re: Built Environment: Imitating Melbourne Architecture

Tuesday March 10, 2009

CIty Museum

From Renaissance cathedrals to Rubik’s cubes, Melbourne’s buildings have been inspired by an array of influences. Although Melbourne’s architects influence each other with their work, most noticeably it is the work of international architects that has had a strong influence on the architecture of this city. Whilst Melbourne is being touted, rightly or wrongly, as a ‘design city’, it is important to remember that our designers are influenced by international movements and trends, and often pay homage to them, either obviously, or, in many cases, in a subtle manner. Melbourne’s architecture, although diverse and exciting, is not entirely home grown.

In some cases the city’s architecture also pays homage to a myriad of objects, not even identifiable as architecture. For example, DCM (Denton Corker Marshall) offers some of the most fascinating references in its buildings. The Rubik’s cube attached to the side of its Melbourne Museum is a wonderful metaphor alluding to the Children’s Gallery inside; but even more interesting is the use of the colour yellow on some of their other designs including the Exhibition Centre and HWT Office Building, which pay tribute to the infamous Yellow Peril sculpture by Ron Robertson-Swann [1]. Originally this artwork, titled Vault, was an integral part of the DCM design for the City Square, but soon after the square’s opening it was banished to a windswept site on the Yarra banks to placate a public hostile to its bold colour and Modern form [2]. Homage is also paid to the Yellow Peril in ARM’s (Ashton Raggatt McDougall) RMIT Storey Hall, where a similar yellow form is featured in the foyer of the auditorium. This complements a myriad of other symbolism in the colours and forms of the building [3].

The practice of being influenced by other built forms and/or incorporating symbolism into architecture is in no-way unique to Melbourne. Architects across the globe have always derived their work from others. This tradition has produced some of the great buildings of the world, but it has also been a practice, which, if in its application is too obvious or consistent, has lead to derision. This literal referencing of another’s work backfired on the American architectural firm of SOM (Skidmore Owings & Merrill), who as ardent followers of the great twentieth century architect Mies van der Rohe, became known in the architectural profession as the Three Blind Mies. SOM’s only surviving Melbourne work, the former AMP Tower and St James Building (1969), resembles more closely New York’s CBS Building (1965), by the architect Eero Saarinen. Ironically, Saarinen was another follower of the design principals espoused by Mies. Consequently, the AMP Tower makes an indirect reference to Mies through Saarinen’s work.

Indirect referencing of architectural styles is also present on some of Melbourne’s early public buildings. The gold rush of the 1850s brought tremendous wealth to the new Colony of Victoria, and changed Melbourne from being a sleepy pastoral town to a boom city. This brought upon a desire in its citizens to make the city’s built form reflective of its wealth and comparable with European cities. The Treasury Building (1858-62), designed by JJ Clark, is often thought to have been directly inspired by Sansovino’s Villa Garzoni (1540), but it is more likely that it makes reference to a collection of early to mid nineteenth century British club, free trade and civic buildings, which were in turn inspired by Renaissance palaces [4]. Another example of this type of indirect reference is found on Parliament House (1856- ), designed by Knight & Kerr. Although it is designed in a Roman-Revival style, it is directly influenced by the design of Leeds Town Hall (1853-58) in England, by Cuthbert Brodrick. In designing these buildings in these styles it was more likely the intention of the architects to draw parallels between Melbourne and the increasing wealth and importance of the industrial cities of the north of England, rather than Rome or Florence [5].

Some of Melbourne’s Classical buildings do make direct reference to the buildings of the Antiquities and the Renaissance. The Shrine of Remembrance (1927-34), designed by Hudson & Wardrop, is derivative of two Greek Classical buildings. The Shrine’s pyramidal roof, its cubic form, stylobate and stairs are elements derived from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (c353BC) and its columned porticos are derived from the Parthenon (447BC -). In terms of symbolism the sombreness of Greek Classicism is fitting for a memorial that commemorates the 114,000 Victorians who served in World War I, and of which 19,000 did not return from its battles. The dome of the Royal Exhibition Building (1880), designed by Reed & Barnes, is stylistically derived from the dome on Florence Cathedral, which was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century. The incorporation of a Renaissance-style dome on the exhibition building is symbolic, in the parallels it draws with the wealth of fifteenth century Florence and nineteenth century Melbourne.

