Docomomo Australia Submissions against the application to demolish the MLC Building, 105-153 Miller Street, North Sydney

Dear Docomomo Australia reader,
 
We urgently need your assistance. 
 
A Development Application to demolish the heritage-listed MLC Building (1954-1957 by Bates Smart & McCutcheon) has been lodged with North Sydney Council.  The MLC Building was listed by Docomomo Australia on its Register in 2004 and is also listed by the Australian Institute of Architects on its Register of Nationally Significant 20th Century Architecture.
 
Whilst Docomomo Australia has lodged an objection we need you to write a personal letter of objection by the close of the advertising period (7 August 2020).  Given what has happened with the proposed redevelopment of the North Sydney Olympic Pool there is no guarantee that its status as a listed item of environmental heritage under the North Sydney Local Environmental Plan (the statutory planning instrument) as a Local item will protect it from demolition.
 
I have attached the Docomomo submissions below (including the Docomomo listing fiche from 2004).
 
I urge you to write now to lend your professional voice to stop the needless destruction of one of Australia’s most important Modernist office buildings.
 
Regards
Dr Scott Robertson
President Docomomo Australia Inc
ABN 69 985 649 866

Docomomo Australia Submission to the NSW Heritage Council (Pdf)

Docomomo Australia Submission to the North Sydney Council (Pdf)

Docomomo listing fiche from 2004 (Pdf)

Our Submission

19 July 2020

General Manager
North Sydney Council 100 Miller Street NORTH SYDNEY NSW 2060

Dear Sir,

Demolition of the MLC Building, 105 Miller Street, North Sydney DA 147/20

Objection:

Docomomo Australia objects to the proposal to demolish the current heritage-listed MLC Building. The MLC Building has been an important part of the history and streetscape of North Sydney for over 60 years and remains one of the few buildings in the North Sydney CBD possessing any good civic or aesthetic qualities.

Docomomo Australia considers that the MLC Building is at least of State significance and, because of the size, quality of the design, early date of construction and the national attention it drew upon opening (being opened by the Australian Prime Minister) it is of National importance in the development of Modernist architecture in Australia.

The building is a heritage item, currently listed as having Local significance but which has been recognised as having at least State, and possibly National, significance. Demolition of heritage items can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances and every effort must be made to find compatible uses for heritage items and to apply re-use and refurbishment strategies. One has only to regard examples such as the Queen Victoria Building in the Sydney CBD to find an example of a development that worked with the building to find a suitable modern, viable use.

The evidence presented in the development application for the replacement of the MLC Building does not demonstrate in any detail that alternative strategies to demolition have been pursued with any rigor.

Significance:

Statutory:

The MLC Building has been listed as an item of environmental heritage on the various iterations of the North Sydney Local Environmental Plan since 1989.

The LEP listing’s Statement of Significance states:

The first high rise office block in North Sydney and the largest for a number of years after its construction, the MLC Building in North Sydney is a seminal building on subsequent highrise design in Sydney and utilised construction and structural techniques not previously used in Australia. With the first use of a curtain wall design and the first use of modular units in Australia, its use of exceptional modernist building materials in the curtain wall facade and terracotta glazed bricks are representative of the Post-War International style of architecture that predominated in these early commercial high-rise buildings. The architect, Walter Osborn McCutcheon’s desire for his buildings to integrate modern art within the fabric of the design is demonstrated by the inclusion of significant artists such as Andor Mészáros and Gerald Lewers. As a result, and despite subsequent modifications, the interior, exterior and landscape setting are of high aesthetic, technical and representative significance. The building is also of historical, associative and aesthetic significance as an important work by a significant firm of architects Bates Smart and McCutcheon, and master builders Concrete Constructions, and as a landmark site at North Sydney which signified the transformation of the centre of North Sydney from Nineteenth Century town to the second commercial hub of metropolitan Sydney from the late 1950s.

 Address: 70A Blues Point Road, North Sydney, NSW, Australia Telephone: +61 (0)2 9929 6782

Whilst the building has been listed as being an item of Local significance on the North Sydney LEP the analysis of its significance under the State Heritage Register criteria in that SHI listing ascribes a higher level of significance to the building. Under Criterion (a) (Historical Significance) it is stated that the building is “significant on a local and state level as it was marked as beginning the transformation of North Sydney from [a] low-scale commercial town to the high-rise second CBD of Sydney”. Under Criterion (c) (Aesthetic Significance) it is stated that “The building is a key building in the development of high-rise buildings and is considered to be one of the first true high-rise buildings in Australia, making the MLC Building of national significance.”

Non-statutory/professional – Docomomo:

Docomomo Australia, using Docomomo International’s assessment criteria, considers the MLC Building to have technical, social, aesthetic and iconic significance.

Docomomo Australia concurs with the NSW SHI listing assessment of the building being of at least State significance and probably of National significance and listed the building on the Docomomo Register in 2004 (copy of the listing fiche is attached). It should be noted that Docomomo strives to list the buildings in Australia that have a national resonance and importance and that the fiches prepared by the various national branches of Docomomo International (of which there are currently 72) together comprise the International Register of Docomomo. It is a summary of the important buildings of the Modern Movement around the world, of which the MLC Building is one.

