Thursday 19 October 2017

Brutalism five: McKell building

This is the fifth in a series of blogposts about brutalist buildings in Sydney. Like a lot of buildings in this style, this one was built by the government but is now privately-owned.

In a memo to the city building surveyor dated 18 April 1969, the deputy chief commissioner of Sydney City Council asked for special consideration to be given to a development application (DA) from the director of public works. The application was submitted late – after state government guidance on the floor space index had been given, rather than before – because of “protracted negotiations in respect of the acquisition of all the property required for the development”. He added that he considers that “the Crown is not ‘bound’ to the same extent as other developers and should receive special consideration because of the Council’s strong desire to encourage large development in the Haymarket – Central Square area”.

In a summary of the proposal from the Department of Public Works, the purpose of the development is described:
The Government is continuing its policy of providing its own accommodation for offices of Government Departments. This building will be the third city office building to be built in recent years and at this stage it is proposed to accommodate the Departments of Agriculture and Health and the Automatic Data Processing Centre. 
Other functions in the building would be some shops and a small area of general purpose space suitable for letting. This accommodation would be located towards the George Street end of the site and would tend to replace to some extent the existing commercial activities in this block. Final area of rented space may vary depending upon market survey, but basic plan of the street level areas will not change. 
The project as a whole is in line with the Government’s announced policy of supporting development on the depressed southern end of the central business district.
“The island site with wide streets on two sides (George Street and Rawson Place) and Belmore Park on the east lends itself to a development of a floor space index of 12 (twelve),” the summary goes on. “Pedestrian traffic volumes in the area are low, adjoining streets wide and open, and vehicular traffic access to the site can be ideally arranged from Barlow Street.”

The DA states that the land in question – bound by Pitt Street in the east, Barlow Street in the north, George Street in the west, and Rawson Place in the south – was resumed in 1901 for Central Station then sold as surplus to requirements. The hotel was erected on part of the site about 1934 and the other buildings “on the balance” about 1912.

The NSW Government Architect was appointed to design the new building with Lionel Glendenning as project architect.

Architect E.H. Farmer noted in his report on the site that the area was zoned under classification 3(a) for general business in the City Planning Scheme. A 90-foot building for the postmaster general was at the time nearing completion in Barlow Street.
The surrounding known development proposal comprises a scheme for new offices for the Australian Gaslight Company to the north side of Barlow Street on the site already occupied by that Company. Further north at one city block away in Hay Street, is the large scale hotel Sydney-Tivoli development. 
A building on the Rawson Chambers Site would form part of the architectural development around the perimeter of Belmore Park and the final design would need to be considered accordingly.
In the three-storey Prince of Wales Hotel building at 774 George Street at the time the new building was being planned (number 4 marked on the top map, above) were a newsagent, a florist and a bookshop. In six-storey Rawson Chambers (number 1 on the map) at 2-24 Rawson Place and 491-499 Pitt Street were two delicatessens, a milk bar, two cake shops, a radio shop, a dry cleaner, a fish shop/café, a tobacconist, a wine shop, a wholesale clothing and carpets shop, two wholesale clothing shops, a textiles outlet and a wholesaler. In two-storey Barlow Chambers (number 3 on the map) at 3-23 Barlow Street were an electrical outlet, a barber, a shoe repairer, a milk bar, a dry cleaner, a fish shop, a florist, three leather goods shops, three clothing outlets, a dress shop, and a baby wear shop. In three-storey Station House at 489 Pitt Street, the building at number 2 on the map, was a lottery office.
Approximately one third of the total area was occupied by the Wholesale Clothing or Textile Trades, the remainder being general shops such as electrical, radio, florist, shoe, newsagent, fish and milk bars.
Buildings at numbers 1, 2 and 3 on the map were already owned by the department.

A letter dated 22 May 1969 from the property officer of Tooth & Co Ltd, Kent Brewery, Broadway, to the secretary of the department states that the company is the owner of the Prince of Wales Hotel and shops in George Street and Rawson Place. “We authorise you to act as our representative in the making of a development application incorporating these properties,” the letter continues. The government subsequently bought the building outright.

Total ground floor shop space in the buildings to be demolished to prepare the construction site was 18,098 square feet (1681 square metres).

The new building would comprise 213,000 square feet (19788 square metres) of space, to be allocated (at the planning stage) as follows:
  • Department of Agriculture: 75,000 sq ft (6968 sq m)
  • Department of Health: 120,000 sq ft (11148 sq m)
  • Automatic Data Processing Bureau: 18,000 sq ft (1672 sq m)
The building would accommodate approximately 1900 to 2100 workers. “It is expected that there will be a significant increase in the number of people crossing in peak hours to Central Railway and Buses due to the development of the site,” Farmer’s report goes on. “It is desirable to locate an entrance to the building Rawson Place [sic] so that pedestrians are encouraged to cross Rawson Place and Pitt Streets at regular crossing points on route [sic] to Eddy Avenue and the staris [sic] to the Railway.”

