Saturday, 20 January 2018

New Year’s revolutions

This morning I got notification from Facebook via a suggested post dated 20 January 2014 that told me that with a friend I had started the ‘Book Chat’ series of podcasts on that day, and at Twitter they told me that it was the anniversary of my joining their site. They made a tweet (“Do you remember when you joined Twitter? I do! #MyTwitterAnniversary”) for me to use that had a graphic on it with the figure “9”.

I remembered joining Twitter originally with a different name because a friend had suggested joining it to me. My current Twitter handle came later. But there were other things that had happened at this time of year, as well, I remembered. I had started this blog on 22 January 2006 at the same time I applied to study media in a postgraduate degree at the University of Sydney. I had just bought my new apartment in Campsie (December 2005) and I had had my employment status with the University of Sydney upgraded.

A lot of the poetry I wrote in the years 2013 and 2014 was written in the summer, as well. There was for example the sequence ‘Water Creature’ that started on Australia Day 2013 when Tropical Cyclone Oswald slowly tracked down the coast from Cape York to northern NSW. This sonnet in it, ‘An Australia Day welcome to new arrivals’, was written on 26 January of that year:
It’s when I hear you speak of what is fair –
who was born far from here – I intuit
your displeasure: our country might better
harness your talents because it’s merit 
and not who you know that would count for more.
Tales about bad officials on the take
draw your fierce integrity to the fore
for the polity’s health is yours to make. 
It’s you and the ones like you who define
perfectly the extent of what is good,
and your dreams alone are what justify
pride in guessing where our forefathers stood. 
As the ocean roars, the rain’s airy spires
abate the authority of bushfires.
Lots of big things have happened at this time of year, it turns out, even though I usually decline when it’s offered to me to settle on a New Year’s resolution. It turns out they are more like revolutions!

Friday, 19 January 2018

Book review: The First Casualty, Peter Greste (2017)

The old saw goes that the first casualty of war is the truth and Greste – the Australian journalist who spent 400 days in a series of Egyptian jails after being charged with and convicted of aiding terrorists because he interviewed people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – twists it slightly to claim that the first casualty of the so-called War on Terror has been journalism. Or, more exactly, objective journalism of the kind that is so difficult to produce.

The narrative that deals with his stay in Egypt – he had only just arrived there in 2014 to take up a job with Al Jazeera English – is interleaved with a series of meditations on the state of the craft. He starts by looking at his own experience back in Afghanistan in 1995 when he was covering the war there for the BBC and the Taliban entered the fray. He shows how their entry into the war made life more dangerous for journalists, as they had no tolerance for such things as objectivity and merely wanted someone to parrot their collective line in the international public sphere.

When he starts talking about more recent events, such as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, these sketches become slightly tendentious as he is dealing with material that has been covered in detail elsewhere, but you assume that he is writing for posterity as much as for existing audiences, and you just skip the parts you don’t need to read. A similar thing happens when he starts talking about Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.

His descriptions of the ways that governments of both colours in Australia have passed laws in Parliament that make life more difficult for journalists is rewarding, and his expertise in such matters were no doubt part of the reason Greste was chosen this week by the University of Queensland School of Communications and Arts to be their UNESCO chair of journalism and communication.

Trump’s dealings with the media, he thinks, are particularly troubling as they provide unscrupulous leaders in other parts of the world with a license to persecute this critical segment of their countries’ communities. Journalists serve an essential purpose in the conduct of democracy, which is no doubt why, for example, Australian James Ricketson is still under arrest in Cambodia for doing journalism that clashes with the dynastic impulses of the country’s corrupt leader, Hun Sen.

The story of Greste’s incarceration itself is of especial interest, even to those who experience loneliness in a free country and who are looking for tips on how to deal with it. Being shut away in a small space for weeks on end, Greste developed a routine including exercise and meditation that allowed him to unshackle his mind from the depressing tracks it might otherwise have been left to follow in its default mode. He experienced panic attacks on occasion when the pressure became too much and the idea of spending years inside loomed large.

This is also a good book to read to understand how the Middle East has changed since the rise of radical Islamic terror, and it offers insights that are otherwise unavailable elsewhere in the public sphere. Greste is focused mainly on facts but does include passages where he teases out the meanings of things that happened to him and where he talks about his feelings they are particularly rewarding.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Brutalism fourteen: Labor Council of New South Wales

This is the 14th in a series of blogposts about brutalist buildings in Sydney. The building is still used for union offices as well as being the headquarters for the NSW branch of the ALP.

In Australian politics “Sussex Street” is a highly loaded term, being as it is where the NSW headquarters of the Australian Labor Party is located. It stands for a certain type of institutionalised power that is the machinery of the centre-left of politics in the nation’s most populous state. Precisely, the NSW ALP HQ is located on level nine of this building, just around the corner from the Trades Hall, for which the foundation stone had been laid in 1888.

A development application (DA) was received by the city council for the new building on 9 December 1966, and the relevant minute paper from the acting city building surveyor notes that on the site at the time there were two buildings.

One was described in the document as 377-379 Sussex Street, which is marked down as a three-storey structure that had been used as a warehouse and was owned by retailer GJ Coles, but was now in the process of being demolished. There was also at 381-383 Sussex Street a two-storey structure that had been used as warehouse but was now in the process of being demolished, and that had been owned by J.B. Morris and L.H. Cox.

Above: The site plan drawing in the DA file. It erroneously shows that two buildings were demolished to make way for the new building. The Trades Hall, which was constructed in the late 19th century, is shown in blue in this drawing. I wrote briefly about this building in early December.

But there is another document, this time in the DA file, that shows other details. This document says that there was a building at 377 Sussex Street that was a four-storey building used as a wine and spirit warehouse. At 379 Sussex Street there was a five-storey building. At 381 Sussex Street there was a two-storey building. And at 383 Sussex Street there was a three-storey building used as a wholesale grocery warehouse. The drawing below shows the four lots marked out in this architect’s plan.

The lord mayor’s approval was given to the plan with the proviso that pedestrian access be provided by an arcade connecting the new building with the 19th-century Trades Hall behind it on Dixon Street. The city council had resolved on 24 May 1965 in respect of 381-383 Sussex Street only that consent be given to the application submitted by the Labor Council of New South Wales on behalf of J.B. Morris and L.H. Cox for permission to erect on the site a building comprising a basement and eleven upper floors, including parking for four cars. The consent was for a building to be used “as a licensed club and as associated offices”, meeting rooms, storerooms, and for residential purposes.

The site seems to have been enlarged later, as shown in the above drawing, when a larger block of land that had been occupied by two other buildings located immediately to the north of the site was added to it. 

A DA form that was filled out and dated 1 December 1965 shows that all four properties were now included in the plan and that parking for 25 cars was planned for the basement. The estimated cost of the new building was $1,750,000. The architects were Brewster, Murray & Partners of 165 Walker Street, North Sydney. Harvey H. Brown & Associates of 2 O’Connell Street were the structural engineers. Mechanical Contractors Pty Ltd were the mechanical engineers. James Wallace Pty Ltd of 89 Berry Street, North Sydney, were the builders.

The above drawing in the DA file shows the site for the new building, as well as the “hotel” at the corner on Goulburn Street, which is now a convenience store.

The new building would have approximately 8000 square feet (743.2 square metres) of area per floor. According to CityScope, the city reference book published by RP Data, the building has 10,200 square metres of gross floor area.

The builders requested an extension of the time of the building approval from the city council of 12 months on 28 December 1968.

There is a minute in the building application file by the city planner addressed to the city health officer dated 9 June 1972 requesting a further check to the mechanical ventilation system for the new building. It appears the building had been completed in 1971.

Above: The ground floor plan drawn up by the architects. The driveway would end up being at the other side of the site, to the north (right-hand side of this image), coming off Sussex Street.

Above: A typical floor plan of the building in this architect’s drawing.

Above: The floor eleven plan, showing the flat roofed area on the Sussex Street side of the building.

Above: The passageway going into the Trades Hall building is shown at the rear of the ground floor in this drawing. The connection to the Trades Hall was completely refashioned in 2005 when a central courtyard was constructed with a separate high-rise building providing additional office space (as we will see in a later photograph).

Above: This drawing of the original building has Sussex Street at the left-hand side.

Above: This architect’s view of the Sussex Street frontage of the new building shows that at the time Sussex Street was one-way northbound, whereas nowadays it is one-way southbound.

Above: A plan from the city archives shows the final eastern elevation of the new building, as built. This drawing shows the heights of the buildings on either side of it at the time. The little pub to the left, on the corner of Goulburn Street, is still there, although it’s a convenience store now.

Above: The imposing Sussex Street frontage of the building in Chinatown.

Above: The central courtyard that was constructed in 2005, with (at right) a new structure built at that time providing additional office space. The 19th century Trades Hall building is at the left in this photo.

Above: The 19th-century brickwork is exposed in the central courtyard, where people can have a coffee from the little café concession that is located there.

Above: The superstructure of the 2005 construction is visible at the right-hand side in this photo of the courtyard connecting the Sussex Street building with the Trades Hall building at the back of the block.

