Opinion

It’s not easy being a Brute

December 1, 2009

Paul Johnston explains why many believe the destruction of 10 Murray Street will be a tragic blow to the legacy of Australia’s modernist pioneers.

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Stylistic attributes are never the best way to understand modern architecture. In Tasmania, where architectural influences are filtered by isolation and mixed with the rich context of landscape, modern architecture of the 1960s took on a rawness that expressed a cultural assurance and monumentality that has not been evident since. However, the label ‘brutalism’ is now used as a means of derision in the public sphere, to the detriment of architecture as a whole.

The proposal to demolish the State Offices at 10 Murray Street in Hobart recalls the long debate over the future of Council House in Perth, a battle that is now considered a benchmark in the defence of modern Australian architecture. The similarities are surprising, and this raises questions as to whether we have been able to engender any appreciation at all of modernism as cultural heritage.

What is certain however is that ‘Number Ten’ (as it was referred to by architects of the period) is widely considered the best example of multi-storey office design in Tasmania. This resulted in its nomination to the now ‘frozen’ Register of the National Estate, following a Tasmania-wide survey of 20th century architecture conducted by the AIA and the University of Tasmania. It is also listed as “A place of Cultural Significance” on the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme and has been nominated for inclusion on the Tasmanian Heritage Register, where it has been languishing for several years while awaiting assessment.

Designed by David Hartley Wilson and Dirk Bolt (Hartley Wilson and Bolt) in 1963, the building provided the additional floor area required by the then growing civil service in the post war period. Significantly, the building was considered as the consolidation of a series of civil service buildings situated behind Parliament House that combined to form a parliamentary precinct.

Tasmanian architecture of this period was beginning to question the directions of the post war International Style and introduce other influences, including an appreciation of a distinctive Tasmanian character. These critical ideas found their voice in the quarterly Tasmanian Architect, a RAIA journal that ran from 1957 to 1968. As an editor and contributor, Bolt widened discourse around these ideas by advocating urban planning and the conservation of historic buildings through newspaper articles and public meetings.

While the design for Number Ten originated with Bolt, he left the partnership in 1964 to form a successful practice in Canberra. His distinguished career progressed into planning at an international level with the United Nations Centre for Housing Building and Planning (later UN Habitat) as well as senior academic positions and consultancies in New Zealand, Fiji and the Netherlands.

Bolt, an immigrant from the Netherlands, studied in Hobart and within a remarkably short period had achieved both acclaim and respect from his peers through his architecture, as well as his writing and public speaking. Underpinned by a strong rationalism, Bolt brought a considered use of geometry and materials to his architecture that resonated with a regional perspective. Curves, deflections in rectilinear plans and an awareness of landscape are seen in many of his projects in and around Hobart.

The initial conceptual design for Number Ten, as described in Bolt’s perspective drawing, indicates the relationship of the building to the context of Sullivan’s Cove. Bolt, with a certain Dutch sensibility, was particularly interested in the challenge of developing an architectonic resolution to the scale of the government proposal and the predominant colonial character of the cove.

The original design, square in plan and 18 storeys high, is situated on the steepest slope of the cove embankment. The building is partially embedded within this topography with its lower three floors below the level of Murray Street.

The selection of an exposed structural concrete frame was influenced by a desire to use local materials and provide a muscular and raw expression of structure. This creates a synergy with both the stone masonry of nearby colonial buildings and the rugged landscape of Tasmania, which is continually present in the mountain backdrop that frames the city with the water.

Importantly, the grid allowed the structuring of a geometrical relationship with the new building and the colonial buildings that composed the then predominant urban form of the cove, and in Bolt’s words, ‘gave the cove its unique sense of unity’. To provide continuity between the modern and colonial, Bolt developed the phi proportion (1:1.618) present in both the expressed frame in each elevation of Number Ten, as well as each bay.

Following a parliamentary review, the building’s footprint was altered to a rectangle, setback further from Parliament House, and its height lowered to an overall 12 storeys above ground. This allowed for future expansion as well as containing costs. The rational ‘purity’ of Bolt’s design was compromised with the change in plan and proportion, however, its influence was not lost on the new building.

