A walk on the mild side: Melbourne’s marvellous mid-century multi-storeys

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?

Chris Toussaint

Chris Toussaint is a marketing and communications professional specialising in recruitment, talent management, learning & development and human resources environments. He was Managing Editor of 21D - a Literary and Art magazine and over the years has written for a number of corporate publications, journals and street press. His qualifications include Grad Cert (Applied Media), BA (Media Studies) and Dip Arts in Professional Writing and Editing.

Chris Toussaint
Marketing & Communications
Slade Group
Level 10, 333 Collins Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: +61 3 9235 5100

Posted in The world @work
2 comments on “A walk on the mild side: Melbourne’s marvellous mid-century multi-storeys
  1. Hi Chris,

    Enjoyed your article and it stimulated my memory of my appointment as a Personnel Officer at Alcoa of Australia in 1977!!!

    Resident on the 16th Floor of the AMP Building on the corner of William and Bourke I value many great memories. Squeezing onto a ‘red rattler’ to make my way to and from work, the two Telex Operators and their skill in reading the telex tapes (the world of international communication), being a member of a task force undertaking a feasibility in adopting a new technology (something called a facsimile which could send a photograph down a phone line), not having a mobile phone, not having email, being 30.

    Post my recent return to Melbourne in 2014, I wandered past the old AMP Building and although it has undertaken a major revamp something was missing. Where was the impressive ‘Question Mark’ sculpture that adorned the plaza? For those who can remember the sculpture was a large fabricated steel question mark. Not as easily identified if you were standing next to it, but peering from the window of the 16th floor to below, the structure was easily identified as a question mark.

    Next thought from me was where did the sculpture go? A quick chat with the Concierge had him thinking as well. He quickly took onboard the challenge to find out. A call from the diligent Concierge a week or so later provided an answer to my question. The sculpture is now located at a Yarra Valley winery! I wonder how many ‘lost’ art pieces that made up the street scape of Melbourne adorn other less visited locations.

  2. Thanks David, I’m glad you enjoyed the article and my little bit of history of Melbourne @work resonated with you. One of the “lost art pieces” I’m particularly fond of is The Yellow Peril (its real name is Vault) by Ron Robertson-Swann. The sculpture was originally installed in the City Square, relocated to Batman Park, and has since found a more sympathetic home outside ACCA. That could be an interesting topic for another blog!

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