Monday, 20 November 2017

Brutalism eight: Sydney Masonic Centre

This is the eighth post in a series on brutalist architecture in Sydney. The interior shots of the Sydney Masonic Centre were taken during the Sydney Open viewing day that took place earlier this month. Other images were taken, as per usual, from records in the city archives.

In a note from the city engineer to the town clerk dated 10 April 1972, it was noted that the grand secretary, United Grand Lodge of New South Wales of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, had informed the department that a development application (DA) for 62-88 Goulburn Street and 279-285 Castlereagh Street would be lodged in about four months’ time. A minute from the city engineer dated 5 October 1971 had noted that negotiations respecting the proposed development would not be completed for some time.

The site is shown in a drawing made at the time, above. In the next drawing (below) Carruthers Place, a small laneway at the back of the block, is shown. In correspondence between lawyers John Dick & Co and the city council, it emerges that the laneway had been owned by the masons for “well over 40 years” and a gate had long been in place in the lane at the northern boundary of the building site to stop people from getting in.

The site also fell across the easement for the City Circle Line (as you can see in the drawing below, which shows one of the basement floors cut diagonally across the corner by the easement).

In the DA documentation the section dedicated to describing the current uses of the site is badly damaged and frequently illegible, but it is clear that the nine structures that were on the site at the time were mainly three-storey brick buildings, with the exception of the seven-storey original Grand Lodge. The other buildings were used as shops at ground level with workshops and “sub-standard residential rooms” on the upper floors. The entire site had an area of 29,690 square feet (2758.29 square metres). The pictures below show the original Grand Lodge on the corner of Castlereagh and Goulburn streets.

In the original plans including the council’s consent, the architect was named as T.W. Hodgson & Sons of Hosking House, 84 ½ Pitt Street. The original drawings (which you can see below) show a more conventional structure than was finally achieved for the site. This design has a pyramid-form appearing on the façade as an element of ornamentation whereas in the eventual design the pyramid-form is visible in the structure of the building itself, where it separates the office tower at the top from the podium, where the masonic rooms are located.

A letter to the city council dated 28 September 1973 from architects Joseland, Gilling and Associates Pty Ltd notes that “the prime intention of this building is to provide a monumental temple building for the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales”. This part of the letter referred to a shopping arcade that was also being discussed in relation to the structure. “We are not attempting to provide a shopping complex having maximum customer potential but to provide service facilities for the building and immediate surroundings.” The names Joseland, Gillings and Associates and T.W. Hodgson & Sons appear on the final drawings as “architects in association”.

The two photos below were prepared by the city council to show the effect the building would have on the streetscape.

In the surrounding area was the Railway Institute, as well as commercial buildings, a hotel, and shops. Originally, it was planned to have a vehicle ramp leading to the underground parking garage, situated parallel to Goulburn Street, but this plan was changed before construction took place. The council had wanted access to the parking garage to be controlled by traffic lights but the architects pointed out that since most of the traffic would be at night, with cars entering from 6.30pm to 7.30pm and leaving at the conclusion of meetings from 10pm to midnight, there would be “practically no cross traffic”.

Parking for large new buildings was always a concern for the city council, and in the case of this building the DA documentation includes the designs for a hydraulic machine, the “Archer Double Car Parker” made by a company in Gladesville. The DA file contains documents with different numbers of cars specified at different times for two of the basement levels. There seems to have been plans for about 140 spaces and the masons eventually paid a hefty contribution for off-street parking to the council.

Joseland and Gilling representatives were the ones who were present for a meeting with the influential Height of Buildings Advisory Committee – a state government body that gave assent, or refused consent, to new structures in addition to the city council. In their memo to the town clerk, the State Planning Authority of New South Wales included a pedestrian link under Goulburn Street in their list of wants. They also described “substantial trees” for landscaping on Castlereagh and Goulburn streets.

There is a letter from McConnel Smith & Johnson Pty Ltd, architects and the city’s planning consultants, that address the committee’s list of demands. The letter mentions the planned redevelopment of the Brickfield Hill precinct. The city’s 1971 Strategic Plan had recommended the area’s regeneration “as a predominantly office area”, the architect notes in the letter. As for the underground pedestrian link, the letter says that no plan had been prepared to study such a proposal, and there was no such study in the offing.
No such study is programmed in this year’s brief for the Action Plan and no pedestrian study can proceed without some evaluation of the future structure and land uses now appropriate for the area. Such wider studies would be beyond the present terms of the general brief for the Action Plan.
The city council had also presented the idea of connecting the underground shopping area in the new building with the railway at Museum Station, and Joseland and Gilling told the city planner in a letter that the masons were amenable to the idea of an underground connection. As for the pedestrian link across Goulburn Street, the letter goes on to say:
To incorporate a bridge across the streets would be extremely difficult within the design of the building and would possibly tend to destroy the monumental character of this building which is one of the strict requirements of our client, Untied Grand Lodge.
The cost of the project was estimated at $10 million. By 5 November 1973 all excavation work had been carried out, but no building work commenced. A letter from Rankine & Hill, consulting engineers, dated 3 September 1975, notes that construction of the 30,175.93 square-metre building was underway.

A letter in the DA file from Australian Realty Management Pty Ltd dated 9 February 1979 to the city planner describes plans for a hotel in the new building.

The following images show the design of each floor, starting with the office tower floors. The next drawing is for the third floor, the top floor of the podium, then there are drawings for the second floor, the first floor, the ground floor and the lower-ground floor.

There are five meeting rooms in the podium. The photo below shows the building's second-biggest meeting room. The big chair shown in the photo is for the worshipful master, the small chair for the junior warden. Masons meet in the building every month and there are about 10,000 members in NSW and ACT combined. Contrary to popular ideas about the masons, they don’t accept atheists. They also don’t discuss politics or religion inside. They elect a worshipful master every year, and a grand master every three years. The masons contribute $2 million per day to charity worldwide. Ten of Australia’s prime ministers were masons.

The photo below shows the open space in the podium where the meeting rooms are. The staircase was cordoned off when I was in the building and one of the attendants told me that the stairs had been closed to prevent use due to structural problems.

The photo below shows the café on the ground-floor level that was enclosed by glass in 2005 in a development that cost the masons another $2.24 million. This photo shows the structural detail of the exterior that would have been located on the outside of the building when it was first completed.

The drawing below, from the City of Sydney's records, shows a cross-section of the podium. You can see the twinned staircases in the void and the main meeting room, on the left, with its cantilevered wall fronting Goulburn Street.

The photo below shows the Sydney Masonic Centre from a vantage point across Goulburn Street. You can see the heroic design of the building with its individuated office tower above the plinth, in which the meetings rooms for the United Grand Lodge are situated.

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