Beyond concern for preserving such rich heritage, the proposed demolition of the MLC Building in North Sydney poses deep environmental concerns.
History is the story of who we are. A wise society will take lessons from that history – both good and bad – and critically engage with the present to proactively shape a better future. We do this well in many regards, and we should make no exception when we come to questions of architecture.
There is currently a development application in assessment at North Sydney Council to demolish MLC Building, a 20th Century masterpiece of significance to Australia.
Completed in 1956, it marks an important part of our cultural, social, commercial and architectural history. Its inclusion as a heritage item on many registers recognises this. So how can such a vital piece of our architectural history be discarded like ephemera that fashion has left behind – only for its value to be potentially “rediscovered” anew in the near future?
Quality buildings can mark a place in time as well as a physical location. The MLC Building at 105 Miller Street North Sydney is one such example. It has social and historical significance to the development of business in Australia.
When it was unveiled, it was the largest office building in Australia. It helped transformed North Sydney into a viable commercial centre outside of Sydney’s CBD – something we take for granted now. This one building was the catalyst for that change.
The bold rectilinear lines and unique form of the building marked the gateway to North Sydney. With artwork by significant artists such as Andor Mészáros and Gerald Lewers integrated into the fabric of the building, terracotta glazed bricks representative of the post-war international style and a colonnade at ground level connecting to Brett Whiteley Place, the building continues to be a welcome part of the streetscape and a popular meeting point.
The MLC building was foundational to the development of Modernism and high-rise offices in Australia, aesthetically and technically. While it has undergone modifications, the building and its landscape setting retain major significance that is only increased by its rarity as a surviving example of the post-war international style in NSW.
To realise the building, architects Bates Smart and McCutcheon, engineer Harvey H Brown and builders Concrete Constructions used construction and detailing techniques not previously seen in Australia.
This was one of the earliest examples of curtain wall construction – where the exterior façade is not load bearing as are traditional solid masonry walls and instead inset columns behind the curtain wall support the weight of the building – and the first use of modular units (standardised mass produced sized elements). These techniques were still in their infancy in Europe and America. Accordingly, the MLC building, which was completed two years before Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Seagram building in New York, was a significant building on a world level, not just Australia.
Further to this leading edge thinking, it was also the first building to have a weather beacon on its roof. It was an iconic statement of technology and reverence to the height of the building that it could give visual forecasts of forthcoming weather before alternate methods of weather prediction were invented. Such is the regard for the MLC building that architect Richard Johnson of JPW Architects paid homage to the weather beacon tower in adapting the idea on top of the Westpac building on Kent Street that was completed in the early 2000s.
Beyond concern for preserving such rich heritage, demolition poses deep environmental concerns. It is vitally important that quality buildings are reused and repurposed.
Making waste of existing functional construction materials through demolition condones a “throwaway society” mentality, right at the very moment that we are starting to fully understand its effect on our dwindling resources and the urgent need to transform our thinking and our actions.
Ironically, the building’s original architectural practice is now the proponent of its demolition. In their view, after more than 20 years working on ways to retain the building, this move has been forced by stringent planning controls, costly conservation works and bureaucratic processes.
Having such a deep and nuanced appreciation of the building’s social, cultural and historical significance, the proponent regards it is a loss but the only way to move forward under the current planning controls given the building’s condition.
A developer or building owner needs to have a viable building, we all need to work together to ensure this is possible. We need to look at incentives for keeping such buildings of significance.
For example, stringent planning controls must be replaced with a principles-based approach for such culturally significant buildings. Alternate considerations should also be pursued vigorously, including transferring development rights to other sites, developing the eastern part of the building while maintaining the main west wing of the building, and relaxing height and overshadowing requirements. In return, any proposal that retains the heritage listed building would be required to enhance cultural benefits to the public at ground level.
The reconsideration of this public space could signal a new chapter in the MLC buildings relationship with North Sydney and help provide more history on the road towards who we want to be.
Kathlyn Loseby is the chief operating officer of Crone Architects and the NSW President Australian Institute of Architects.