Gothic architecture is particularly symbolic as it is traditionally associated with Christianity. The style, characterised by the pointed arch and buttresses, was always popular with Melbourne’s churches, which continued on a centuries-old European tradition of building religious buildings in the Gothic-style. The nineteenth century Gothic-Revival, fuelled by the architectural theories of John Ruskin and A W Pugin, promoted Gothic architecture over Classicism, and saw a broader use of the Gothic-style. In the same year Melbourne’s St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral (1891), designed by William Butterfield, was completed in a Gothic-style, the National Mutual Life Association finished its headquarters (1891), designed by Wright, Reed & Beaver, in a commercial application of the style. Commerce’s adoption of the use of Gothic perhaps symbolised its perception that it was a religion of its own.

The National Mutual building is also significant as one of a series of tall buildings, of between eight to twelve floors, built in Melbourne during the 1880s & 90s. Unlike the Gothic-inspired National Mutual head office, most of these tall buildings were embellished with Classical elements stacked in a repetitive fashion, like Prell’s three buildings in Queen Street. However, another, Robb’s Building (1885), designed by Thomas Watts, shows a more sophisticated approach to treating a façade on a multi-level building. Its gigantic Classical orders and arched window openings and curved corner, show some similarities to the composition of New York’s Post Building (1882) by the influential American architect George B Post. Despite Ruskin and Pugin’s influential thinking, Classicism, in its many variations, remained popular.

Gothic-inspired elements and motifs continued to be used on American skyscrapers well into the twentieth century. Probably the best known of these is the Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert (1913), which was commonly called the ‘cathedral of commerce’, and the Chicago Tribune Building (1925), designed by Hood and Howells, winners of a design competition held by the newspaper for its new headquarters. The Tribune Building was an influential building internationally and Melbourne’s Manchester Unity Building, designed by Marcus Barlow (1932) is stylistically derived from it, particularly its staged tower and buttresses, and the closely spaced vertical elements on the lower part of the building that give it the appearance of being taller than it is.

Height restriction imposed by the Melbourne City Council shortly after the completion of the 12-storey Australia Building (1888), prevented buildings from having more than ten or eleven storeys. Exempt from this rule were unoccupied towers like that of the Manchester Unity Building, which was one of several buildings in the 1920s and 30s to incorporate this element into its design. But it was the T&G Building, designed by A & K Henderson (1928-1937), which introduced this architectural element to Melbourne, and the daring and audacious concept of twentieth century towers of commerce overshadowing the spires of the nineteenth century church. Though the T&G Building may have been innovative from this perspective, its composition as a tower projecting up from lower flanking wings was somewhat stylistically dated by this time, as it is reminiscent of the Montgomery Ward Building (1899), Chicago, designed by Richard E Schmidt almost three decades earlier. Other buildings to incorporate towers into their design include the MLC Building, designed by A & K Henderson (c1937), which had an illuminated weather beacon fixed to its tower, and the Russell Street Police Station, designed by Percy Everett (1940-43), topped by a steel framed radio mast. The lower parts of these buildings were built within the Melbourne City Council height limits, but used Moderne skyscraper forms, which made them resemble miniature collectibles of New York’s skyscrapers.

The Depression of the early 1930s halted most building in the city. Faced with unemployment, many of Melbourne’s architects travelled to Europe to witness the emerging Modern movement in architecture. Modernism was largely influenced by Le Corbusier, probably the most influential figure in twentieth century architecture and it was his Villa Savoye (1928-31) that was the definitive exemplar of his architectural thinking, in which he advocated that buildings be raised on pilotis (columns), given flat roofs with roof gardens and strip windows. His work inevitably influenced architectural thinking throughout Europe. By the mid 1930s Australian architects had begun to return home and began eagerly applying revolutionary European architectural ideas to Melbourne’s new buildings. MacPherson Robertson Girls High School, by Seabrook & Fildes (1934), is regarded as the earliest major Modern work in this city. The school building is derived from the forms and materials used on William Dudok’s brick cubic-formed Hilversum Town Hall (1931) in the Netherlands.

