MLC Building / Docomomo Austalia submission to the NSW Heritage Council

September 26th
This is Docomomo Australia’s proposal to list the MLC Building, 105-153 Miller Street, North Sydney on the State Heritage Register. The proposal was submitted to Heritage NSW by Scott Robertson, president of Docomomo Australia on September 25th.


Executive Director
Heritage NSW
Locked Bag 5020 PARRAMATTA NSW 2124

Dear Madam,

Proposal to list the MLC Building, 105-153 Miller Street, North Sydney on the State Heritage Register

Docomomo Australia supports the proposal to list the MLC Building, North Sydney on the State Heritage Register.

The MLC Building was identified in The Modern Movement in NSW: a thematic study and survey of places (Hericon Consulting 2013) as a potential item for listing on the State Heritage Register but its listing was not prioritised because it was already listed on a statutory instrument as an item of environmental heritage (North Sydney LEP 2013). However, it appears that this listing at a Local level may not be sufficient to prevent the building’s demolition in the upscaling of sites adjacent to the Victoria Cross Metro Station, which is currently under construction.

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 possible National importance in the development of Modernist commercial 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 under assessment Criteria a) and c) and regional significance under Criterion g) in the current North Sydney LEP listing. 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.

The evidence presented in the development application to North Sydney Council for the replacement of the MLC Building does not demonstrate in any detail that alternative strategies to demolition have been pursued with any rigor and that there is, indeed, any pressing need for the building’s demolition.

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.

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.”

As part of this submission we are suggesting a Statement of Significance that is considered more appropriate to the building. See Attachment A.

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 Architectural 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.

Challenges and Opportunities:

Urban design opportunities:
The MLC Building was the tall, iconic genesis of North Sydney’s transformation into Sydney’s second CBD. One of the excellent features that has become an important aspect of the North Sydney office worker experience is the grass area on the Miller Street frontage where office workers could sit and relax to eat their lunch in a non-structured manner or in a location where they had to pay to eat.

This strip of lawn remains sunny in mid-winter, unlike the so-called Brett Whiteley Plaza (the closed off section of Mount Street) which is overshadowed in mid-winter.

An opportunity exists for North Sydney Council and the building’s owners to capitalise on the ideal location of the west frontage of the MLC Building to create an urban space that could provide a sunny winter square or shaded summer plaza in a similar vein to the plaza of Australia Square. The half-floor level difference between Miller Street and the entrance level of the MLC Building opens up the opportunity to have a two-level public square with the lower level at the entrance level of the building and an upper level which would be approximately half a level above Miller Street. Cafes and restaurants could be located under the upper level opening out on to the lower level square. The narrowing of Miller Street to two lanes (for public transport and access to the Northpoint car park) would create more land for an expanded public square. It would be anticipated that the section of Miller Street in front of the new Metro station would need to remain 4 lanes wide to permit a train/bus interchange.

The public square would provide access from the new Metro station to the escalators to Greenwood Plaza and thence to the North Sydney Railway Station. There would also be a possibility for an underground link between the two stations under a public square connecting into Greenwood Plaza.

(follows, Download full submission )

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