Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District
Australia Square Tower
|Corner George, Bond and Pitt Streets|
|Late 20th-Century International|
|reinforced concrete 170 m 558 ft|
- Australia's tallest building 1967 - 1975.
- The tubular shaped building is 41 metres in diameter.
- A revolving restaurant is located 153 metres above street level.
- Tallest building in Southern Hemisphere from 1967-73 it was eclipsed by the 223 meter Carlton Centre of Johannesburg.
|Australia Square, the office Tower, Sydney. Nervi's structure design is evident.|
Top of the town
May 15, 2004
Height of sophistication: Australia Square.
We'd never seen anything like it. Towering over Sydney, round not square, and with a revolving top. It even changed the way we eat. Stephen Lacey looks at how Australia Square modernised our lives.
Few of us in our 30s and 40s will forget the first time we saw Australia Square as children. For me, it was in 1970. My mother and I caught the train from Gosford, where the tallest building was the county council block, all three storeys of it.
Suddenly here I was, craning my neck on George Street to see this impossibly tall structure soaring into the clouds. To me it was a lustrous white rocket ship, like Apollo 11 ready for take-off a year before. It made anything seem possible. It was the future incarnate: sleek, shiny, modern.
We walked into the lobby and caught the lift to the observatory on the 48th floor. It was packed, everyone eager to see the city from such a height. I remember peering from the portholes, to the streets and harbour below. Sydney would never feel the same again.
The architecture writer and author of Dream Home, Mark Wakely, had a similar experience when his father took him to see the tower in 1968. Wakely was 12 and had spent much of his childhood in regional NSW. It wasn't the building's height but its shape that captivated him.
"Until that day, for me, the world was about boring rectangles," Wakely says. "The idea that a building could be circular had never entered my consciousness. Dad and I must have circled that entrance lobby half a dozen times, just delighting in the playfulness of it."
But the significance of Australia Square goes beyond its physical shape. This is the building that heralded a renaissance in not only the way we saw our cities, but the way we interacted with them. Australia Square was one of the first buildings to change the shape of our city skylines forever. It also introduced the workplace to a comfortable civic space and the availability of convenient food.
In this respect, it has had a profound influence on the urban Australian way of life that we now take for granted: alfresco lunchtime dining. This was an era when, except for the occasional picnic, not many of us ventured outside to eat. We preferred our cafe chairs under cover. Australia Square brought us out of the dark.
Completed in 1967, the building is still considered by many to be the most beautiful skyscraper in Australia. In his book, Austral Eden, photographer Patrick Bingham-Hall included it in a list of top 20 Australian works of the 20th century, calling it "Australia's finest tall building, a perfect resolution of rational geometry, structural ingenuity and heroic form".
Ever since Harry Seidler burst onto the urban landscape some 40 years ago, many of his designs and buildings have attracted criticism and praise with equal passion. But on the subject of Australia Square, it is hard to find an architect, critic or urban designer with anything negative to say about the building - now or in the past.
The Herald's architectural critic, Elizabeth Farrelly, believes that not only is the tower a beautiful object, it had a profound effect on Sydney, and consequently the rest of Australia's cities. "It gave Sydney a sense of growing up, a sense of confidence," Farrelly says. "It was really our first glittering version of a skyscraper, but I also think it signified the 'American empire' taking effect, and the Americanisation of our cities that has continued to this day."
In the early 1960s when the idea for the building was put forward, Sydney was essentially still a colonial city of sandstone and brick. The major stumbling block when it came to development was the 45-metre height limit imposed on the city in 1912. This was broken with the erection of the first AMP Building at Circular Quay in 1962, at a height of 116 metres.
It was the Lend Lease founder Dick Dusseldorp who instigated Australia Square. One of his key achievements was amalgamating 30 properties and laneways between Pitt and George streets and demolishing them to make way for his project. Not everyone was happy about the destruction, especially the city bohemians who would frequent the little coffee shops and bookshops that fell beneath the wrecking ball.
