Sydney Architecture Images- Gone but not forgotten

UNILEVER BUILDING

architect

Peddle Thorp Architects

location

Circular Quay West

date

Built- 1957  Demolished- 1994

style

Late 20th-Century International

construction

Rendered brick Stone

type

Office
Summary At 14 storeys/ 53m It was one of first curtain wall scrapers in Sydney! It was completed the year nearby Opera House was started.
Unilever House was the first of the wall of 1950's scrapers to be demolished in 1994 to make way for the controversial project- BENNELONG APARTMENTS ala TOASTER 14St/ 45m- 1999
Above- the site during construction, with the old tram sheds to the right (still there).
Above- in the early sixties, during construction of the opposite Opera House.
Above- in the mid seventies.
Above- the site today, with the replacement, BENNELONG APARTMENTS.
Above- in the 1950s and today.
 
Site- UNILEVER BUILDING 1957. (Circular Quay West) At 14storeys/53m It was one of first curtain wall scrapers in Sydney! It was completed the year nearby Opera House was started.

Unilever House was the first of the wall of 1950's scrapers to be demolished in 1994 to make way for the controversial project- BENNELONG APARTMENTS ala TOASTER 14St/45m- 1999

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Towering ambitions

By Geraldine O'Brien April 23 2002 SMH

Dated, unloved and standing on prime real estate, the multi-storeyed office building of the 1950s and 1960s is the most threatened species among Australia's historic building stock."

So begins an essay by Professor Jennifer Taylor, now of the Queensland University of Technology, who examined the love-hate relationship the people of this flat, horizontal land have with the thrusting high-rise architecture of their seaboard cities. Her study was carried out in 1994 for the Australian Heritage Commission but the threat persists. Last night at the Institute of Architects, she presented a talk on the early high-rise, "Cinderellas or Ugly Sisters", concluding with a plea to "hold on to the best of them and their stories of our history".

"The city tells the truth about a civilisation," she said, "and both the good and bad of Australia in the postwar decades has been written in the cities", much of it in the high-rise office blocks. But many have disappeared and many more are under threat of demolition or of drastic modification.

Partly it is a matter of the architecture of the recent past always being just that much too close for comfort: not recent enough to still be fashionable, not distant enough to be respected. Historically, it has always been so: when the National Trust was first formed, its concern was to preserve Sydney's disappearing Georgian architecture and later buildings received very little attention; in the 1960s, the city council was proposing demolition of the Queen Victoria Building for a plaza with car parking beneath.

When the East Circular Quay controversy raged some years ago, the concern was to preserve views to and from the Opera House and Botanic Gardens; no-one mentioned the demolition of ICI House, Unilever House or Harry Seidler's Lend Lease House, all significant buildings of their time.
Equally, when Ken Woolley's State Office Block was demolished for the Renzo Piano-designed Aurora Place, there were murmurings in architectural circles but little discernible public disquiet at the loss of the "Black Stump". Nor was there outcry over the the remodelling and stripping of the distinctive facade of John Andrews's American Express Tower at the corner of King and George streets, memorably described as "an architectural dumbing-down".

In Canberra, Andrews's Cameron offices and Col Madigan's National Gallery were both to be extensively modified, though in these cases, the original proposals are now being reassessed.

But, as Taylor also admits, modernism itself was not the easiest style to love. Cities, she says, are "conservative animals and messy places", resisting both change and purity. Modernism in its purest form was a utopian movement, demanding wholesale clearance of the relics of the past to allow the glassy tower to be appreciated in the round, isolated on its platform. Harry Seidler achieved it at Australia Square in the 1960s, where 30 sites were amalgamated to allow a generous public plaza between the rectangular Pitt Street building and the George Street tower.

But such amalgamations were rare. In most cases, Taylor said, physical and economic constraints left the modern skyscraper "struggling for liberation ... and the sweeping planes of stone or landscape envisioned as its setting emerged more as token gestures, left over from the grand concept".

Yet at the time of their construction, these buildings were welcomed, admired, proudly adopted as symbols of an emergent "new" Australia. In a vibrant postwar economy, with wartime constraints on building materials lifted by 1952 and young Australian architects returning from study trips overseas (mostly to America), the Victorian-era city began to appear decidedly out of synch with mid-20th century aspirations.

Architects may have been eager to experiment with the new construction techniques and new forms they enabled, but clients, too, eagerly embraced the new. Taylor says that both multinational and local companies - particularly the insurance companies - valued the "progressive and prestigious image" which provided both promotion and economic returns to them.

