Saturday, 30 December 2017

Brutalism twelve: Former Prudential Assurance building, Martin Place

This is the twelfth in a series of blogposts about brutalist buildings in Sydney. The building, at 39 Martin Place, is slated to be torn down to make way for a new building to go above a new railway station on the state government’s planned Sydney Metro line.

The development application (DA) was received by the city council on 8 November 1965. There were two existing buildings at the site. They were the existing Prudential Assurance building, a 14-storey structure used for shopping and commercial purposes (offices) and as a restaurant, at 37-51 Martin Place, and a two-storey building that housed the Prince Edward Theatre and shops, at 36-42 Castlereagh Street and 51-53 Elizabeth Street. The theatre had entrances both on Elizabeth Street and on Castlereagh Street (which was considered the main entrance). There is information about what was on the site already, in a heritage impact statement (HIS) prepared by architects Tanner Kibble Denton for Macquarie Corporate Holdings Pty Ltd and dated May 2017:
The [old] Prudential Building, designed by architects Hennessy, Hennessy & Co, was officially opened in May [1939]. The basement became home to Romano’s Restaurant, internationally famous for its elegance and fine cuisine. The restaurant retained its prominence and popularity until 1964.
The Prince Edward Theatre was sold to the Prudential Assurance Company in 1965 and the sites of the Prudential building and the Prince Edward Theatre were amalgamated onto one title in November 1967.

The City of Sydney Council resolved on 22 November 1965 to allow the construction of a multi-storey building on the combined site incorporating shopping and commercial activities. It further resolved at a meeting on 2 December 1968 not to raise objections to a proposal by the Department of Railways to build entrances there associated with the Eastern Suburbs Railway construction, but required that the entrance to the planned Martin Place station located on the western footway of Elizabeth Street be moved two-foot-six-inches in a westerly direction into the colonnade of the new building. 

The city engineer reported on 17 July 1969 that the Secretary of Railways had reached an agreement with the Prudential Assurance Co., Ltd. in respect of the provision of pedestrian access to the station on the Elizabeth Street frontage, and it was stated in a council meeting that “the arrangements now proposed are basically in accordance with the Council’s requirements”. 

The architectural practice of Alan Williams & Associates, of 39 Martin Place, which had begun the process of getting approval for the building, and had designed it, merged with Stephenson & Turner in February 1970. Alan Williams became a partner in the firm of Stephenson & Turner of 40 Miller Street, North Sydney. Chas. Harding & Son and J.M. Drake were the quantity surveyors. Ove Arup & Partners were the structural engineers. D.S. Thomas & Partners were the mechanical and electrical engineers.

The image above was taken from the DA file. It shows that at the time the building was being planned Martin Place was still open to vehicular traffic. The whole of Martin Place was completely closed to vehicles and made pedestrian-only in 1971.

The above drawing shows the point of access to Martin Place railway station located on Elizabeth Street outside the new building. The new building is shown (labelled “Prudential Building”) in the bottom left-hand corner of this drawing. 

The above drawing shows the lower-ground floor of the new building, from a vantage point facing north. The site is bound by Elizabeth Street on the right and Castlereagh Street on the left. You can see the vehicular driveway rendered in the bottom-left corner of the drawing coming in from Castlereagh Street. You can also see the pedestrian entrance on the north side, where arrows are pencilled in indicating access from Martin Place down a set of steps inside the lobby to the lower-ground floor of the building (the Castlereagh Street level).

The drawing above Is from ‘Public Sydney: drawing the city’ by Sydney architects Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill and published in 2013 jointly by Sydney Living Museums and the journal ‘Content’ of the Faculty of Built Environment, University of New South Wales. It shows the Martin Place underground station (along the bottom) with access points leading to locations on surrounding streets. 39 Martin Place is the third building from the left.

There would be no underground entrance to the new building from the subterranean Martin Place Shopping Circle that leads up to the train station located outside the Reserve Bank of Australia, east of Elizabeth Street. The Eastern Suburbs Railway, on which Martin Place station is located, was opened somewhat later than this building, in June 1979, although as we have seen the government was in the process of planning for the new station when this building was being designed.

The floor-space ratio (FSR) of the new building would be 11.99:1. The total floor area of the designed building is 307,880 square feet (28,603 square metres). The estimated cost of construction at the time the DA was submitted was 2,750,000 pounds.