"In this respect, Australia Square was very influential culturally, more so than architecturally," Farrelly argues. "It represented a sea change in prioritising private space over public space."
After the site was levelled, Dusseldorp enlisted the services of Seidler, a young up-and-coming modernist architect, to arrive at a grand design. Dusseldorp's new-broom approach suited Seidler's modernist ethos perfectly. Australia Square would become the symbol of an emerging new Australia, a clever country unfettered by colonial restraints.
But the idea didn't win everyone over. Initially, the project was rejected by the committee whose job it was to rule on tall buildings. Finally, in 1962, the city council unanimously approved the project in principle, but only after the tower was reduced from the proposed 58 storeys to 50.
Strictly speaking, the tower isn't circular but polygonal, made up of 20 segments. "But it's round enough," Seidler says. The unique shape was generated by the size and shape of the land; a long narrow strip that runs between George and Pitt streets. A curved building made possible a bigger building while still adhering to council rules regarding setbacks.
Seidler says another consideration was that a circular tower provided better outward views in such a congested area of the city. "If you have a square building, you look out the window into other buildings on all four sides," he says. "Whereas if you have a curved building you gain a diagonal view which is much longer than the one straight across. You look down the street for a much further distance."
But perhaps the most compelling reason for a circular tower was that it allowed Seidler to fulfil Dusseldorp's brief of building one floor a week. Australia Square Tower has a round core and columns all the way around the outside, from which supporting beams are spanned like the spokes on a wheel. In this respect every beam is the same size and shape as every other beam, which meant the steel formwork could be reused.
The upshot was that construction times were drastically cut and the tower grew at one new floor every five working days; a rate that was unheard of anywhere in the world for a concrete building of that height.
Much of the credit for Australia Square Tower belongs to the engineer, Pier Luigi Nervi, the great Italian god of concrete in the 20th century. It was Nervi who made the cladding on Australia Square an integral part of the structure. Because the columns are external, they do not waste precious office space, so allowing greater flexibility. Few office buildings even today can boast a clear-span floor.
The Italian was also responsible for the stunning heritage-listed ceiling of interlocking curved ribs in the lobby. "In many ways, the lobby was groundbreaking in its height and its transparency and lightness," says the architect Graham Jahn, former president of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. "It's done with extreme elegance and is critical to the building's presence at ground level."
When completed in 1967, Australia Square Tower was the tallest lightweight concrete building in the world, reaching 50 storeys (182.5 metres), with a revolving restaurant - The Summit - on its 47th floor and an observatory on its 48th (the top two floors were plant rooms).
It eclipsed every other building in the nation in scale and scope and set a benchmark in engineered architecture that few, if any, other Australian skyscrapers would ever meet. Only Seidler's MLC Centre (Sydney 1978), Grosvenor Place (Sydney 1982), Riverside (Brisbane 1983) and QV1 (Perth 1987) come close. Compare the utter timelessness of these older buildings with the already dated Chifley Tower (Sydney 1993).
Seidler selected a magnificent collection of artworks for display in and around the building, to reflect a perfect synthesis of art and technology. The main reception area in the executive suite boasted a sculpture by Carlberg along with tapestries by Miro, Calder, Le Corbusier and Olsen. The western side of the core in the lobby featured a tapestry by Le Corbusier titled Unesco; with Vasarely's Orion MC on the eastern core.
To one side of the main entrance, near the corner of Bond Street, stands Alexander Calder's menacing black sculpture, Crossed Blades. It serves as a counterpoint, almost a challenge to the hustle and bustle of George Street. "The Calder sculpture is equally as important as having Australia Square Tower there," says the architect Ian Moore. "I would say without question that it's the most significant sculpture in Australia."
But Moore believes it's the square around the tower that proved most successful, and changed the way we interacted with our cities nationwide. "Not only is the building very good in its own right, but obviously the plaza down at the bottom, the outdoor space, is one of the most successful spaces in the whole of Australia, no doubt about that," Moore says. "The people who use that space at lunchtime, I think, would be unanimous in their praise of it; it's working incredibly well."
