September 07, 2015

Horse 1975 - Looking Round Australia Square

Before I proceed any further with this, I have to say that the photographs in this post are possibly illegal. The fugacious little man with the moustache who told me to leave the building lobby, informed me that we do not have "freedom of panorama" in Australia and that I needed permission from the building's owners if I wanted to take any photographs. Even when I produced a signed authority to do so, this was still above his pay grade and because I didn't want to make a scene, I left the premises.

This eighteen sided cylinder of a building is in my opinion, the most singular building in all of Sydney. Granted that they had to invent building and construction methods as they went along to erect the opera house, Australia Square has both a simultaneously more and less interesting story than the iconic building at Benelong Point.
The first thing of note is the shape of the building. Australia Square is obviously not named that because of the building but of the land upon which it sits. The plot of land is indeed a square and this was the name of the project before a sod of earth was even turned.

The reason for this octadecagonal building has nothing to do with architectural fashion but rather, everything to do with answering a very different question. The concrete from which the building is built is made from cement which comes all from a single quarry; second to that, its also some of the least dense concrete ever used to construct a building. The building is as strong as other buildings but it is far far lighter. The builders, who only had enough cement to make enough concrete coming out of that one quarry, had to make the most efficient use of that concrete. The shape of the building naturally, was decided as a quantity surveying answer to the question of how you get the most building from the available materials. A cylinder is the most efficient shape and therefore, that's the shape they picked.
Australia Square was designed by Harry Seidler (who was also responsible for Blues Point Tower and the MLC Centre) and it was at the time of its construction, Australia's only true skyscraper. By default it was also the tallest building in Australia for 9 years until in 1976, the south building of the AMP Centre stole its crown.

Like a lot of buildings, Australia Square is built around a central chamber that houses the lift shafts, the fire escapes and the water and electrical services. There are 24 lifts, arranged in four sets of six which service four groups of twelve floors. The lifts themselves have a sort of wedge shape and once you step out onto any given floor in the building, it can be really disconcerting because there are no straight lines to speak of inside the building. For instance, you kind of work out that Mrs Banana down on the nineteenth floor is roughly 120° around the building from the direction that you're currently facing but this never really sinks in. A lot of time for office workers in transit around the building is spent walking in what you think is some sector of a pie.

The building was opened by Prince Phillip in 1968 but not before it has already won the Sir John Sulman Medal for architecture as well as a civic award from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. So much of this building from the fonts on all the lift fixtures, to the strange off form concrete textures in the walls and the ceilings, ties this building to that time before Armstrong kicked the moon.
Australia Square was originally occupied by various government departments including the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Construction and the Department of Defence, which just somehow seems appropriate for this building. I can just imagine rooms of civil servants in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in brown suits and super wide ties; with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and fag ends in overflowing ashtrays.

In the 1960s when this building was under construction, Australia went from a Menzies Government that had lasted for longer than some people's memories; from a pre-decimal currency, to a Gorton Government but only after having had a Prime Minister accidentally go missing and introducing decimal currency.
The building was designed, erected, finished and open for business and it did so before the Opera House had been finished. From the outset it was as interesting as the Opera House but unlike the great white monstrosity on the harbour front, Australia Square has always been fit for purpose. It works as an office building and almost 50 years after it opened it still looks more modern than many of the buildings which have come and gone in the streets surrounding it.

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