As well as commercial tenants and the Australian Labor Party, the building at 377-383 Sussex Street also houses the Australian Maritime Officers Union, the Funeral Union of NSW, the National Union of Workers, the Australian Workers Union, and The McKell Institute (a progressive think-tank). The building is owned by Unions NSW (which is the branding the Labor Council of NSW uses) and was refurbished in 1994.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

TV show stirs up hornet’s nest of feelings in the community

It had been going for some days but I decided to chronicle the story this morning. At 8.58am this morning, Jo White (@mediamum who has a PhD in human computer interaction from the University of Colorado, Boulder) tweeted: “This is the most disturbing thing I've seen today. Right wing ‘activists’ meeting and then promising to use social media to get other people (not police) to respond to ‘incidents’ referred to as an ‘African youth crime crisis’ - terminology created and perpetuated by media.” Her tweet quote-tweeted a tweet from Australia’s Channel Seven that had gone up at 6.03pm on Sunday 14 January:
7 News reporter @jodilee_7 has been granted exclusive access to a secret meeting organised by right wing activists in response to Melbourne's African youth crime crisis. #7News
The Channel Seven tweet had a video with it showing a TV segment that screened on that Sunday with reporter Jodi Lee describing a meeting by neo-Nazi groups that took place at a meeting place belonging to the United Patriots Front (UPF). The meeting had been called to discuss the issue of African gang violence in Melbourne that the conservative government had raised in the media two weeks ago. At that time, the prime minister had spoken publicly about the issue, as had the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton.

Men from different groups spoke to Channel Seven’s camera, including men from the UPF and the True Blue Crew. Lee reported that the men “are hoping to create a kind of Neighbourhood Watch” using social media “that will quickly let people know when an incident, a robbery, an attack in fact is occurring and hopefully send locals there to help protect residents”.

The original comments that had been made during the quiet Christmas period by conservative politicians eager to attack the Labor state government of Daniel Andrews, were bad enough. They had spawned, for example, the retaliatory #melbournebitesback hashtag on Twitter which people in the city used to post pictures of African food they had gone out to eat. Dutton had said that people in the city were too afraid to go out at night to eat at restaurants.

Then Channel Seven, eager to capitalise on the popularity of the subject, spruiked its “exclusive” story featuring members of white supremacist groups – what it called “right wing activists” – and Twitter once again went into overdrive, with people on the left attacking the TV station and tweeting to advertisers of the Australian Open tennis competition, which Channel Seven carried, saying that they would be boycotted.

There were plenty of examples of this on Twitter even two days after the Channel Seven story went to air. At around 8.45am on Tuesday 16 January, retired journalist Mike Carlton retweeted an image of a tweet by UPF activist Blair Cottrell, adding: ”Me oh my. Here’s @7NewsMelbourne’s ‘right wing activist.’” Blair’s tweet contained a survey on Twitter that questioned the media’s role in society. “What action should a government take to ensure fairer, more honest reporting from mainstream media journalists?” The most common response was “Execute the leftists” (see below).

Just after 9am on 16 January, Melbourne man Tim Politi retweeted a tweet that had gone up on 15 January from @2FBS:
Righto @Channel7 you promoted Hanson and now you are normalising Hate Groups. I am done. Any advertiser on 7 now joins by product banned list. Where possible I will not purchase your product. It is the only way I have of registering my disgust and Seven's blatant racism.
Sydney woman Joan Evatt retweeted a tweet at around the same time from Australian woman Melanie Coutts:
Hi @Coles We buy all our groceries from you. Now that money went to #channel7 glorifying nazis [sic], it looks like we're shopping elsewhere
At around the same time, Perth man Daniel Dowling retweeted a tweet that had gone up at 9.58am on 15 January from Richard Cooke, contributing editor for The Monthly magazine, that said, “Funny how endorsing Nazism is rarely seen as disrespecting the diggers who fought it.” There were 37 replies to this tweet, as well as 938 retweets and 1999 likes.

At #melbournebitesback, the hashtag set up in the wake of the original stories about politicians complaining about African gangs, @thealien_earth retweeted a tweet at around 9.37am on 16 January that had gone up at 7.55pm on 3 January from Netherlands-based woman @Lilly_learns, who is a slam poet and MA student, that said: 
Some facts: Research found that it’s actually African youth in West Melb. that are subjected to unwarranted harassment and racially profiled by the police. Maybe @PeterDutton_MP might try being informed by evidence?
The tweet contained a link to a PDF on the website that contained a 2009 report written by Bec Smith and Shane Reshide. In the executive summary, the authors note: “This report examines African young people’s experiences of policing practices across three regions of Melbourne: the City of Greater Dandenong, Flemington and Braybrook.”
African young people are over-policed in the regions of the study. This overpolicing is racialised. 
Police enforce particular notions of acceptable usage of public space. This results in police-youth conflict. 
Routine police harassment of African young people as well as police violence is either under-reported to the relevant oversight bodies, or these bodies are not adequately investigating these incidents, or both.
There were tweets as well from the extreme left-hand side of the highly polarised social graph the story provoked. @WittaTwitta from the Sunshine Coast had tweeted at 1.28pm on 15 January:
If people opposed to @Channel7 promoting 'exclusive' interviews with #neoNazis are prepared to monitor companies advertising on @Channel7 shows. Take notes and name them here until they withdraw their [money emoji] from @Channel7. #Boycotting is the next move. @Channel7 trashTV [shit and TV emojis]
The tweet was retweeted by @LadyPoop2 ataround 9.58am on the #auspol hashtag. And at 12.15pm on 15 January, @GeorgeBludger had tweeted: “For all your sevenazi news, nightly on @7NewsMelbourne.” The tweet came with an image:

The tweet was retweeted by Marion Groves, a Melbourne-based independent technical, academic and general editor, at 10.02am on 16 January.

At 12.49pm @redspactakells retweeted a tweet put up by @mnxmoosi at 2.15pm on 15 January that said: “Who inside @7NewsMelbourne is authorising this white nationalist recruitment drive? Because make no mistake, that's exactly what this is.” This tweet retweeted a tweet by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, saying, “.@jodilee_7 plus this. these aren't just your regular NIMBYs. these [are] white nationalists with a penchant for violence.” This tweet also contained an image from the Channel Seven TV segment attached to a tweet as an image from Antifascist Action Brisbane.

At 1.10pm on 16 January Melanie Coutts tweeted: “#Channel7 News boss defends neo-Nazi interview as 'newsworthy'.” The tweet came with a link to a story dated 16 January on Australian news outlet Crikey that said, “Seven News Melbourne’s news director Simon Pristel has defended a story and interview with neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell.” But the story also noted that the original tweet by journalist Jodi Lee had been deleted. Pristel defended the TV station, telling Fairfax Media that the story was “newsworthy”. 

Crikey journalist Emily Watkins wrote that the original report didn’t include any information about Cottrell’s criminal convictions. The story linked to a story on the website of Fairfax’s The Age that noted that, “Channel Seven has copped intense backlash after interviewing a convicted racist and arsonist for his thoughts on Victoria's so-called African gangs crisis.”

The Age story noted that Cottrell had spent time in prison for property damage, and that he had been “one of the first Victorians to be convicted under the state's new racial vilification laws”. The story linked to an earlier story in the newspaper dated 5 September 2017 that began:
Three far-right activists who staged a mock beheading in protest at plans to build a mosque have been found guilty, convicted and fined for a criminal offence under Victoria's racial vilification laws.
Crikey’s politics editor Bernard Keane weighed in on the subject on 16 January also, noting that the Channel Seven story had spawned another hashtag on Twitter (#7summerofnazis) that he said trended heavily. Keane also noted in his story that ASIO head Duncan Lewis was aware of the threat of violence from right-wing groups in the community. “Lewis’ remarks were directed at another neo-Nazi group, Reclaim Australia. But it is understood that UPF is on the radar police and intelligence agencies.”

Monday, 15 January 2018

Book review: Lost Connections, Johann Hari (2018)

This book claims novelty for its raison d’etre, and is optimistically subtitled ‘Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions’ but sometimes the journalist’s technique falls down. Hari himself was diagnosed with depression when he was younger, so he approaches his subject from a position of knowledge born of experience.

He’ll be talking about a scientific study that has occupied his attention for a while by referring to the study’s author – for example, “Marc” – by his or her first name. However, by the time you get to this point in the narrative you’ve forgotten why the study had been undertaken, where it was done, and who performed it. The context has vanished and you feel for a moment you have been set adrift, until you decide to ignore the lapse in concentration the ellipsis inspires, and forge on regardless. This happens periodically even though at other times in the narrative Hari might go out of his way to reacclimatise you with the context of a study that had been discussed much earlier.

It’s not a devastating shortcoming, though, and in general the claims the book makes – which have a decidedly punk cast – are sensible. We live in a highly atomised society with junk values inspired by unbridled capitalism and a lot of the work people spend most of their time doing in order to earn a living, is deeply unfulfilling. Taking the classical punk complaint a step further and linking it with the increase in the incidence of a common mental illness is innovative.