The architecture critic Philip Drew agrees, drawing on a classical analysis to describe the plaza. "It's really a modern reinterpretation of Michelangelo's Campidoglio [in Rome] where the statue of Marcus Aurelius has been replaced by the fountain pool at the centre."
He also says it pioneered the idea of linking a civic space with a food court; "It's an essential connection." Drew believes the plaza was a beacon of urbanism that was 30 years ahead of its time. "It took three decades for the rest of the architects to catch up. In a curious way Seidler predicted the whole rise of the urban outdoor lifestyle that only gained momentum in the late 1980s. Nowadays people want to sit outside and display themselves. It's our equivalent of the Roman promenade."
Jennifer Taylor, a Queensland University of Technology professor and author of Australian Architecture Since 1960 and Tall Buildings: Australian Business Going Up, says that Australia Square raised the standard, setting a new peak (both metaphorically and literally) for Australian architects to strive towards.
She also makes special mention of the plaza. "It was a breakthrough. It showed Australians that a plaza doesn't need to be bare and windswept; it can be a very viable solution to life in the cities," Taylor says. "In doing so it contributed to the revitalisation of Sydney and other city centres as a place not to just go to work but to congregate."
Taylor says the impact on other Australian cities can be seen in such projects as Allendale Square in Perth (1976) where an attempt was made to provide public amenities on the scale that Australia Square achieved. Collins Place, Melbourne (1981) is another example of a usable public space on private land, albeit enclosed in glass.
Seidler puts the key to the plaza's success down to three key factors. First - as Drew correctly pointed out - access to food. Second, the intimate space created by raising the plaza above street level and installing screening walls from the traffic; and third, the placement of potted trees. "Give people those three things and they will go there, they will linger there and they will enjoy it. Obviously if you can get sunlight onto it, it's a bonus," he says.
Ironically, when the plaza opened, hardly anybody used it. Sydney's workers just weren't used to eating alfresco. It was much more common if you were an employee of a large organisation to use the company cafeteria and sit indoors. To get a takeaway lunch and sit out on the paving just wasn't the done thing.
When the retail area beneath the tower threw open its doors, there were a few little sandwich bars, but most of the shops were clothing boutiques. Nowadays the boutiques are gone, but you can buy everything from noodles to tandoori, pide and espresso. In fact, the variety of international cuisine is more varied beneath the tower today than it would have been in the entire city in the late 1960s, where even spaghetti bolognaise was considered somewhat exotic fare.
Australia Square has recently had a $12 million dollar revamp that upgraded lighting in the lobby to highlight the Nervi ceiling and replaced the old Pebblecrete paving in the plaza with Italian porphyry stone.
The most obvious aspect of the project is the new artwork in the lobby. The original Le Corbusier and Vasarely tapestries have been removed (due to fading) and been replaced by a huge, brightly coloured mural designed by the renowned New York artist Sol LeWitt. (Drew argues that a piece by an Aboriginal artist would have been more appropriate).
But perhaps the best example of our increasing sophistication is demonstrated by The Summit restaurant. When it opened it was considered quite avant-garde. The mere fact the split-level interior completed a panoramic revolution every 105 minutes was as modern as the moment, in a Jetsons kind of way. I have a photograph of my parents taken there on their ninth wedding anniversary in 1971. My father has big sidelevers and my mother appears weighed down under a heavily lacquered beehive hairdo. Apparently they ordered an entree of prawn cocktail followed by roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Very cutting edge, indeed.
In 1999, the architects Burley Katon Halliday overhauled the restaurant with an appropriately 1960s sense of modernity. Crisp white Eero Saarinen tulip chairs in the cocktail bar and Bertoia dining chairs by Knoll are set against rich vermilion carpet, and a metallic silver curtain backdrop.
Today's "modern Australian" menu at The Summit is a far cry from the roast beef my parents enjoyed (which you can buy from the carvery in the food court). There's still a Sunday seafood buffet, however, and men are wearing sidelevers again. Thankfully, some things never change. Apparently the patrons still have trouble finding their tables after visiting the toilets.
