: the former Suncorp building at 435-455 Collins Street (corner of William Street). Built in 1965 for National Mutual, it was considered pioneering at the time for incorporating a public plaza on private land. Now, the once sparkling marble facade is curtained-off in shame while the tower is being demolished. Unfortunately the experimental building techniques it employed haven’t stood the test of time and the building literally started falling down.
In an article in The Age City Office Tower Faces Demolition a year ago, Melbourne City Council’s Planning Chairman, Councillor Ken Ong said, “he believed the local heritage significance of the building was outweighed by its current state”. I don’t disagree with the critics on this one. Not only is the building an ugly eyesore in its present form, it’s also a painfully long demolition process for those that have to look at it every working day. Later additions to the Market Street tower would have horrified the original architects. Similarly, it’s karma for the loss of the 1841 Western Market on the same site – a tragedy for early Victorian heritage enthusiasts.
Late last year The National Trust published Melbourne’s Marvellous Modernism: A Comparative Analysis of Post-War Modern Architecture in Melbourne’s CBD 1955 -1975. It’s a fascinating look at the history of the city though the buildings of the mid-century period. From curtain walls to exposed structures, brutalist and international styles, those still standing make an interesting walking tour if you are outside in the city at lunchtime. ICI House (now Orica, at 4 Nicholson Street, East Melbourne) is Wallpaper City Guide worthy and the former BHP House (140 William Street), which echoes the famous John Hancock Center in Chicago, is one of my favourites.
Removing the much loathed Gas and Fuel building on Flinders Street was an emotional triumph for the Kennett Government in the late 1990s. It made way for the infinitely more popular Federation Square we enjoy today. I would love to swing a wrecking ball at the 1960s era Victorian Government buildings at 1 Treasury Place too, thereby restoring the open space around the Old Treasury where it meets Fitzroy Gardens.
As Melbourne grows upwards and our skyline becomes increasingly dense, we’ll soon be deciding the fate of other buildings that were conceived to house office workers in the 1960s, some of which are still in use today. As attention turns to the 70s, 80s and 90s, languishing skyscrapers from later architectural periods could even be back on the cool list. Of course a superficial look at aesthetics from the ground says nothing about what it’s actually like to work in a building that’s 50 years old… you’ll have to tell me.
Next time you’re rushing through your city, take a moment to look up. Depending on your point of view, you may be delighted or horrified by what towers above you.
What are some of your favourite office buildings in your city? Which ones would you love to revamp?