Friday, July 2, 2010

From Grand to Bland: The Colonial Mutual Life Building (Demolished)

Can anyone believe that this incredible building at 316 Collins Street was demolished? When I arrived at the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, I had to double-check that I was in the right place. I could not believe that such a magnificent building from 1893-94 had been torn down, only to be replaced by this 1960s horror! 

The beautiful old Colonial Mutual Life Building derived its name from the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society (the owner from 1923), although its construction was actually commissioned by the Equitable Life Insurance Company. In 1880, Equitable Life bought the site at the first public auction of Crown land in Melbourne. It assembled a stellar team for the building's creation: the architect was the renowned Austrian, Edward E Recht; and the project was managed by David Mitchell, a prominent Australian responsible for other architectural wonders including the Royal Exhibition Buildings. However, the magnificent building was not constructed without a cost, with seven people losing their lives on site. 

Towering over its neighbours at 42 metres tall, the original building boasted gigantic granite blocks, some of which weighed up to 10,000 kilograms. My favourite feature is the extravagant portico, containing impressive Corinthian Columns and an ethereal statue atop. Melbourne University students might recognise the statue as it currently resides on the grassy slope between the Baillieu Library and South Lawn. Designed by Austrian sculptor Victor Tilgner, the statue depicts an angelic woman sheltering a young mother and her children. This represents the ideals of protection and shelter, so it is no wonder that the insurance company chose it to watch over its entrance! The statue was presented to the University of Melbourne in 1958.   


The interiors of the original building were equally superb, featuring some of the most impressive examples of stonemasonry and woodwork ever seen. The foyers and stairwells featured Italian and Belgian marble. The very best cedarwood was joined with such skill that not one nail was used! Even the fireplaces displayed the most intricate and ornate detailing. Although the building was structurally sound, it had become expensive to maintain and was demolished in 1960. The photos documenting the demolition progress are quite incredible and can be viewed by clicking here. Fortunately, before its demolition, certain elements of the building were saved from the wrecking ball and can now be viewed in the Melbourne Museum (Nicholson St, Carlton). This exhibition is free and is really worth a look. If you can't get there, some of it is accessible online, by clicking here.

While it is heartbreaking that the old building was demolished, we should keep in mind the perspective of the people of the 1950s. Their daily work might ironically have been burdened by the opulence surrounding them. Photographs reveal a sumptuous interior - but one that would have created a dark, creaky and perhaps even oppressive working environment. Most importantly, the old buildings were not conducive to new technologies. The times had changed. People were looking towards bright, clean, simple office spaces where efficiency was paramount. Take a look at the  following photos of the old and new interiors. They really bring home what a radical change this would have represented!

Interior Detail of the Old Building (1958): Beautiful Marble and Cedarwood
Photo Credit: Sievers, Wolfgang,

Boardroom (1958): Can practically smell the cigars 
Photo Credit: Sievers, Wolfgang,

New Boardroom (1963): Simple and Pragmatic 
Photo Credit: Sievers, Wolfgang,

New Room for Line Printers (1963): This looks like a 60s Sci-Fi Film
Photo Credit: Sievers, Wolfgang,

New Office Spaces (1963): Open Plan, Clean Lines, Light, Minimalist 
Photo Credit: Sievers, Wolfgang,
To be honest, I find the photo of the 1960s office (directly above) absolutely fascinating. While not nearly as beautifully lavish as the old interiors, there is nonetheless a certain retro-appeal in its austerity. However, this is definitely an interior for its time only. The problem with the 1960s minimalist aesthetic was that it quickly became hideously dated. The 1950s and 60s marked the birth of a mass-consumer culture of which programmed obsolescence was a major part. Goods suddenly had to be 'fashionable.' Of course, being 'fashionable' necessarily  involved being out of fashion when trends changed. As the motive behind the cycle was to encourage frequent spending, any designs which were 'classic', 'timeless' and 'everlasting' were no longer desirable.

However, buildings are not disposable goods. While the 1960s office interior has probably been updated several times since the photograph, the same cannot be said for the actual structure. While the original building was designed to be "the grandest building in the Southern Hemisphere" and to "last forever", the new building was designed to be fashionable. Now in 2010, we find ourselves left with a terribly unfashionable building, instead of a timeless one. Our culture has progressed in a way that makes a return to building everlasting, classic structures improbable. So, once a magnificent, old building is demolished, it is gone forever, in the truest sense. The tragic fate of the Colonial Mutual Building emphasises the need to preserve our beautiful Melbournian heritage when considering progression into the future.

What do you think?

Cannon, Michael, The Land Boomers (1966) 
Museum Victoria Online Database:
National Library of Australia Picture Database:
Sullivan, Lisa, Cramer, Lorinda and Nemec, Belinda, Sculpture on Campus (2004)

1 comment:

Rohan said...

Yes sadly economic rationalism was alive and well in the 50s and 60s, along with complete disdain for the old, decorative and 'inefficient'. So even though it cost a lot to demolish the grand old building, CML got a new modern image, and much more floor space in a building only a little taller than the original. The same architect did a similar building in Sydney fortunately still there, but nowhere near as grand as ours !

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