Docomomo Australia’s listing fiche states that the building is recognised as the first high-rise building in North Sydney and a building that represents a number of Australia’s firsts:

  • first freestanding office building;
  • first office building incorporating two office slabs separated by a services tower, with a podium, pilotis and roof gardens;
  • first example of a deliberately decorated curtain wall;
  • first large-scale commercial office development in the International Modern style, incorporating, at all levels from conception through finishes to furniture, the contemporary architectural influences of the USA and Europe;
  • first large-scale commercial office development utilising large areas of glazed curtain walls in association with large capacity, sophisticated-control air conditioning for comfort conditions.

The Docomomo listing fiche states that the North Sydney MLC building has iconic/canonical significance because it is:

Australia’s first large-scale commercial office development embodying the sleek, modern, recognisable, rectangular glazed prism so recently embraced by US corporations, as exemplified by the UN Secretariat and Lever House, [both in New York];

And because it is:
the largest and the best one of a series of buildings around Australia constructed by the MLC insurance company to project a modern image and to house its workers in open plan, modern office buildings with up-to-date facilities for work and leisure.

Non-statutory/professional – Australian Institute of Architects:

The importance and significance of the building to the development of architecture in Australia is also recognised by its listing on the Australian Institute of Architects’ Register of Nationally Significant 20th Century Architecture as item 105.

Non-statutory/academic – Jennifer Taylor (University of Sydney & Queensland University of Technology):
Jennifer Taylor’s seminal 2001 book on high-rise buildings in Australia, Tall Buildings Australian Business Going Up: 1945-1970, devoted much of the chapter on the MLC buildings in Australia to the MLC Building at North Sydney. Taylor states: “the first fully developed lightweight, freestanding, modern modular office block does not appear until 1957 with the completion of the MLC Building, North Sydney, by Bates Smart & McCutcheon (in association with Hennessey and Hennessey)” (page 22) and “Leaping ahead of its predecessors, the MLC Building, North Sydney, was a fully developed and committed work with a level of contemporaneity and excellence in design comparable to most buildings of this type throughout the world.” (page 48) Taylor also explores the design of the building in terms of height (ie not attempting to use the landscaped setback to Miller Street in order to gain additional height) and also the effect of daylight penetration into the offices on the width of the office floors.

The importance of the MLC Building at North Sydney to the development of the modern high-rise office building in Australia cannot be overstated.

Non-statutory/academic – Philip Goad (University of Melbourne):

Philip Goad, in his 2004 book on the architectural firm, Bates Smart, wrote of the firm’s projects for insurance company, MLC that they “represented the aesthetic and technological development of a new typology. … BSM in effect attained the status of an Antipodean Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM), the corporate architectural firm par excellence.” (page 162) and “Of all the projects, it was MLC in North Sydney that was to be the most impressive exposition of BSM’s newly acquired expertise. … the Sydney building was at the time the largest office building in Australia. Presenting a huge façade to the street (almost 100 metres in length, the building was completely integrated in its design from interiors, external landscaping and modular construction to the tinted glass and ribbed aluminium spandrel panel curtain wall that appeared like a vast weightless mosaic.” (page 164)

The MLC Building is also cited as an important development of post-war office buildings in the essay “Work & War” (pages 84-91) by Noni Boyd & Scott Robertson in the book edited by Hannah Lewi & Philip Goad, Australia Modern: Architecture, landscape & design (2019).

Summary of Significance:

The MLC Building is the most significant large office building dating from the 1950s in Australia. The ICI Building in Melbourne, also designed by Bates Smart & McCutcheon, is recognised as a building of importance to the people of Victoria and Australia by virtue of its listing on the Victorian State heritage Register. The MLC Building at North Sydney, completed the year before the ICI Building is of at least equal importance to the ICI building in terms of its design and historical importance and should be listed on the NSW State Heritage Register. The importance of the building was recognised at the time of its completion by being opened by the Australian Prime Minister and its aesthetic significance, historical significance as well as its rarity is beyond question.

The proponent’s Statement of Heritage Impact (HIS) & DA Report options:

The HIS by the RPS Group, dated 28 November 2019, in our view, does not follow either the NSW Heritage Council guidelines for the preparation of Statements of Heritage Impact or the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter process for managing places of cultural significance with respect to the North Sydney MLC Building.

The HIS fails to address the significance of the MLC Building. There is no attempt to assess its significance as an important component in the development of North Sydney, the streetscape or its seminal role in the development of the Modern high-rise office building in Australia. On page 51 there is simply a reiteration of a very small part of the Statement of Significance associated with the SHI listing and no examination of the significance of the building under the various State Heritage Register criteria. There is more discussion of the archaeological potential of the site than there is on the heritage item itself, which is to be expected given that the primary qualification of the report’s authors is archaeology.