Prudential weighed up three different plans before settling on a design. The first plan in a published feasibility study in the DA file describes the structure that was finally built. It has 15-foot setbacks on three sides from the site boundary. A design that was wider on each floor across all the dimensions of the block but which had fewer office floors (numbered three to 15) was rejected, as was a design for a taller tower having a smaller floor area on each office floor (numbered three to 39). The aim for each of the proposed designs was to achieve a FSR of 12:1.

Above: A ‘Plan of floors 1-8’ from a vantage point looking north. The drawing shows that there are eight lifts on each floor in the tower. Floors two to eight each have 11,993 square feet (1114 square metres) and floors 10 to 21 each have 10,556 square feet (980.685 square metres) of floor area. 

The brown tinted area in the drawing above shows ‘stage one’, which was constructed first. The Prudential Assurance Company was able to move its workers into it before stage two was constructed and before the original 1939 office building was demolished to prepare the site for stage two.

There are no internal columns on the office tower floors. The service core was constructed as a reinforced concrete shaft stiffening the whole building against wind pressures. 

T.C. Whittle Pty Ltd was the builder. Ready-Mixed Concrete Industries Ltd supplied the construction site from its Alexandria depot. Haden Engineering Pty Ltd did work for the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and cooling (HVAC) system. Lamson Engineering Australia Pty Ltd installed a vertical conveyor system.

The building was opened in 1971. Prudential Corporation Australia was acquired by Colonial Ltd in August 1998. Colonial had been established in 1873 in Melbourne as The Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited, and was bought by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 2000. The building was bought in 2008 by DEXUS Property Group and its wholesale property fund for $143 million. At that time the net annual income of the property was $8,151,000. It had basement parking for approximately 68 cars with the entrance to the carpark located on Castlereagh Street. The property was assessed to be worth $222.6 million as at 30 June 2016, and in the same year the 22-level tower plus the leasehold interest in the Martin Place Shopping Circle were bought for a combined price of $332 million by Transport for NSW. The price attributed to the building at that time was $298 million.

The photo above shows the Martin Place frontage of 39 Martin Place at the time the blogpost was written, prior to demolition work commencing.

The elegant fa├žade of 39 Martin Place is clearly visible in this photo snapped from the corner of Castlereagh Street and Martin Place facing south.

The 2017 heritage impact statement notes that the Reserve Bank of Australia building is a national heritage place under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999, and the building at 39 Martin Place is not, although, “39 Martin Place and the Reserve Bank Building share a visual association when viewed from vantage points around Martin Place, especially from Macquarie Street.”

But also according to the HIS:
The present building at 39 Martin Place is inconsistent with the historic character and urban form of the street. Demolition of the building provides an opportunity for a new structure which better responds to the significant urban form and spatial qualities of Martin Place and to the historic buildings in its vicinity.
There is more of this kind of verbiage later in the same report:
Demolition of the present building at 39 Martin Place – approved as part of the Sydney Metro proposal – provides an opportunity for a new building which better responds to the heritage significance and important civic qualities of Martin Place. Defining characteristics of Martin Place include the strong architectural character of buildings of similar height which create a linear east-west space along its length.
The HIS was prepared to accompany a state-significant DA submitted to the minister for planning pursuant to part 4 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, 1979. Macquarie Corporate Holdings is seeking to build a new transport and employment precinct on the area bounded by Castlereagh and Elizabeth streets up to Hunter Street, with Martin Place at its centre.

The drawing above showing the overall scope of the proposed development is from a report dated May 2017 that was prepared for Macquarie Corporate Holdings by Tzannes architects. From a vantage point looking southwest, it shows the old Martin Place station underground – the twin tubes laid out east-west represent the Eastern Suburbs Railway – and the new Sydney Metro to be constructed north-south underneath it. The new building to go on the 39 Martin Place site (marked “South site” in the drawing) will be markedly taller than the existing brutalist building. In the drawing “OSD” means “over station development” and CSSI means “critical state significant infrastructure”.

To be absolutely fair to the state government, having railway station access built into the basements of office towers would allow planners to remove the current underground access stairways that are situated smack-bang in the middle of Martin Place, freeing up more space for pedestrians. It would also allow for the construction of more retail areas for commuters.

The photo above is from the HIS. It shows the extent of the redevelopment currently being planned for the central CBD, around Martin Place, which extends left-to-right in this photo. The building at 39 Martin Place is at the “South site” labelled in this photo.

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