In large part, Hari backs up his claims by quoting scientific studies. He travels – he says – 40,000 miles talking with people all over the world on his quest for the truth about the link between the malaise of contemporary society and the clinical illness of depression. He touches on such disparate things as meditation, studies involving the use of psychedelics, the universal basic income, street activism, and participatory democracy in the workplace (the cooperative model of organisations) in an effort to encourage the reader to find a better way to structure society, because while the book is not overtly didactic it is nothing if not ambitious.

I have to admit that the case is well made, especially the sections that deal with the participatory systems different people have developed at different times to deal with different circumstances. For example, where he describes the activities of a group of Berlin residents who protest against rising rents in their neighbourhood, the book reads like one of the later novels of Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese writer. Oe chronicles the activities of groups of people who move together – not always entirely without conflict – toward a shared goal. The way the individual is tolerated in such contexts can be enlightening. Elsewhere, he talks about how Asian societies do community participation better than we do it in the atomised West.

The book does on the other hand tend to be a little drawn out at the end – I would have cut a good dozen pages from this part of the book, where he reprises his main arguments as though his readers were all thoughtless children who need to be told everything twice lest they miss a point that has already been made.

Hari admits that he is particularly fortunate to be able to do the work he does – journalism is an elite practice, and one that is reserved only for the select few – but he hopes, you sense, that the issues that he has raised will be taken up by others in an effort to bring about the kind of broad political, social and economic changes that might enable people to reorient their relations with the outside world in ways that will result in fewer people being prescribed antidepressants. We need to work out how to structure society so that everyone benefits, not just the senior managers and shareholders of large pharmaceutical companies.

It’s a worthwhile goal for all of us, and one notable thing he points out in the book is that we all have one thing in common: we crave community as much as we crave control over our lives. The atomised version of modernity we currently inhabit is bad for our health, and we need to be part of larger undertakings in order to be able to find the fulfillment our humanity makes us desire. Fulfillment we otherwise might seek through the mere consumption of perishable and transitory physical objects.

In a way, though, Hari is a little pessimistic. The emphasis in that sentence should be on the word “might”. Most people already have communities of support that they resort to for the psychosocial sustenance they need, including workplaces, classrooms, hobbies, sports, churches, art, clubs, friends and family. It’s not all gambling machines and Nike sneakers. And you tend to have the kinds of purely material ambitions he describes less and less the older you grow. We do now also have the boon of social media – which he tends to disparage as a negative influence – where we can find community.

Another shortcoming with the ideas book propounds is the fact that people who freely exercise their critical faculties will always tend to find it hard to subsume their egos within the confines of a narrative whose only saving grace is that it is shared by a group of people. Such as journalists. We pay such people good money so that they will use their critical faculties to investigate society with an end of finding better solutions to common problems. Perhaps this is why Hari found social media disappointing: he’s just not naturally a joiner. But in the individualistic West we tend for good reason to privilege the ideas of the innovator over those of the run-of-the-mill. Asian societies are notably bad at tolerating difference.

Overall this is a debate that a lot of people will have been waiting decades for society to sit down and have with itself. Let’s hope others pick up some of the threads he lays down, and use them to form their own stories.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

A brief springtime of militant unionism that put a brake on unbridled development

In December I reviewed the book Meredith Burgmann wrote with her sister Verity, ‘Green Bans Red Union,’ about the activities of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation in the late-60s and early-70s. The book had come out in a second edition in 2017. But I had some questions arising from my reading of it, so I organised to interview the author, who kindly invited me to her home. This interview also touches on questions deriving from my research into Sydney brutalist buildings, which often relates to the same epoch Meredith Burgmann’s book deals with.

MdS: Ok, [the voice recorder is] running. So just to recap a little bit about the book, you wrote this book as a PhD dissertation but how did you originally get involved with the BLF?

Well I became involved because I’d been very involved with the anti-Vietnam stuff and that had led into the anti-Apartheid activity in the very early 70s and late 60s. So, I already knew Jack [Mundey] and Joe [Owens] and Bob [Pringle] and Tom Hogan and Tony Hatfield and people like that, the leadership of the Builders Labourers. And as you know Glebe was going to be trifurcated, there was going to be two big expressways coming through Glebe and I lived down in Darghan Street, Glebe, which would have been totally in the way of it all. Funnily enough that wasn’t really the main reason I got involved, although I was obviously involved with the anti-expressway campaign with other Glebe residents. And even in the founding of the Glebe Society.

But really my attachment to the Builders Labourers was I could see what they were doing and how important it was. And it wasn’t just their action on the environment, it was their action on women, on the rights of gays and lesbians, very much Aboriginal land rights stuff. And a lot of the left in Sydney sort of moved on naturally to supporting the Builders Labourers because the activity around Vietnam – once Australia had removed the troops and things – that sort of tailed off. So it was sort of a natural fit if you were interested in radical activity, to be supportive of the Builders Labourers. And once I got involved with them, I became interested in what wasn’t at all trendy then, which was preservation of … Environmentalism around buildings and public space.

MdS: Heritage.

Yeah. Well not even just heritage. Around town planning sort of issues, too, and liveability.

MdS: Amenity.

Yeah. Heritage of course was terribly important, but it was a lot about what was happening which was cleaning the working class out of the inner city. (Might I say it was something we failed in, to stop that.) So, I became interested in those issues for the first time. I hadn’t really even thought about [them]. Because in the late 60s we didn’t talk about environmentalism, we talked about “ecology”, and ecology really meant saving forests and rivers, it really meant “nature”. And I remember when I first met Jack [Mundey], him quizzing me about, “Oh, do you support the nature people?” or something, because he already saw that important distinction between [on the one hand] what would be a traditional Greens point of view and [on the other hand] the idea of defending public space and defending liveable lifestyles and things, which is now very much the fight in the inner city, [where] it’s all about overdevelopment and things [like that]. So I just became very interested in that and I ended up with all the Builders Labourers archives in my house.

MdS: Yes, how did that happen?

Well, they were given 24 hours to vacate the premises.

MdS: At Trades Hall?

[They were in Trades Hall room 33. Federal BLF secretary Norm] Gallagher was coming in and he was going to take over all their records and everything, and would have totally rewritten history. So they really had 24 hours. So half of the records ended up in my front room, which was quite a little front room, smaller than this [pointing to the room in which we sat for the interview]. And I had boxes of them in my front room for some years. And the other half ended up in the basement of the Sussex Hotel and the publican there was a lovely woman called Stella, who said that was alright. So when I did eventually go and retrieve the other half of the archives they had sort of beer and stuff [on them], they weren’t in very good condition. So eventually I ended up with all the archives.

I was originally doing my PhD in a foreign policy area, it was on Indonesian-Australian relations, because my masters had been in foreign policy. And it was my boss, Don Aitken, who suggested to me I really should do the Builders Labourers. It had never occurred to me to do the Builders Labourers. But he said, “Look, you’ve got all the archives, you knew what they were about and everything,” and so that was when I changed and started to do the Builders Labourers. And I’m very glad he advised me to change.

MdS: It was very foresightful.

Yes. And I think I’d not done it simply because it was all too emotionally raw for me, I was still so angry with the fact that the Stalinists and the Maoists had combined to do over the independent Communist Party grouping in the Builders Labourers. And yeah, so that’s how it happened. And after I finished with the archives, most of them I gave to the Noel Butlin Archives [Centre at ANU] in Canberra, which is – I think its proper name is the Labour and Industry Archives, or something. It’s the appropriate place for them to be, although Joe Owens’ papers I think are in [the] Mitchell [Library in Sydney]. I don’t know where Jack’s putting his. But I’ve still got a lot of the important stuff, which I will eventually properly catalogue and get down to Noel Butlin, because as you know no archives are useful now unless they’re properly catalogued because the archives have not enough money to do it themselves.

So that’s the story of how I ended up doing the PhD, and I have remained friends with all the leadership of the Builders Labourers, except they just keep dying. It wasn’t an industry where guys looked after themselves. So that’s the story of how I became interested in buildings and [things].

MdS: So the book sort of charts the course of the BLF from about 1969 when the leadership of the BLF was revitalised with Jack Mundey and Joe Owens and Bob Pringle coming in until the middle of 1975 when the BLF was deregeistered.

Yes. Well, no. Not when they were deregistered, because deregistration doesn’t stop anything. It’s only a problem if the other unions in the building industry don’t support them, and the fact that the BWIU basically tied themselves up with the bosses and said that they would walk in on builders labourers’ work. So I still blame the BWIU as well as Gallagher, for what happened.

MdS: So they weren’t deregistered in 1975?

Well they were deregistered but that in itself wouldn’t have been a problem because deregistered unions can keep operating as long as long as the other unions in the industry respect their work. But the other unions in the industry were too quick, they just moved in on them. And so it was the federal takeover in 1975 that we sort of finish at.

MdS: And then of course after that Askin in the same year lost the election … Was it 1975 or 76.

I think it was 76.