According to her research, Australia's first truly modern structure was built, not on the "progressive" eastern seaboard cities but in Perth, in the form of the 1953 Red Cross Blood Bank building, distinguished by its prefabricated panels, demountable sunbreakers, horizontal stripes of blue glazing with bands of white panels and bright red lettering.

But two years later, in 1955, Sydney could boast its first glass curtain-wall building, the MLC building at North Sydney, designed by Bates Smart McCutcheon which still stands (although its interiors were reworked in the 1990s by James Grose of Bligh Voller Nield).

Set back from the street, behind open gardens and street level shops, it was considered "state of the art" in 1955. Built with a steel frame and hollow steel floors, it was described by architectural historian J.M. Freeland as a series of firsts: the first Australian building to employ lightweight construction with the consequent increases in speed of erection and therefore savings in cost; the first to use a true curtain wall filled with windows and anodised aluminium panels; and the first to be designed on a modular system throughout.

But it still came in at the 150-foot (45-metre) height limit which had prevailed in Sydney since the completion in 1912 of the 170-foot Culwalla Chambers on the corner of King and Castlereagh streets had prompted public outcry.

That limit was not broken until 1962 when the first AMP building at Circular Quay, designed by Peddle Thorp and Walker, came in at 116 metres tall, a dramatic doubling of any previous building heights (with a very popular public viewing platform at the top, allowing previously unimaginable vistas over the city and harbour).

Part of the sweeping changes envisaged by modernism was the provision of artworks for and in the building: the long-demolished Anzac House in College Street, Liner House in Bridge Street and the soon-to-be altered Kindersley House in Bligh Street all boasted works by Douglas Annand, while sculptures by Tom Bass were featured at the ICI building and the AMP, both at Circular Quay.

If the modernist ideal was the pure, sheer-walled glass box, proudly isolated on its platform from the contaminated past, the built reality, particularly in Sydney, rapidly evolved some distinctive elements. The illogicality of glass-walled buildings in this climate became readily apparent: Taylor records that the AMP building, with its north-facing, unsheltered glass wall, generated heat overloads that, despite its air-conditioning, made the building at times "almost uninhabitable".

"The affair with the glass wall was short-lived," Taylor has written, "reaching its peak in the early 1960s." Local architects began searching for ways to modify the sun's impact, turning away from glass and metal to seemingly more traditional materials, albeit used in new and sometimes startling ways.

They needed to keep the views, but keep out the sun. As early as 1961, Harry Seidler had produced Lend Lease House at East Circular Quay, distinguished from its glass-walled neighbours by its ranks of external, adjustable aluminium louvres. The 1964 IBM Centre, at the southern approaches to the Harbour Bridge, was designed by Stephenson and Turner as a square tower, planned "from the outset to suit the specific climatic conditions of Sydney". It was distinguished by its white concrete sunhoods, 1.5 metres wide, projecting down at a 45-degree angle over the windows (which, incidentally, could be opened - a rarity in a high-rise).

The building, now stripped of its sunhoods, remodelled and painted dark green, survives as the Observatory Tower apartments.

The following year, McConnel Smith and Johnson shielded the eastern and western facades of the Pitt and Bathurst streets Water Board building with precast concrete claddings, a building Taylor believes was "highly influential on future work in Sydney".

In 1967, Ken Woolley, then working in the Government Architect's Office, produced the State Office Block, a 35-storey tower whose frame and floor slabs projected out beyond the window line, providing significant protection from the sun and a visual depth and texture to the facade. Taylor said this was "a handsome and original building with a well balanced form and proportions ... one of the most significant buildings of its time".

Yet it was demolished (the official excuse when the government wanted to sell the site being that it was "full of asbestos"), as were many other buildings of the time. But problems caused by asbestos or concrete cancer (another favourite excuse for demolition) can be addressed just as problems causing deterioration of 19th-century sandstone buildings can be, and are, addressed.

No-one, least of all Taylor, believes that the high-rise office buildings did not damage the fabric of the city. Particularly for pedestrians, the effects were often alienating: the shadows cast over streets and parks, the wind-tunnel effect, the lack of street continuity where unusable plazas broke into the street wall; the sheer monotony at ground level of the mono-use office tower with empty foyer.

It is not surprising that some of Sydney's earliest and most successful urban activism resulted from plans to sweep away The Rocks to provide a "clean slate" for a series of high-rise tower-and-plaza developments.

But, Taylor concluded, none of this detracts from the significance of the buildings and the achievements they represent. "The city tells the truth about a civilisation, and both the good and bad of Australia in the postwar decades has been written in the cities, and many of the words used in the telling of the tales were the tall office blocks.

"Can we hold on to the best of them and their stories of our history?"

 

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