The department’s planning document notes that:
The site dimensions which are approximately 45 [feet (13.7 metres)] to George Street and 150 [feet (45.7 metres)] to Pitt would make it difficult to develop any internal plans for public use. It is proposed however to recess the building from the boundary at the street level and provide under-cover colonnaded access all around the site. There is approximately a one storey rise from George Street to Pitt Street and it is intended that the access area would follow the slope of the existing pavement with internal steps of varying numbers down to shops. It is proposed to interupt [sic] the undercover sloping levels as little as possible with only one short flight of steps at a point approximately half way along Rawson Place.
These ground-floor plans, and the plan to have shops on the George Street side of the site for public use, never eventuated. Farmer had suggested that the lottery office could be accommodated in the new building, but this idea also did not make it into the final plans.

Cost of constructing the new building estimated at $10 million. The construction site would include Barlow Lane, which was council property. DA permission was granted in April 1969.

The planned 23-storey tower would include an auditorium, a first aid clinic, dressing rooms, conference rooms, and a cafeteria and shop on the first floor “in lieu of offices”. (There would be “A public address and “Muzak” system … installed in the Cafeteria and the two large rooms of the Auditorium and Conference centre”.)

Staff would be encouraged to use public transport and there would be no all-day parking inside the building although parking for 50 to 80 cars would be included. “Only Government owned or operated vehicles will be allowed in the parking area, which will operate as a ‘pool’ under the supervision of attendants,” a departmental document says. The architect’s report notes that there would be an area in the lower-ground floor for unloading goods. A car wash would be provided also.

As well as a first aid room in the basement “for emergency purposes” the building would also include a clinic:
The Clinic will have a Treatment room, Office, waiting Area, Female Ward, Male Ward, a toilet off each ward and a store. Female Ward will be large enough for 4 beds and will be used also as a Female Rest Room. 
The windows would be “Solar Bronze Glass” with “dark bronze anodised aluminium frames”. The external wall cladding would be “mid-tone stone colour, smooth finish” and the paving for the area next to Pitt Street would be “off white pre-cast concrete paving slabs”.

The 150-person auditorium was designed as a “series of multi purpose rooms, some with folding partitions, to be used for lectures, films and training seminars”, including 100 fixed seats. There would be a small stage “for dramas”. “The other room will have 80 seats. Both rooms will be able to be divided by a sound proofed folding partition giving room sizes for 100, 50 and 2 x 40 seats. Two additional rooms for 30 persons will be provided in the complex specially for conference.”

From the architect’s report:
At this stage the structure is proposed in light weight aggregate concrete. It is intended to use an [8.5-inch (21.6 cm)] flat plate floor system stiffened with capitals at columns. The structural grid is 28 feet [(8.53 metres)] which is the practical limit of this kind of construction. Preliminary analysis shows that this method is more economical than deuse weight concrete and even much more economical than steel framing. Although steel framing can be constructed in less time, the developing concrete technology in recent years makes it possible to pour floors and columns sufficiently ahead to suit an overall building programme. Many “Developers” are adopting concrete structures. 
As planning proceeds a detailed analysis will be made to maintain structural costs to an optimum and any methods which will integrate structure with finishes to reduce overall costs will be examined.
The DA was approved by council on 29 June 1970. Barlow Lane was officially closed by government gazette notice in February 1974. The city council agreed to the closure on the understanding that the department would not require any compensation for the splays at each of the four corners of the site.

The building is now owned by Cromwell Property Group. Their public relations firm was contacted for the purposes of writing this blogpost but no reply had been received at the time of publication.

Above and following photos: I approached the McKell building from the direction of Chinatown and passed along Eddy Avenue up toward Surry Hills, taking photos as I walked along.

Above two photos: The George Street frontage of the building is just an imposing-looking set of stairs, instead of shops (as had originally been planned by the Department of Public Works).

Above: Posters for the NSW government along the Rawson Place side of the building impress on you the fact that the public service still uses the building, although now as tenants rather than as owners.

Above: The Pitt Street entrance of the building with its civic plaza. Next to this entrance to the building is a Service NSW centre, where the public can perform common state tasks, such as renewing drivers licenses and paying for car registration.

Above: The sandstone fabric of Central Station's Elizabeth Street exit with the McKell building visible in the background.

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