MdS: And then Wran came in. And so Wran implemented all these new laws to protect heritage and to make sure that development was responsibly done. So the legacy of the BLF was very much alive still in those early pieces of legislation.

Absolutely. And what has only become clear to me quite recently is how close the relationship between Jack Mundey and Neville Wran was. They actually really liked each other and sought out each other’s company. It was quite clear that those early environmental laws – which were so important – were the direct result of the Builders Labourers’ activity. And the building of the Sirius [building] was the direct result of an agreement between Jack [Mundey] and Neville [Wran].

MdS: So Neville Wran built the Sirius building?

Yes. It was an agreement that purpose-built public housing would be built by the Wran government in The Rocks area because what Jack was always talking about – and what the Builders Labourers were on about – was the community. He kept saying, “Yes, it’s important to save the beautiful old buildings, but if you’re without a working class community in Millers Point and The Rocks you’ve changed that area forever.”

MdS: And Woolloomooloo as well.

Very much so. And the Glebe. You see, you have Whitlam coming in in 72 with a very advanced minister for urban and regional development, with Tom Uren – because it’s Tom who buys all this area [in Glebe], this was all the church estate except for just a few houses like this one [pointing at the room] that had been sold by the church – but the 900 houses around here were all bought by the Commonwealth Government and made into a commonwealth public housing scheme. Which I think it was the only one in Australia. And eventually when Neville Wran gets in in 76 they handed over to the Wran government, so it becomes more or less normal Housing Department. But if you look at Woolloomooloo and The Rocks and Glebe, it’s very much about keeping the working class in the inner city, and it’s an arrangement between Labor governments and the Builders Labourers.

MdS: Not only that but there was also the Eastern Suburbs Expressway that was going to go to Bondi Junction, too, wasn’t there?

Yes. The thing that really got the eastern suburbs people involved was the encroachment on Centennial Park, because that was going to be a big sporting facility.

MdS: With a carpark and a swimming pool.

Yes. And that was when Patrick White and people like that got involved. The eastern expressway … I can’t even remember where it was going to go.

MdS: It’s sort of hard to visualise because all of those suburbs would have been impacted, Darlinghurst and Paddington.

That’s right, yeah. I think it was a bit of a thought bubble rather than [a plan].

MdS: There seems to have been at that time in the 70s … As I’ve been looking into the records of individual buildings I keep on coming across instances where they’ve been thinking about city planning more generally and there seems to have been some sort of idea about facilitating access of motor vehicles into the city, and putting up big carparks around the place. They were going to turn the QVB into a carpark at one stage.

No, they were going to pull it down! Which was even worse.

MdS: it’s crazy, right? But there seems to have been this … They were caught up in modernity in a way which they couldn’t think clearly about the priorities and how people really should be using the city. And public transport didn’t seem to be really important to them.

I agree with that, that they weren’t. But also the late 60s, early 70s is when so-called “hot money” was just pouring into Australia. It was something to do with our interest rates and their interest rates in America. So a huge amount of American investment came into Australia and so every man and their dog was trying to put up a multi-storey building with this money. It comes first of all to Sydney. So you get the Sydney building boom starting five to seven years earlier than the Melbourne building boom, which is why you have what happened to the Builders Labourers here, this huge increase in membership and everything from the late 60s on.

But then you have the weakening in the building industry in 75 at exactly the time when the Builders Labourers were coming under pressure. And at that time, the Melbourne building boom is taking off, so you’ve got a strong and growing federal union under Gallagher – because they’re based down in Melbourne – he’s the Melbourne secretary but also the federal secretary. And that’s one of the reasons they were able to come in and take over in NSW, because there was a huge downturn in the industry in 75.

MdS: In Sydney?


MdS: The other thing that struck me is that in 1959 there was a change to the maximum height that buildings could be constructed in Sydney, from 100 feet to another height. I’ve read a history of city planning in Sydney and there was always this conflict between the state government and town hall over who should be in control of planning.

What’s new?

MdS: It’s the same today. But people who wanted to put up office buildings in the time that we’re talking about, in the early 70s, had to not only talk to the city council but they also had to talk to the state planning department, as well. And there was this thing called the Height of Buildings [Advisory Committee] which …

Well that changes in the mid-60s, at one stage. Because that’s why you get the height of the buildings down at [Circular] Quay suddenly going up. I think it’s the AMP building which is the first tall building.

MdS: Which is heritage listed now.

Yeah! But it was the first of the multi-storey buildings. The importance of the coming of the multi-storey buildings is that feeds into the strength of the BLF.

MdS: Because it was their types of trades which benefited from that type of construction.

It’s their type of trades, less tradesmen and more labourers. But also just having a big bunch of people on a building site is good for all unionism. It means instead of going out to Oatley and picking up one member in one street, you’ve got 400 blokes on … like the [former] Qantas [International] building was a hugely important site. And they just picked up X-number of members in no time at all.

MdS: I’ll be writing about the Qantas building. It’s owned by someone else now but it’s a beautiful building on George Street.

So do you see that as brutalist?

MdS: Yes.

As I say, I’m not an architect, [but] I wouldn’t have thought of it as brutalist. I’ve always liked the Qantas building.

MdS: It’s just amazing.

But it was a very, very active union site and very important in that early-70s period.

MdS: So what was it about the technology that came in in the 60s and 70s that was different to what happened before. Why were they suddenly able to build these buildings much taller?

I really know how it affected the unions, in that previously you built a reasonably-sized building and you had a brickie and you had a carpenter and you had an electrician and all that sort of thing. With the new height levels and the new technology, a lot of it was prefabbed offsite and a lot of it was about prestressed concrete and things like that. A lot of the work is Builders Labourers’ work. And if you’re prefabbing stuff offsite and bringing it in that’s all Builders Labourers work, because dogmen – a huge increase in the number of dogmen needed …

MdS: They go up on the crane.

Well, they used to go up on the crane but then they managed to stop that because there were huge numbers of deaths. So the nature of the work with the new building styles just meant that there were more labourers and that they were massed in certain buildings.

MdS: So that gave them more influence.

It allowed the union to organise easily and therefore gave them more strength. And it actually caused issues with the BWIU, the tradesmen’s union, because the BWIU saw itself as losing influence. And if you look at the 1971 – which [year] was the margins strike? There was the accident pay strike in 70 and the margins strike was 71. The margins strike was very important in the whole story because the BWIU hated it.

MdS: Because they thought they were better, they didn’t want to be paid the same amount as the Builders Labourers.

If you actually look at the margins in the building industry … I once did a fanciful piece where I took it back 500 years to the journeymen and then the masters and everything in the 1500s, and it was pretty much the same margin as what you had in 1970. So for the Builders Labourers to flex their muscle and make that difference and end up reducing the [pay] margin [between skilled and unskilled trades] was very distressing for the BWIU. And they behaved terribly. And can I say, that’s one of the reasons I get so angry with Lee Rhiannon because she supported them and she was in the party that was the support base for the BWIU. And they opposed every single green ban. And now she pretends she’s the mistress of the green bans. She opposed every one! That’s just rewriting of history. So the BWIU was very, very pee’d off by what happened.

MdS: Over the margins strike.

And also of course the fight within the Communist Party [of Australia] was important.

MdS: Yes, you touched on it briefly in the book, but can you talk a little bit more about what happened to the Communist Party at that point in time, in the late-60s?

Well the Maoists had sort of broken off in about 1961, and [were] very weak in Sydney, hardly existed, [but] strong in Melbourne. So there you have Ted Hill, the leader of the Maoists and Norm Gallagher and people around him who all became Maoists. And interestingly the student movement down there was also quite Maoist, you know you have the Monash Maoists who are still talked about. So Maoism is quite important in Melbourne, I can’t even remember any Maoist characters in Sydney.

So then you have the Communist Party coming up through the 60s. You have the party moving more and more into – it’s almost like Trump calls them “identity politics” – you have them becoming interested in gay rights, women’s rights, very much Aboriginal rights, the anti-Apartheid stuff. They’re moving into that sort of area and you have some of the old – particularly, mainly older blokes – saying, “No, no, it’s about Russia and socialism” and all this sort of thing. So you have tensions happening.

And in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia you have the party declaring – [the CPA was] the first Communist Party in the world to oppose the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and I in fact was lucky to be part of history, I was at a demo against the invasion and a group of about three or four were elected to go down to Communist Party headquarters and sit outside in the little room to find out what CPA’s position on Czechoslovakia was. And I can even remember Laurie Aarons and some of the others – you could hear them talking loudly on the phone and everything – I thought he was probably talking to Russia but it turns out later he was talking to the other state branches, because NSW basically led the position to oppose the invasion. So then of course you’ve got all mayhem.

So from 68 to 71 you have the Communist Party in the middle of a split where the old Stalinists break off, and by 71 they form the Socialist Party of Australia.

MdS: So the old Stalinists are the ones who support the invasion of Czechoslovakia?

Yes, of course. You know, mother Russia’s always right. And of course the BIWU officials are all SPA and the BLF officials are all Communist Party of Australia (but I always think of them as the independent Communist Party).

