Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Happy Ending: Corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets

Then: Town Hall Chambers, 1968 
Now: Small Square, Cafe and Council House 2 (CH2), 2010

The photo on the left shows the beautifully ornate Town Hall Chambers in 1968, just before its demolition. In fact, an ominous sign can be seen on the second floor declaring, 'Whelan is Here' - a reference to Whelan the Wrecker, the demolition company. This sign became ubiquitous around the city during the demolition spree of the 1960s - 70s which saw the destruction of many of the most historically valuable buildings in Melbourne.  On the right, we can now see Council House 2 (CH2), which was built in 2006. This is an exciting, environmentally friendly building which houses the City of Melbourne Council offices. In front sits a small square and cafe. 

Photo Credits Left: K. J. Halla, 1968, Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria; Right: My own, 2010 

If the Town Hall Chambers had been destroyed in order to make way for the incredible, 'green' CH2 building, its demolition might have been easier to accept. But this was not the case. When the Chambers were destroyed in 1968, we can assume that 'green' buildings were quite some time away from the minds of architects of the time. Instead, the Chambers were destroyed only for the site to be left vacant! After a while, a car park was built on the land, but from what I've read this seemed more like an afterthought. Even so, whenever a horrible, concrete car park replaces one of these beautiful old buildings I think it is crazy! Perhaps I have the benefit of living in a time where underground car parking is possible (which limits the effect on the building atop), but it just seems like such an incredible waste! It looked like this beautiful building had been destroyed for nothing. 

This is especially so when one discovers the astounding beauty and heritage-value of the original building: Built in 1890, it was originally the offices of the T&G Assurance Society. In 1929, it became known as the Town Hall Chambers (the Town Hall is just on the other side of Little Collins Street). In terms of its aesthetics, the building was a stunning Victorian version of a Second Empire building. This means that it was reminiscent of the Parisian buildings from around 1865-80. As can be seen in the photo below, the facade was beautifully ornate and intricate. You may notice the Mansard roof, Dormer windows and the stunning Mannerist facade which runs along Little Collins Street. 

Photo Credit  K. J. Halla, 1968, Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria 

Below, there is another perspective on the same site. This was taken from Swanston Street looking north towards Little Collins Street. On the very right hand side of both pictures you can see the edge of the Melbourne Town Hall. In the centre where the Town Hall Chambers stand in the old photo, you can see a small square and the umbrellas of a cafe. 

Photo Credits Left: K. J. Halla, 1968, Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria; Right: My own, 2010 

Despite the heartbreaking demolition of the Chambers, the site has seen a happy ending after all. It is wonderful that almost 40 years after its destruction, it has finally been replaced with a very worthy and exciting building. The ABC show Catalyst described CH2 as the "Eco Office-Block of the Future" and it is easy to see why: the building uses 15% less energy than regular buildings and 30% less water. The architect, Mick Pearce, laments that we have become accustomed to constructing post-modern, "glass box" skyscrapers and consequently rely too heavily on air-conditioning to keep offices comfortable. By contrast, CH2 is inspired by ecological heating and cooling systems and, as such, it works with nature not against it. For example, the recycled timber shutters on the exterior of the building open and close depending on the sun. This is an automatic system which rotates constantly throughout the day. It is worth walking past at different times during the day to see the changes. This is just one of the many innovative designs which comprise this incredible building. If you are interested in the other features you can access the official website by clicking here.

Melbourne was once internationally recognised for its state-of-the-art architecture. Regrettably, we faltered with the demolition spree of the 60s and 70s. But wouldn't it be fantastic if we could show that we've learnt from our mistakes and can rebuild our city's international reputation? To me, CH2 represents a promising step towards this goal: it is visually pleasing; innovative; effective; and, crucially in this day and age, environmentally friendly. 

Catalyst Story Archive, found at: 


Andrew T said...

Hey Gillian! Great post. Just a thought: with the need to build more efficient and environmentally friendly buildings increasing all the time, does this wave of eco-friendly architecture spell the potential end for even more of our older buildings?

Gillian said...

Hi Andrew! That's a really interesting point that I was looking into the other day. Surprisingly, the really old buildings are not as environmentally unfriendly as we might think! I have read that they actually require less energy for heating and cooling than more modern buildings. This is because they were built at a time when energy was incredibly expensive and, as a result, were designed with this in mind.

Usually, the buildings of the late 19th century and early 20th century have denser walls, shutters for the sun and smaller windows which are able to be opened to enable airflow. By contrast, the "glass box" skyscrapers of the 1960s onwards attract heat easily in summer and do not retain it very well in winter. The floor-to-ceiling windows are also often unable to be opened because of height. With the advent of new technology and scant regard for finite natural resources, it seems the architects from the 1960s – 90s were more interested in defying nature, than working with it! Perhaps they will be the target of the new, environmental wave?

As for the need for more efficient buildings in the broader sense, I suppose it is a real conundrum. I hope that we can find a balance between preservation and progression, although I am not quite sure what that will exactly entail! There are a couple of new plans for the city which will test this, particularly around Spring and Collins Streets. Hopefully people will have lots of ideas and will want to share them on this blog!

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