On page 55 there is a one line statement on the impact of the proposal on the heritage item (“a direct major adverse impact”) because of its demolition and then nine lines of how the proposal “mitigates” the impact including a “reinterpretation of the philosophy of the MLC Building”. In our opinion this is nonsensical (aside from the improbability of an inanimate building having a philosophy). Examples of this nonsensical mitigation approach are the statements that the use of an “expressed lightweight structure” and the proposed building is a “landmark building form” are examples of this reinterpretation of the existing building. The proposed building could not be further from the existing building in form/shape. The ordered, modular nature of the existing building is replaced with a bulbous building of no apparent structuring order, the façade of the new building is a flat glass curtain wall compared to the existing building’s highly modulated and textured aluminium and glass curtain wall. The MLC Building has been an important defining wall of the only civic space in the North Sydney CBD at the junction of the Pacific Highway, Millers Street and Mount Street for over 60 years and the proposed replacement building, with its glass façade, will not replicate the blue-grey solidity of the MLC Building at this important civic juncture.

The alternative development options for the site as listed in the DA Report by Bates Smart in Section 5.1 do not include a section or assessment criterion regarding heritage impact and the HIS does not assess each of those development options with respect to the heritage significance of the existing MLC Building. This should have been a priority for the HIS.

The primary motivation for the redevelopment of the site is the increase in lettable floor space and the removal of the existing and potential overshadowing of Brett Whiteley Place. Brett Whiteley Place is the closed-off section of Mount Street between the Pacific Highway and part of the way down Mount Street towards Walker Street. When the MLC Building was constructed Mount Street was a traffic-carrying road and became a primary access road to the Sydney Harbour Bridge after the construction of the Warringah Freeway. Whilst solar access to public spaces is an ideal to be achieved, the sacrifice of a heritage item of such importance is not an adequate trade-off. It should be noted that Brett Whiteley Place is already partly overshadowed by the existing building. The shadow diagrams in the DA report should have differentiated between existing and additional shadows as well as differentiating between the shadows from buildings on the subject site and shadows cast by the approved development over the Victoria Cross Metro Station.

The emphasis on Brett Whiteley Place as an urban open space is not matched by a meaningful discussion about the utility of the landscaped area to the west of the MLC Building along the Miller Street frontage. That landscaped area is designated a Special Area under the North Sydney LEP and offers the chance of creating a sun-filled open public space. Brett Whiteley Place can remain a shaded place for Summer and the area to the west could serve as the sun-filled Winter open public space.

The issues stated in the Australia ICOMOS Practice Note: Heritage and Sustainability 1: Built Heritage are also not addressed in the HIS. The major environmental impact of the loss of the embodied energy in the existing MLC Building and the cost and impact of either dumping or recycling the demolished materials should have been canvassed in the HIS. The embodied energy of the MLC Building is greater than most buildings constructed of “traditional” building materials because of the large area of aluminium façade units that required a large input of electricity in their refining and manufacture. The DA Report illustrates several overseas refurbishment projects that successfully conserved the heritage significance of high-rise office buildings; notably Lever House in New York.

Conclusion:

The importance of the MLC Building at North Sydney to the development of the modern high-rise office building in Australia cannot be overstated. The building is recognised by North Sydney Council, the Australian Institute of Architects, Docomomo Australia and academics around Australia as a rare, surviving, seminal work of Modern Australian architecture that should be retained for future generations.

Docomomo Australia fully supports the upgrading of heritage buildings to adapt to new requirements and technology. The MLC Building itself has already been the subject of such an adaptive upgrade at the beginning of the 21st century and it is possible to upgrade the MLC Building sensitively to provide office accommodation of a high standard in such an important and convenient location. There are numerous international examples of adaptive re-use of significant heritage buildings such as the conversion of Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam, The Netherlands to provide world class office and studio accommodation, or the retention of 1950s and 1960s high-rise buildings in Dallas, USA with refurbished original facades and important interiors.

The proposal to demolish the building should be refused and alternative refurbishment strategies explored in detail.

The building should be listed on the State Heritage Register as a minimum step in preserving the building and consideration should be given to listing it on the National Heritage List.

An update of the 20 year old Conservation Management Plan should be undertaken before any decisions are made regarding the building’s future.

North Sydney Council should, as an urgent priority commence negotiations with the NSW Government for:

  • Listing on the State Heritage Register
  • Commencing a Heritage Floor Space Scheme for the sale of heritage floor space similar to the scheme operated by the City of Sydney. This would provide funding for the building’s conservation and refurbishment Such a dual-pronged approach would preserve the building by giving the owners financial incentives to upgrade and conserve the building and capitalise on unused floor space as well as adding further protection for this exceptional, important building and ensuring its retention for future generations. Yours faithfully Dr Scott Robertson
    BSc (Arch), BArch (Hons), MBEnv (Blg Conservation), PhD President
    Docomomo Australia

Link to the Docomomo Australia’s Fiche about the MLC Building

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