MdS: So the CPA got involved in the counterculture issues of the 60s and 70s and moved off in that direction whereas the SPA was more sort of mired in the past and was aligned with the BWIU. So that fed later tensions between the two unions?

Very much so. There was a deadly fight going on within the Communist Party – would they forsake Mother Russia? It was all about Russia. It was also almost a bit generational. The old guys were sticking to Mother Russia and the class struggle. They opposed all the green bans for being “Left adventurism”, and not part of the class struggle. Which of course, a lot of the green bans were about class, they were about keeping working class communities and making it about lifestyle.

And I remember some of the green bans that were actually opposed in the end … There was a proposed green ban on I think Diamond Bay swimming pool, it was a swimming pool in the eastern suburbs, and I remember all the old guys in the Builders Labourers going, “Oh, let the ruling class look after themselves.” So there was still very much a class view of what we were doing.

MdS: In the book you quickly proceed through all that, you don’t spell it out in too much detail so I really wanted to ask you about that. What I’m really interested in is the way that the industry changed and how the BLF just for a sudden springtime of activism was able to really exert an influence on the broader society that had never really happened before. And it only happened for a few years, didn’t it?

Well part of it we’ve talked about, which was the technological changes that gave them a lot more power within the industry. Second was that there was a building boom, and you have so much more power in a building boom because you know that if you make a demand and the boss says “No” you can go out and get another job. So they worked women in on sites and demanded better amenities and all sorts of things. The third this was, what I call the zeitgeist. You know, in the late-60s and early-70s – I’m writing a book on it at the moment actually – generally people believed that the women’s movement, it’s time had come and that Aboriginal [issues had too] – you know, we started talking about Aboriginal rights for the first time ever! No one ever cared! And you’ve got to keep remembering that in 67 they were still taking kids away because, “You have to breed out the colour.”

It was the New Left. I’ve always thought of the Builders Labourers as being a New Left union. They really [were]. And all the stuff that the New Left was on about in terms of democracy like limited tenure of office, very much a New Left view, but of course made very famous by Jack Mundey, participatory democracy, you know, letting everyone have a say, no distinction between officials and workers, so the officials were paid the same as the workers, they were on a leading-hand, foreman’s rate or something. They didn’t get paid when there was an industry strike. Big differences between them and other unions.

And at the actual general meetings where – like, a green ban had to be ok’d by a general meeting, so there were endless general meetings and they were very boring because they were translated into sometimes up to elevens languages, because it was even more multicultural than it would be now, and they insisted on having non-English-speaking-background officials, they had women officials, they have a couple of Aboriginal officials. They really worked hard on carrying out what they were saying should happen.

MdS: And the other thing that really intrigues me was the technology. So the employers really hated the BLF’s ability to interrupt concrete pours. Why was a concrete pour so critical for the employers?

Because you can’t do it again. If a concrete pour gets interrupted you have to have someone come in and jackhammer all the stuff out.

MdS: So you have to remove that whole floor of the building?

Or if you’re doing a post or something. If you’re doing a big concrete post it has to all happen at the same time.

MdS: So it’s really time-critical?

Absolutely time-critical.

MdS: A the beginning of the day and the end of the day you’ve got the get all that pour completed in one day for each floor.

Yes. If you stop a concrete pour in the middle you have cost your boss a huge amount of money.

MdS: And they have to jackhammer the whole thing up?

Yes. You can’t just [say], “Oh, we’ll do the rest tomorrow.” So that was crucial. So one of the funny things was when the women making sweets at Darrell Lea or something came and talked – because everyone used to come to the Builders Labourers and ask for advice about stuff – and when the chocolate people discovered about the concrete pour they thought, “Oh, I wonder if we could stop a chocolate pour?” Chocolates don’t have to hold up buildings! Holding up a concrete pour was one of the most crucial weapons they had, but also the bosses knew that if the Builders Labourers said, “Ok, all out!” that was what happened. And that was why the breaking of the green bans – when you look at what happened up in Victoria street – that’s why there were kidnappings and murder happened, because only by bringing in the criminal elements could they actually break those bans. I mean Victoria Street’s a whole story in itself.

MdS: I bought ‘The Prince and the Premier’ and I started to read it, it was published in 1984 I think.

Is that the one about Thieman?

MdS: No, it’s about Galea and Askin. It’s just badly written. I think there’s a bit of an appetite about that period now because especially the younger generation, a lot of them are very politically activated and they really are curious about the roots and origins of all these things.

I have people coming … [The] week before [this] a woman came round who was writing something about Juanita [Nielsen]. Every couple of weeks someone wants to talk about that period, which is really good. And that’s why the book [‘Green Bans Red Union,’ written with sister Verity Burgmann] came out again, and it’s obviously selling all right.

By the way, a guy has digitised my thesis and it’s now available online. And it’s a lot more detailed about some of the stuff you’re asking about, especially there’s a very long bit which is – I put it in as the appendix within the thesis – but it’s really about leading up to 1968 and Jack taking over the union. So it’s a discussion about what happened in the unions in the building industry in the early-60s. So if you want that that’s on the Libertarian Communist website, www.libcom

MdS: And these days who does the BLF’s job. Is it the CFMEU?

Yes. It’s all CFMEU now. The CEPU, the plumbers, and some of the other trades, stayed out of the CFMEU, but all the labourers work there.

MdS: Is the BWIU still around?

No, it’s all part of the CFMEU. Some work which was always a bit of a demark, is still with the AWU. Often there were demarks between the AWU – like construction of a bridge or something – the AWU would say it was theirs and the Builders Labourers would say, “Well, some of it’s ours.” I remember one very funny demark which was about trees, who planted trees and these things. And if it was a tree up to there [indicating with her hand] it was AWU, if it was a tree bigger than that it was the BLF. But on the whole the AWU behaved very well in the strikes, and they did recognise BLF bans and things.

MdS: You mention this term, “body snatching”? Is that where a union comes in and takes members from other unions?

Yes. Body-snatching is basically when there’s a demark and one union … Mind you, each union calls it body-snatching if the other unions does it. But the other union will say, “No, no, we have coverage!” Because there’s so many unclear areas. But the body-snatching that I probably was referring to was when one union’s deregistered and other unions come in and take those members, that’s really body-snatching.

MdS: Also some of the roles you talk about on building sites. You talk about dogmen and nippers, what are some of the other typical Builders Labourers jobs on building sites?

Well, excavators.

MdS: On jackhammers?

Yeah. Steel-fixers. They’re the people for reinforced concrete. There was a separate union for the crane drivers, for the lofty crane drivers. The back-hoes was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: What’s a “hoist”?

Hoist is when you’re sitting there and machinery is taking material up. Hoist driving was definitely a Builders Labourers thing. The women tended to go into hoist driving, they went and got their hoist drivers’ certificates and therefore were accredited Builders Labourers. Women liked doing that work and they were good at it. The big cranes were all a tiny little union called the FEDFA did that, but they were very involved with the Builders Labourers and totally supported them. But a lot of the other machinery was all Builders Labourers work.

MdS: There were a couple of interesting stories I came across in my researches. There was one building, 1 Oxford Street, on the corner of Wentworth Avenue, which is a brutalist building, it’s an office building now. And when it was being developed by Hooker they originally wanted to make a hotel and then they changed their mind – this was in 1973 – and decided to go with an office building. Then halfway through the negotiations the city council comes in and says to the developer, “We want you to put residences on floors 13 to 26,” and Hookers did everything they could to stop that happening. And it’s such a striking change from nowadays.

Because it was believed that people didn’t want to live in the city.

MdS: Only poor people lived in the city.

Certainly only poor people lived in towers. That’s a huge change. And if you look at the figures now I think apartment living has overtaken detached houses, yes. I’m not surprised.

MdS: There was another case on the T&G building at Hyde Park on the corner of Park Street and Elizabeth Street, there’s a big tower there, that’s a brutalist building. The city council always put in restrictions on the hours that workmen could actually operate equipment. Next door to that is the Park Regis, which was already there. And there was a woman who complained to the city council about noise on the construction site of the T&G building. And the city council inspector came to the T&G building site and found that there were a couple of what he called “new Australians” working on jackhammers and he complained to the site operator and apparently those workers were fired. A lot of those jobs …  People who didn’t speak English did the worst jobs, is that true?

Oh yeah. The guys on the jackhammers were almost always from non-English-speaking backgrounds. But that’s why the Builders Labourers had such huge emotional support, because they really were the first union to reach out to their migrant members, and really worked on it, and really – as I say – they had Yugoslav officials, Portuguese officials, a couple of Italian officials. They really tried hard and all this translation. And so at the big final meeting it was the migrant guys that were most upset and crying and everything, because their union had gone out of business.

MdS: They identified with it.

Very much. And probably the people on the lowest rung had gained the most from the various strikes and things. They were the ones that were getting better working conditions and better wages from it all. There was a lot of stratification. The Greeks did excavation, the Finns did steel-fixing, the Italians did all the cementing and all that sort of work, the Pommy migrants were all the dogmen. And it was a bit sort of mythology, but also a lot of it was true. I mean, people did sort of congregate in those sorts of areas.