Many of the Modernist architects including Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, who had been associated with the influential German design school, the Bauhaus, left Europe for the United States in the years leading up to World War II. There they continued their Modernist work, most noticeably engaging corporate America with the idea of the International-style glass box. Australian corporations soon followed the trend and many of Melbourne’s early skyscrapers, built in the 1950s and 60s in the years immediately after the removal of height restrictions on city buildings, closely resemble some of the more famous New York models. For example New York’s Lever House, by Skidmore Owings & Merrill (1952), influenced the design of Melbourne’s Orica Building (formerly ICI House), by Bates Smart & McCutcheon (1955-58); while the dark façade of New York’s Seagram Building, by Mies van der Rohe (1958), provided the inspiration for Melbourne’s Royal Insurance Building, designed by Yuncken Freeman (1965). Not content with providing Miesian buildings for others, Yuncken Freeman designed their own King Street offices (1970) to closely resemble Mies’s Bacardi Office Building in Mexico City (1961).

Whilst Modernism did revolutionise architecture, in its purest form it was often sterile, cold and formidable, as the work of artist Glen Walls demonstrates in this exhibition. Although Modernists may have seen the white concrete box as the most suitable type of building for the Machine Age, it was sometimes forgotten by architects that people are not machines. It was the Housing Commission of Victoria in the 1960s and 70s that adopted many of Le Corbusier’s ideas in regard to the ideal city. But its tenants didn’t share the Commission’s love of machine-age architecture, nor living in some type of social experiment. Mrs Jesse, a tenant of a Housing Commission estate in North Melbourne, summed up many tenants feelings about the Commission’s estates:

“…people that designed these flats should have to live in them.” [6]

If the Commission was successful at one thing, it was shifting slum housing from being a horizontal feature of the Melbourne landscape to a vertical one.

By the 1960s, architects around the world were beginning to look for alternatives to Modernism. This is best epitomised in the transformation of the famous Mies van der Rohe phrase ‘Less is more’ to Post Modern architect Robert Venturi’s ‘Less is a bore’. Venturi suggested that architects should draw upon what ordinary people like, rather than imposing pre-determined Modernist forms on the public. Post-Modernism reacted against the dogmas of International Modernism and the harsh philosophies of Le Corbusier and his new architecture. Post Modernist buildings attempted to address their context and reintroduced to architecture historical and other forms of decoration, which were often applied in an abstract, sometimes unorthodox, manner. Allan Powell’s RMIT Building 94 takes a Post-Modern approach of using Le Corbusier’s elements in a playful fashion. Powell’s references to Le Corbusier are relevant for a building that is occupied by the university’s School of Design. Another example is the work of the architectural firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall, who recognise and celebrate iconic forms and symbols, piecing them together in their design of RMIT Storey Hall.

RE:Built Environment touches upon the tip of Melbourne’s rich architectural history. The exhibition does not attempt to offer a definitive commentary on the city’s architecture. For the last 150 years so many influences have inspired Melbourne’s architects and their work, and to document this would be an almost impossible task. Instead, RE:Built Environment looks at some of these influences and particularly at symbolism. And in a characteristic Australian way, many of these symbols are read with a sense of irony and humour. The willingness of Australian architects to explore new ideas, originating from here and abroad, and to build upon and refine them, will ensure that Melburnians continue to enjoy a rich and dynamic built environment.

[1] John Denton, speech given at launch of ‘Design City’ at RMIT Storey Hall on 28 April 2006
[2] The Age, 21 August 1980 and 3 October 2002
[3] Philip Goad, Melbourne Architecture, The Watermark Press, Sydney, 1999, p.225
[4] Martin Zweep, Architect, pers com to Peter Andrew Barrett on 30 March 2006
[5] Ibid.
[6] MMBW (Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works), 1950 Survey of Residents of the Molesworth Housing Commission Estate, Housing Commission of Victoria files, Public Records Office, Victoria

CIty Museum

Peter Andrew Barrett

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