David Hartley Wilson, Bolt’s partner and collaborator, took the revised design to completion. The essence of Bolt’s conceptual design was maintained and is evident in the finished work. The articulation of the frame as a panel to each elevation, set proud of the floor plate, which is then cantilevered at each corner, demonstrates a sophisticated approach to detailing the structure. It also allows the apparent mass of the building to dissolve by removing columns at corners.

Significantly, the building is not aligned with Parliament House but oriented towards Murray Street where its entrance is connected to the city. The slight deviation in the grid at this part of Murray Street allows the building to be visible through the central area of Hobart.

David Hartley Wilson was himself an important architect most notably as a pioneer of solar design. The recessed window line and external aluminium louvres indicate this influence. But an examination of the ‘as built’ proportion of the grid by Bolt himself has suggested that Hartley Wilson applied the investigations of colonial proportions in the revised design. The new proportion of the structural frame, 1:1.25 can also be found in the ordering of fenestration openings of the Colonial Georgian buildings, including Parliament House through its correlation with the Fibonacci series.

The building provides an interesting correlation with Parliament House when viewed across the forecourt gardens as well as the Georgian warehouses in close proximity. The harmony between new and old is clearly evident.

Bolt hoped that this careful appreciation of the past would allow future building to contribute to the sense of unity despite modern demands. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Number Ten was the tallest building in Hobart at the time of its construction and the predominant landmark within Sullivans Cove. Several buildings of similar scale and prominence now join it, however none exhibit the architectural skill that allow such buildings to co-exist in sympathy with the historic and natural qualities of Hobart’s landscape.

To dismiss Number Ten as intrusive does not allow the 20th century a place in the history of our cities. It also ignores the role of modern architecture in addressing the complex issues that arise from anticipated growth in the urban environment. If we are to remove the best examples of how we might grow our cities, while only retaining the qualities that connect us to our more distant past, then we have much to understand of the means to achieve a sustainable society.

  • Stuart Tanner December 3rd, 2009 12:35 am

    Just as Bolt’s original design was ‘reviewed’ and amended by the Parlimnent of the day, it seems the same institution has decided the building should be removed altogether. Architectural history is about a chronological lineage. To selectively remove parts of that lineage and preserve only what we are ‘comfortable’ with denies society the opportunity to learn. The more we do this, the more our urban environments become culturally monochromatic.


  • Scott Jameson December 9th, 2009 3:32 am

    Be interesting to see whether Citta Group is going to have another St Kilda Triangle on its hands with this. I dare say saving a brutalist concrete office block from demolition is going to be a much taller order than protecting the unimpeded ocean views of a few wealthy St Kilda residents though…


  • Ian Johnson December 10th, 2009 4:40 am

    True enough, Stuart. Likewise, though, the trail of cultural evolution in an age of record keeping is not only about what it builds but what it extracts. Others can argue which is the more important. The more one group coordinates what is to be kept sacrosanct perhaps the closer to monochromatic the trail, at least in the sense of comparison between monuments and others. :-)

    No, No.10 is one worth keeping. It would be worth keeping even if it didn’t provide thousands of square metres of useful space but as it does, the decision baffles. Yet, a masterpiece in spatial composition, compilation and endowment may turn the picture rosy.

    As Scott suggests, the heart common to a community has another taste again. While it is part of our daily job to divine that we often appear to show our inadequacy or disinclination. We may say, fortunately.


  • Stewart Williams (School of Geography & Env'l Studies, UTAS) July 13th, 2010 3:27 am

    All points taken and their merit respected. Still, I must ask, what about the simplest and perhaps most sensible (and also hopefully persuasive) argument: ‘Do we really need to demolish and refurbish yet another office building for our public servants – aren’t there other more pressing ways to spend so many $million – is there no end to this cycle of unnecessary (over)consumption ??’


  • Mathematica March 1st, 2011 9:46 am

    “correlation with the Fibonacci series” – you really have no idea what that actually means, as if you did you’d realise its consequence.


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