MdS: Yeah, I think it’s a fascinating story. There’s so much that would have been destroyed. We really owe a debt of gratitude to people like Jack Mundey. I was talking to a woman whose husband was the architect who built the St Andrews House and she was saying that on Hunter Street there was a place called the Union Club which was torn down to build the Wentworth Sofitel. And she was saying that her husband was up on stage with Jack Mundey addressing the crowd because they wanted to preserve the old buildings. But the developer wanted to build this new thing.

One of the disgraces at the time – it was after the Builders Labourers had folded – was pulling down those old buildings in Martin Place to put up those rather ugly bank buildings there.

MdS: Now they’re doing the same thing with the 70s buildings. They’re pulling them down and putting up new buildings.

The other brutalist building that had a huge part in the Builders Labourers story was the UTS [Main] Building because that was being built – it was probably the biggest building that was going up in Sydney – at the time of the takeover in 75. And so the Builders Labourers did a crane sit-in from the top there and we used to go down each evening and the guys up in the crane – because they were up there for weeks – they’d swing the crane across – probably against all the occupational health and safety stuff – and they dropped the box down right from the top of [the building].

And they dropped the box down to Broadway and we’d pile all the food and everything in for them and then they’d go [up] again. And then we’d all go into the pub and drink and then a bit later the box’d come down again and some bloke’d come down because he had to go home and see his wife. It was terribly funny. But it was sort of the last holdout of the people who were loyal to the NSW Builders Labourers.

MdS: Why was the Qantas building so important?

Particular buildings became sort of hotspots of activity. Often it was to do with what individuals ended up there. Noel Olive was working there for most of the time and he was a very active unionist. He wasn’t an official, he was on the executive or something, but he wasn’t a full-time official. If you had someone who’d been thrown off another building site for militant behaviour, they’d all end up down at the Qantas building.

And you had a number of buildings that became sort of hotspots and sometimes it was because there was a bad boss and sometimes it was because it was a good boss. But it was through clumping of militants together. One of the other ones where there were a lot of militants was the towers in Redfern, the two [buildings].

MdS: The Endeavour Estate?

They called it TGI Towers or something when they were built. They’re not very tall towers.

MdS: Next to the station?

Yes. Those towers were also, they had a lot of militants on them. And in the early days, the AMP building down at the Quay had a lot of militants. And the UTS [Main] Building. It just seemed to be clumping. And of course the more militant activity they’d take the more people want to work there.

MdS: It generated a sort of esprit do corps, didn’t it? They rewarded people but they also got something back from them. It was a mutual relationship between the leadership and the membership, wasn’t it?

Very much so. The BLs liked to think of themselves as all the same thing and they wanted to reduce the membership and leadership [hierarchy]. And that’s where the going back on the tools when you finished – like Jack went back on the tools for a shortish time. So things like that were very important to them. Symbolically, and also in practice. Like they dressed exactly like builders labourers.

We forget, but union officials in those days all wore suits and ties. And even they had a bit of trouble going down to the [Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission] and having their mode of dress accepted by the commission. But they were very lucky because the member that had the building industry was Elizabeth [Andreas] Evatt [AO], who of course was about the most remarkable commissioner they could have had and she just totally accepted that they turned up in shorts and sneakers when the other people all turned up in suits and ties.

Above: Former NSW BLF Secretary Jack Mundey (left) shakes hands with City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore on 3 November 2016 on the day it was announced that crowd-funded legal action would be launched against the NSW government’s decision not to list the brutalist Sirius building on the State Heritage Register. From the book ‘Sirius’ written by John Dunn, Ben Peake and Amiera Piscopo. I wrote about the Sirius building on this blog in December.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Brutalism thirteen: Former Qantas International building

This is the 13th in a series of blogposts on brutalist architecture in Sydney. This building is now referred to as Suncorp Place and is owned by Memocorp, the company that owns the brutalist building at 1 Oxford Street, which I wrote about last year.

There are two development application (DA) files for the address 259 George Street in the city archives. One is for a 15-storey building planned to be built on the corner of George and Jamison streets that was granted council approval on 24 January 1966. In the same file, however, there is a letter dated 9 November 1966 from P.H. Morton, the minister for local government, to the town clerk, outlining a new plan for a much larger development on a significantly bigger site with the same street address. “Dear Mr. Luscombe,” the ministerial missive loftily begins:
I refer again to your letter of 31/8/66, regarding a proposal by Qantas Empire Airways Limited for the suspension under Section 342Y of the Local Government Act, 1919, of the provisions of the County of Cumberland Planning Scheme relating to the land bounded by Jamison, George, Grosvenor and Lang Streets, Sydney. 
In the light of a report submitted by The State Planning Authority of New South Wales on the proposal and the Council’s support thereof, I have now approved in principle of the suspension of the land from the provisions of the County Scheme to enable the consolidated development as envisaged by Qantas Empire Airways Limited to be carried out. 
An interim development order will be notified concurrently with the suspension which will provide for the use of the land for General Business purposes with the consent of the Council, in accordance with the draft land use tables of the City of Sydney Planning Scheme Ordinance as exhibited. Under the terms of the interim development order the Council will be designated as the responsible authority. 
The interim development order will contain a provision revoking Council’s approval (Town Clerk’s minute) 4949/65 of 13th September, 1965, to Donald Crone and Associates, Architects, on behalf of W.M. Investments Pty. Limited in respect of premises known as 259/259a/259b George Street and 34/36 Jamison Street, Sydney, and Council’s approval (Lord Mayor under delegation) of 24th January, 1966, to Donald Crone and Associates, Architects, on behalf of W.M. Investments Pty. Limited in respect of premises known as 259/259a/259b George Street and 34/36 Jamison Street, Sydney.
At the stroke of a pen, the state government overturned a decision made by the city council for a new development that had not yet been completed. Or even commenced. The site of the building that had its DA revoked backed onto Jamison Lane. The construction of this building that never went ahead was estimated to cost 725,000 pounds.

The whole city block discussed in the minister’s letter had a number of buildings on it at the time, as shown in the drawing below prepared in March 1967 by Colwell, Larcombe & Rein, registered surveyors, of 129 Pitt Street. The total area of the bigger site as described in the drawing was 94,772 square feet (8804.61 square metres).

The drawing shows Jamison Lane entering the block parallel to George Street and going along to the Union Steamship Company building at the corner of George Street and Grosvenor Street. Jamison Lane was incorporated into the site for the new building. The drawing also shows that Jamison Street was widened by 17 feet from 36 feet to 53 feet using land from the consolidated site. If you click on the image you can see a larger version of it.

A minute dated 20 June 1968 from the city engineer to the town clerk notes that Qantas “is the owner of most of the property and, it is understood, intends to purchase the remainder”. 

A minute from the city engineer’s department about a meeting held at the city engineer’s room on 15 August 1968, noted that the architect R. Gilling had said that, “Mr. J. McGregor, who owns a property on the northern side of Jamison Street, west of Jamison Lane, had said that he would not sell the property during his lifetime.”

The following properties were purchased by Qantas at the dates noted.

Wentworth Hotel
11 May 1967
Haughton House
20 February 1965
Pratten Bros.
1 June 1966
Harbottle Brown
13 May 1966
W.H. Lober
31 October 1967
Potter & Birks
17 May 1965

The drawing below shows the consolidated site with the red-marked areas to be donated to the city council. Carving out corners (called “splays”) from development sites for use in making council roads was conventional practice where large buildings were constructed on consolidated sites that had contained a greater number of smaller buildings.

The drawing below was also in the DA file, showing that there were originally two towers planned for the block in question. The tower marked in green in the drawing is the building currently under discussion, and is labelled “Stage 1”. The other tower is labelled here “Stage 2”. The two towers were referred to together as the “World Trade Centre” in RP Data’s CityScope report although there is a photo of a scale model of the Qantas International building in the DA file that is labelled “Lang Park Centre”. Other documents in the file refer to the “Qantas Centre”.

You can see Lang Park outlined to the west of the site, across Lang Street. The new building would contain the following on each floor, as described. 

Level 1
Machinery area for Qantas Computer Complex
Level 2
Qantam Phase 2, Computer Centre
Level 3
Qantam Phase 2, Computer Centre
Level 4
Car parking area
Level 5
Car park, loading and unloading area
Level 6
Booking hall
Level 7
Lift terminal floor
Level 8
Levels 9-19
11 typical floors (low rise)
Level 20
Levels 21-33
13 typical floors (medium rise)
Level 34
Levels 35-45
11 typical floors (high rise)
Level 46
Level 47
Level 48
Tanks etc.

