News & Commentary, Visual Arts

Gotham: Guy Rundle and Jo Waite on the destruction of Melbourne's Mad Men past

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Outside the window of the Daily Review office, for the past six months, the sky has been re-appearing bit by bit. The old National Mutual building has been coming down, floor by floor, a seemingly endless process.
You couldn’t simply swing a wrecking ball into it, or implode it in the tight streets of the Melbourne CBD. Besides, it was too well-made to do that anyway. Twenty-four storeys high, in the boxy minimialist international style, with white marble panels above, and a black marble base, the building was pure Mad Men, its row of glass-walled shops, and its balconies redolent of three martini lunches and typing pools.
Built in 1959-60, it was given a huge forecourt, where an entire other skyscraper could have gone. The site had been the old Western markets, Melbourne’s first, where the goods came up one block from the ships docked on the Yarra. The clearing of the site swept away warrens of stalls, shops, sub-alleys, life in all its particulars stretching back to the days of Bearbrass.
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We mourn that now, but at the time it was greeted with wonder and excitement. All around it were the magnificent hulks of marvellous Melbourne, vast Victorian neoclassical and Gothic behemoths, curves and curlicues, knots and filigrees. The National Mutual building with its wide open forecourt — with a massive vaguely Japanesey garden — and its clean lines, was a breath of fresh air.
It said to people, you’re not bound by the past, the old order, it said, there’s a world out there. By the time it came time for it to come down, it had already started doing so of its own accord. Solidly-built within it was less so on the exterior, and the white marble panels were shearing off. By then a new city had arisen around it. It was lower than a lot of buildings, and the forecourt was a vast waste of rentable space.
As one of our first CBD modernist skyscrapers, it should have been preserved — would have made a great large retro hotel, Monocle would have been here like a shot, billing and cooing over it. But the site owners, super fund CBUS, were lucky to coincide with Matthew Guy, the dimwitted planning minister in the Baillieu/Napthine governments who extended no protection to 20th century buildings — unaware perhaps that with the iron ore price falling, Melbourne’s economy depends on being tiresome hipster capital of the world.
Down it has come.

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Jo Waite’s illustration of the now empty National Mutual block from the corner of Market Street and Flinders Lane

But in doing so, it has revealed a possibility that a government with genuine foresight would be able to take up — and that would be to buy it back from CBUS, perhaps with a mixture of cash and land swap, and turn the site into a public square. The move would, at a stroke, refocus the energy of that part of the city.
What has been for decades an unintegrated collection of boxy office buildings with the heritage remainder scattered amongst it, a relic of the 9-5 CBD, would instantly have an identity as the new West End of the Hoddle Grid. Given that office blocks are already being converted to apartments and hotels in the area, it would add to the sense of place, in turn encouraging further conversions to give that end of the city more life.
The site slopes downwards from a row of shops and cafes on Collins street, to two fine 1920s buildings — the old Port Authority building, and the former SEC building — and the square would draw the city towards the river.
There’s really no downside. Melbourne’s grid is overtight. It could do with a couple of holes punched in it. Does the government have the courage and vision to do it? Would CBUS have the public spirit to co-operate? Who knows? It would be the planning equivalent of a marble slab falling from the sky — something momentous, shattering, creating new possibilities.

3 responses to “Gotham: Guy Rundle and Jo Waite on the destruction of Melbourne's Mad Men past

  1. I assume, given how long the scaffolding wrapped the building, that reinstating the concrete facade would have ended up costing more than knocking the building down and starting again.
    I totally agree, though, about leaving it as a public square. It feels very New York edge-of-Central-Park at the moment, with a mixed set of buildings all looking down over the square. Shame it won’t happen.

  2. Agree that the building shouldn’t have come down and that, given it has, a public square would be nice. Ironically Cbus’ current 74 level proposal (as ugly as they come but at very least allowing for 1/3 public open space) has been frozen by a sudden announcement on interim height controls from Andrews’ government. Presumably once CBUS and the Minister come to grips they will find a way through those controls, which anyway are subject to the inevitable Ministerial discretion.

  3. The forecourt was always a popular space for lunchtime crowds, mostly but not exclusively lawyers and accountants. And even nighttime crowds – I remember leaving work late one night to see a couple of hundred people gathered around to watch/film a stunt from the Nicholas Cage movie, Ghostrider.

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