Is it our most beautiful tall building?
Elizabeth Farrelly (critic): It is one of the most beautiful, but my favourite is Aurora Place, Sydney, by Renzo Piano. It's lovely, stylish and feminine. It does such wonderful things with light.
Graham Jahn (architect): At ground level Australia Square is my favourite - the lobby, the outdoor spaces; the richness, the relationship with the surrounding buildings. Above ground level, Aurora Place is a strong design, but I think Harry Seidler's Horizon in Darlinghurst is the most elegant tall residential building in Australia.
Davina Jackson (critic): When it was built in 1967, Australia Square was the nation's most beautiful tower. However, my current picks are Aurora Place (Renzo Piano) as a feminine object and Governor Phillip Tower (Denton Corker Marshall) as a blokey design. Watch for Fender Katsalidis's Eureka, now going up in Melbourne.
Philip Drew (critic): Australia Square was the most progressive and innovative tower for its time, in terms of creating a genuine civilised civic space. But I think Seidler's QV1 in Perth is the most beautiful tall building. It addresses a number of distinct issues of orientation through its complex geometry.
John Denton (architect): It was an extremely significant building, a serious piece of world architecture for Sydney to have at the time and it's still historically significant in that sense. However my favourite tall building is 101 Collins Street, Melbourne (Denton Corker Marshall 1989). It's pin stripe suit-elegant. I don't like the Collins Street lobby, however (designed by colleague Philip Johnson). It's crap.
Philip Cox (architect): It's certainly a very accomplished tower for its time. Aesthetically, it's a very simple statement. When it was built it was a case of the shock of the new. Renzo Piano's Aurora Place is much more appealing.
Modern architecture came comparatively late to
Australia, and the 'heroic age' of modern masters like Corbusier, Mies
van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in the 1920s and 1930s had relatively
little impact here. But a milestone in the post-war architecture was ICI
House in Melbourne (Fig. 49) designed by Bates Smart and McCutcheon in
1956. The responsible partner, the late Sir Osborne McCutcheon, was the
first architectural Fellow of this Academy. The building achieved
distinction for several reasons: it represented a break from the
previous height limitations of 40 metres to 70 metres: it was the first
major curtain wall structure in Melbourne, to counter the increasing
costs of site labour, a modular system was adopted which incorporated
lightweight prefabricated building components. The rigid frame structure
was designed by Harvey Brown by methods developed at Purdue University,
U.S.A., it was the first occasion in Melbourne when site welded joints
were adopted for a major rigid frame building, and fire protection was
provided by light-weight precast gypsum units.
Some years after completion a number of failures occurred in the blue/grey heat strengthened glass in the curtain walls. These failures were ultimately proved, after exhaustive tests by CSIRO, to have originated from minute nickel sulphide impurities in the glass.
Further impetus to the modern idiom, came with the arrival in Australia in 1948 of Harry Seidler, who had trained at Harvard University under Gropius. In his Australia Square project, Sydney (Fig. 50) (1967), Seidler demonstrated his mastery at solving a central-city high-rise situation thus effectively introducing large scale modern architecture to the Australian public. By freeing the ground level of this previously congested inner city site, it won much-needed public open space, and its structural forms clearly evidenced the design imprint of the famed Italian engineer, Pier Luigi Nervi, who collaborated with Seidler on the scheme.
Several years later they again collaborated on the larger and more complex MLC Centre (1975) (Fig. 51), fronting Martin Place in Sydney, and incorporating a redesigned Theatre Royal. The high-rise office tower, octagonal in plan, its great structural corner shafts tapered towards the top, and the foyer ceilings to tower and theatre demonstrating anew Nervi's structural artistry, again allowed at street level significant public open space, here arranged on two levels. But Seidler went further and integrated the air-conditioning and service ducts into the concave-shaped beams that formed the spandrels to each floor, their deep reveals providing sun-protection for the offices within. It marked an overall design synthesis of structure and services rare in modern Australian architecture.
Special thanks to http://www.atse.org.au/