In a minute from the acting city engineer to the town clerk dated 11 November 1968 that notes the attitudes of the city building surveyor to questions contained in a letter from architects Joseland & Gilling, there is reference to the street widening.
On 19th August, 1968, Council approved in principle, inter alia, the closing of Jamison Lane, a public road within the proposed development site. This information was made known to Qantas Airways Limited and the Architects on 27th August, 1968, by the Town Clerk. 
It is now necessary for Qantas to make application to the Minister for Lands for the closing of Jamison Lane, pursuant to the provisions of Sections 19 and 20 of the Public Roads Act, 1902, and Sections 252 and 276 of the Local Government Act, 1919. 
It is suggested that the site of Jamison Lane, after closing, might be granted to Qantas under the provisions of Section 20(2)(c) of the Public Roads Act, 1902, in exchange for the areas to be dedicated by the Company for splays and widening of Jamison Street.
There is also a letter from the town clerk, L.P. Carter, to the architects dated a decade later on 8 June 1978 about the widening of George Street using land that was part of the building site. The council at this significantly later date asked for Qantas to surrender 2.135 metres of land along the street frontage on the western side of George Street from Jamison Street to Grosvenor Street. The date of this letter is of particular interest as it illustrates the duration of the construction of the Qantas International building. CityScope, produced annually by RP Data Pty Ltd, says that Dillingham contracted for construction work in 1972 for the building.

Industrial action by the Builders Labourers Federation (NSW BLF) delayed construction and the new building was not finished until 1983. CityScope notes that its cost consequently went up from an estimated $32.4 million to $124 million.

Development approval was given on 19 August 1968. The estimated cost of construction at this point in time was $18 million. The floorspace ratio of Stage 1 was 8.72:1 and of the total development 10.61:1. Completion was expected to be in 1973 “with progressive occupation by Qantas up to 1983”. At the same time, in-principle approval was given to Stage 2. The applicant said that Stage 2 would be required “soon after 1980”.

A minute from the city planner and the city engineer to the town clerk dated 3 September 1976 notes that the consent had “substantially” commenced. It also notes that Jamison House at 259 George Street was first listed by the National Trust of Australia in April 1973, “as a building of considerable interest, the preservation of which should be encouraged, then known as category ‘C’.”
The National Trust’s Register of Historic Buildings as at the 11th February, 1974, listed “Jamison House” as “recorded” which has the same identity as category “C” buildings referred to in the beforementioned paragraph. It is understood that the subject building was placed on the classified list in April, 1976.
A minute from the deputy city planner to the town clerk dated 27 May 1977 quotes from a letter from Keith Whatman Is Wrecking Pty Ltd of 187 New South Head Road, Edgecliff, dated 3 May 1977, asking for approval to do work on Sundays.
As the demolisher on the above project I have had to scale down the progress of the work because we have found it most difficult and at times a potential danger to continue with the work to remove the top portion of the building because of its location on the corner of the busy streets, George[,] Jamison and Grosvenor Streets, and the adjacent Dillingham Site, which is in operation six days a week. 
To remove some of the top parapets, beams and steel framework will possibly require the closing of the streets for short periods because of the potential danger, subject to Police approval, during normal working hours. Because of the busy location this would cause unsatisfactory and unnecessary traffic congestion. 
To overcome this problem in a considered much more sensible and essential way, it is requested that permission be granted for work to be carried out on the next four Sundays from 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. which will allow us to remove this dangerous section without any risk or interference to persons of the city generally.
There is a minute in the DA file from the city planner dated 21 October 1977 noting that demolition of buildings on the site at 11/17 Grosvenor Street, 1/23 Lang Street and 18/30 Jamison Street had been completed.

In the DA file there are a significant number of documents detailing a quantity of discussion held earlier than this between different parties on matters to do with “grade separation”. This involved government at two levels as well as the architects of the respective developments going on in the area at the time. 

I discussed grade separation in relation to 1 Oxford Street, which I wrote about last year. What it means is that you create separate pavement grades (or levels) for foot and vehicular traffic, for example by constructing pedestrian tunnels and bridges that remove foot traffic from places where vehicular traffic passes. To illustrate the kinds of discussions that were happening, there is a minute in the DA file from Peddle Thorpe & Walker, architects, of a meeting held at the Council of the City of Sydney on 25 October 1972:
  1. The subject for discussion was the location of the proposed pedestrian bridge over Jamison Street linking the Qantas Development with the Grosvenor/Margaret Street project.
  2. The Architects, Joseland & Gilling for the Qantas Development (currently under construction) have Council and State Planning Authority approval to provide a pedestrian link from the development’s plaza level (R.L. 87’0”) connecting with the North-East boundary of No. 17 Jamison Street.
  3. Peddle, Thorp & Walker prepared a drawing indicating what was felt to be a more practical position for the pedestrian link between the two developments. This drawing was presented for consideration to Joseland & Gilling a few days prior to the meeting.
  4. Joseland & Gilling indicated by telephone to Peddle, Thorp & Walker and the City Council that as the link had been approved by the Authorities concerned they would not be inclined to reposition it to the location indicated. Mr. Doran the Chief City Planner substantiated the fact that the Council was powerless to force the issue.
  5. In conclusion the Council requested Peddle, Thorp & Walker to show the link for development application purposes as indicated on their drawing to Joseland & Gilling. The link as shown on Joseland & Gilling’s drawings will be built when the site adjoining the Grosvenor project is developed.
The Qantas International building’s architects were more willing to give priority to requests from the City of Sydney, which had published an action plan (“Action Plan No. 3 – City Pedestrian Movement Network – Wynyard Precinct”) prepared for the council by its consultants, Urban Systems Corporation Pty Ltd. (The company prepared the city’s noteworthy 1971 Strategic Plan. Noteworthy because it was the first strategic plan produced in the council’s history.)

In a motion passed on 19 July 1971, council decided to give the plan to Qantas “and, in order that the subject block might be merged into the pedestrian network, be earnestly requested for the betterment of Sydney to incorporate in the proposed development provision for – ”
  1. A pedestrian footbridge over Jamison Street,
  2. A pedestrian footbridge over Grosvenor Street to connect to the Rocks Redevelopment Scheme,
  3. A connection between the footbridge over Lang Street and the ramp to the Mall proposed to be included in the Rocks Redevelopment Scheme.
In a motion carried by council on 20 December 1971, it was decided to thank Qantas Airways Limited and its architects and for amending the design of the proposed development to conform with the action plan. 

The bridge over Jamison Street went ahead and despite all the good intentions involved in its planning and construction it was dismantled and removed in early 2006 as part of a major refurbishment of the building. 

Above: This photo from the city archives was taken from a vantage point across Jamison Street facing the site in a north-easterly direction. It shows the pedestrian bridge over Jamison Street.

Above: This photo taken from the top of Lang Street at the corner of Jamison Street looking down the hill toward George Street shows the completed pedestrian bridge.

Above: Another view of the pedestrian bridge.

The bridge over Grosvenor Street never went ahead, nor did the bridge over Lang Street. And it was at least partly the state government’s scheme to remodel the Rocks that led to a “green ban” being placed on the Dillingham’s Qantas International building site by the NSW BLF. In an interview I conducted with her in December, the NSW BLF’s historian, Meredith Burgmann, told me that the Qantas site was very militant because a large number of organised workers were congregated there at a single location. My interview will be published soon on this blog. 

But that union strike was all still very much in the future for Qantas and its architects. Still to settle in the building’s plans were other grade separation proposals. At a meeting held at the offices of the State Planning Authority on 11 November 1968 that the architect R. Gilling also attended, Qantas Airways Limited’s A.A. Woodroof “pointed out that provisions of the Development Application included provision for a tunnel access point from Wynyard. Indicated that Qantas would be prepared to assist and contribute to provisions for such access point within their own site. Indicated, however, that previous efforts to provide pedestrian access tunnels had fallen through owing to lack of a principal co-ordinator.”
Meeting agreed that provision for pedestrian traffic was of the utmost importance and that in a situation such as this there would be no doubt that tunnels would be widely used.
The DA file contains minutes of a meeting held on 24 September 1969 involving the State Planning Authority, Lend Lease, the Department of Railways, Sydney City Council and the architects for a number of different buildings, including R. Gilling from Joseland & Gilling. In the minutes lie traces of the conversations that took place:
Mr Gilling stated that if a connection were feasible between Australia Square and Wynyard Square he felt Qantas would be interested in extending a pedestrian sub-way at R.L. 26 from the Qantas site to join Australia Square/Wynyard Square arcade.
R.H. Byrnes of the State Planning Authority also outlined a plan for a pedestrian underpass at the corner of Grosvenor, George and Bridge streets that could connect with the Qantas development. His colleague J.R. Snodgrass requested those present to examine the feasibility of the pedestrian subway from Australia Square to Wynyard Square at R.L. 29 approximately midway between Margaret and Jamison streets.

A minute by the city building surveyor to the town clerk dated 19 February 1970 refers to a letter from the State Planning Authority dated 5 February in the same year that had presented an urgent plea for action on the Wynyard-to-Australia Square tunnel:
At the request of the County of Cumberland Passenger Transport Advisory Committee, the Authority has convened a series of conferences to discuss ways and means of providing grade separated pedestrian routes between the abovementioned development sites. Those represented at the talks convened to date included Mr. R.D. Stevenson and Mr. J. Doran from the Sydney City Council. Copies of the proceedings of all meetings have been sent to Mr. Stevenson. 
The conflict of vehicles and pedestrians in the vicinity of Wynyard Station is, of course, of considerable concern. It is considered that in view of the magnitude of building development envisaged in this part of the city, it will be essential to ensure that adequate facilities are provided so that conflict between pedestrian and vehicular movement is avoided. 
It has been hoped that the block bounded by George, Margaret, York and Jamison Streets would have been comprehensively redeveloped. Provision could then be made for pedestrian arcades at approximately R.L.31 from the Wynyard Station concourse under Margaret Street to the block bound by George, Jamison, York and Margaret Streets (Wynyard Square development”) and then on under George Street to link in with the shopping arcade in Australia Square. Escalators could be incorporated in the Wynyard Square development to enable pedestrians to travel to a podium area where there would be a pedestrian place. 
A pedestrian bridge is proposed across Jamison Street to the Qantas building. This arrangement would allow pedestrian movement between the Qantas buildings, Australia Square, the proposed Wynyard Square and Wynyard Station without conflict with motor traffic. 
It is now understood, however, that comprehensive redevelopment of the block bounded by George, Margaret, York and Jamison Streets is unlikely and the Architects for the Commercial Banking Company have been instructed to proceed with working drawings for a new bank to be constructed at 265-273 George Street opposite Australia Square.
This project incorporates a bank vault in the basement right on the most desirable alignment for the pedestrian arcade at R.L. 31 mentioned above. Unless some arrangement can be made quickly for an alternative site for this vault, the opportunity to provide the much needed pedestrian underpass from Wynyard to Australia Square will be lost. 
It is further pointed out that if the Australia Square link is excluded from the Scheme, the viability of a pedestrian arcade from Wynyard Square development could also be threatened on economic grounds, because of the loss of pedestrian traffic. 
The Authority is most concerned about this situation and would appreciate the whole question of pedestrian/vehicular conflict in the Wynyard-Qantas-Australia-Square – Wynyard Square area being given urgent consideration by Council. It is felt that advantage should be taken of the current redevelopment proposals to incorporate a system of pedestrian/vehicular grade separation.
In a letter dated 7 April 1970 from the architects to the town clerk, reference is made to the pedestrian subway link to Wynyard.
Condition 3 of the City Council’s Interim Development required provision for a connection from a possible subway connection to Wynyard Station. 
Furthermore, the State Planning Authority placed a similar condition on their approval. 
We advise that we have had meetings with the State Planning Authority at which the City Engineer, Mr. R.D. Stevenson and the Chief Building Surveyor, Mr. Doran, represented the City Council.
Meetings were held on 26th June, 10th July, 24th September, and 27th October, 1969. The letter notes only that minutes of these meetings were circulated. 

The tunnel never went beyond this planning stage although the state government did seek the city council’s support in achieving the grade separation. 

Above: A scale model of the building is shown in this photo from the DA file. The photo is captioned “Lang Park Centre”. 

There were still yet other things to be decided apart from grade separation. Vehicular access for the new building was discussed at a meeting held on 15 August 1968 in the city engineer’s room, at which that architect R. Gilling was present. 
At this conference Mr. Gilling proposed that the vehicular entrance and exit to the Qantas Development should be on the north side of Jamison Street, west of George Street. This entrance and exit would have involved a “U” turn into the Qantas site. 
At the conference at the State Planning Authority it was pointed out that Jamison Street was an off-loading street from the Expressway and that it would be advisable to give consideration to the entrance and exit to the Qantas site being in Lang Street.
This is what eventually happened. In the same meeting, Gilling also said that seven floors of the Stage 1 development would be available for tenants. The building was envisaged to have parking for 150 to 200 cars. 

In a minute from the city building surveyor to the town clerk dated 28 June 1971 it was noted that council had resolved on 24 February 1969 to allow Qantas to build a spiral vehicle access ramp to the underground parking area of the new building underneath the part of Jamison Street that had been given to the council for the street widening. The application had been submitted by P.O. Miller Milston & Ferris, Consulting Engineers, on behalf of Qantas. The same minute noted that the access ramp would lead to the service floor at lower-ground 2 level, the car parking area at lower-ground 1 level, and the air-cargo despatch centre on the ground floor of the new building.

At a meeting held at the offices of the State Planning Authority on 16 July 1968 the architect R. Gilling was present as was B.W. Friedman of J. Rudd & Partners, engineers. At this meeting it was revealed that the 747 aircraft was scheduled to fly at a certain time and this required a $10/11 million computer complex to be housed in the Qantas section of the project. “Middle 1970 for installation of the equipment.”
It was indicated that Qantas would make use of 60% of the second building the rest being let. The building was not intended to be used as a terminal the feeling being that any terminal would be better located at the southern end of the City.
This is despite another document, schedule “B” to the original DA, describing the new building as a terminal. 
The location close to the Western Distributor Expressway proposed by the NSW State Government will bring international travellers to within 15 minutes of Sydney Airport Terminal by road.
The building was touted as attractive to the city council for its civic amenities.
Qantas will add more than 2 acres of public park, plazas and walkways to the inner city when it develops its new Head Office complex in the heart of Sydney’s business district. 
The total development embraces the city block bounded by George, Grosvenor, Lang and Jamison Streets. It will be dominated by two high-rise towers in a setting of parks and plazas which will be open to the public at all times. 
The park area, taking up two-thirds of the George Street frontage and extending a similar distance up Jamison Street, will lead into a street-level shopping arcade including a number of boutiques and a restaurant-bar.
The new building would also contain a theatrette. It was estimated that approximately 10,000 people per day would be finally housed and making use of the buildings. 
The Qantas development will overlook the southern approaches to the Harbour Bridge and will be the focal point of the major development proposed for Sydney’s Rocks area to the north of the Qantas site.
In the DA the architects did more than just spruik the new building’s benefits for people using the city on a daily basis, they also emphasised the novelty of the building’s physical embodiment.
The architects for the project are the Sydney firm of Joseland and Gilling, who have sought a more logical system of construction for the tower than the conventional method of columns and beams. Heavy wind loading on very tall buildings was a major design consideration which, if not satisfactorily solved, imposed a serious loss of flexibility in the owner’s use of the building, because the structural engineering component became too dominant in relation to other vital considerations. Therefore a system will be employed which, although new to Australia, has the same engineering principles principles [sic] as the Eiffel Tower, whereby the wind overturning forces are counteracted at the four corners of the structure. 
Conventional columns will not be used, but the floors of the rectangular office block will the suspended from large concrete piers [page torn here] 60 feet long and 5 feet thick, at each of the corners.
In his Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship research paper on brutalist buildings in Sydney, architect Glenn Harper describes the building from a technical standpoint:
Innovative concrete technology within Sydney saw the integration of insitu concrete with precast concrete for both structural and cladding elements. Consider the most significant concrete structure to be built in Sydney at the time. This was the 48 floor Qantas International Centre (1970-1982) by Joseland and Gilling with structural engineering by Miller Milston and Ferris, an engineering practice that was associated with Sydney’s most celebrated Brutalist buildings. Having a structural floor of precast beams these were supported by cast concrete blade walls and then hung off insitu cast concrete truss beams (3 per elevation) to enable a column free window edge. With this project featured in the Sydney based journal Constructional Review in 1982 (a journal published by the Concrete Association) both architects and structural engineers alike could [keep] abreast of such innovations in concrete, and without ever referencing the term, keep up to date with Australia’s very own Brutalist ideology.
The 48-level building was bought by the Commonwealth Bank Officers Superannuation Corporation in April 1986 for $200 million. The foyer and forecourt were refurbished in 1994. It was valued at $275 million in September 2000. The building was refurbished again in 2007, including new commercial space and a new retail and food court podium. In December 2008 it was valued at $380 million. In 2011 it was bought for $395 million by Memocorp Australia Pty Ltd; the sale represented an initial yield of 6.30% on annual net income of $24,885,000. Memocorp is owned by Vanessa Tay of Kensington, and Tee Peng Tay, Chwan Yi Tay, Chwan Shih Tay, Peo Soeng Tan, Pik Giok Tay and Nina Tay, all of Singapore.

Above: The building’s striking external appearance visible from a vantage point directly outside the site in George Street, facing west.

Above: Photograph of the building taken from a vantage point in Grosvenor Street, facing south.

Above: The street frontage of the building on the corner of Grosvenor Street and Lang Street.

Above: The building seen in the background in this photo taken from George Street, facing southwest. The building on the left in the foreground is what became “Stage 2” of the World Trade Centre development planned by Qantas. This building, now known as National Australia bank House, was completed in 1985.

Above: A stairway off Jamison Street leading to the former Qantas International building.

Above: The building’s underground carpark entrance on Lang Street, taken from the street and facing northeast.

Above: The courtyard that lies between the two buildings on the block, which you can access, as shown here, approaching from Lang Street in the west. If you walk around the tower on the right – the former Qantas International building – you arrive at Jamison Street.