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Australia’s first skyscraper

ICI House created monumental change in the architectural history of Melbourne, becoming the first skyscraper in what is now the city’s famous skyline.

A stagnant series of events from the early 20th century would eventually lead to the construction of Australia’s first skyscraper in 1958. ICI House, or Orica House as we know it today, is situated on Nicholson Street in East Melbourne, and is the culmination of public debates on 20th-century building height regulations. These debates stemmed from Sydney’s Great Fire of 1901, which ignited rigid rules on height restrictions. These would not last, though, as innovative architectural designs merged with economic and public growth, eventually leading to the urban landscape we see today.

As Australia entered the 20th century, Sydney and Melbourne were in the middle of great transformation. Businesses were expanding, new neighbourhoods were emerging, and populations were growing due to the arrival of workers from around the world. In the early 1900s, newer industrialised materials for buildings were being embraced – leaving traditional colonial designs behind.

It was during this time of growth that an untimely event befell Sydney’s CBD. One of the businesses, which belonged to Gordon & Keith’s Furniture, caught on fire. In a storeroom within the eight-storey building, some glue melted on an oil stove, and the flammable combination ignited a fire. With no water immediately available, strong winds spread the fire to several buildings within a matter of minutes. The fire took hold of two square blocks that were bordered by Wentworth, Charlotte, Pitt and Bentinck streets. The fire destroyed 67 buildings, including both homes and businesses.

The fire killed five people, and triggered concerns in Melbourne for public health and safety. This resulted in height restrictions in the 1910s, where Melbourne buildings could not be more than 40 metres tall, matching the height of fire ladders at the time. These height limitations, however, could not prevent the development of modernist ideas and calls for change.

Since the 1920s, Melbourne, like many cities, has experienced a boom in population and economic growth that has demanded urban expansion. During the decades of strict height regulations, some architects believed that the limitations were preventing the growth of Melbourne’s inner city, and the calls for change continued. World War II initiated innovative building ideas, with the introduction of new technologies and resources. The height regulations were beginning to be assessed on an ad hoc basis, and postwar ideas were circulating in architectural brains. Private and public negotiations were occurring between developers, clients and public authorities. The war had motivated a new era of building trends, and this was a terrain on which such negotiations transpired.

By the 1950s, Bates, Smart & McCutcheon was Australia’s largest and most successful architectural firm. Led by Sir Walter Paul Osborn McCutcheon, the firm was invested in connecting architecture with other art forms, such as landscaping and sculpture. Under the direction of McCutcheon, the firm began designing ICI House. The plans were approved due to the public benefits that ICI House would offer, including public areas on the ground level and public access to car parks. ICI House was built 44 metres higher than Melbourne’s building regulations, becoming the tallest building in Australia at 84 metres. The building was made from non-weight-bearing materials. Glass was a prominent feature, with full-length windows covering the north and south sides, which allowed the interior to be flooded with natural light – a radical transition from the small windows of traditional masonry buildings. Fireproofing the steel frame and flooring was also achieved, demonstrating just how far construction had come since 1901. The building occupied 41 per cent of the site, which allowed landscaping, a pond and artwork to fill the rest of the grounds.

ICI House was the first building allowed to exceed Melbourne’s rigid height restrictions, and it was the tallest building in Australia until 1961. To date, tall building design has accommodated for increased demand in population growth, as well as business and district amenities. Designs of tall buildings continue to diversify, and ICI House historically symbolises a point of transition from the Melbourne of before, to the Melbourne of now.

Pictured: Lonsdale Street looking towards ICI House, Melbourne, 1962. Photo: Mark Strizic. State Library of Victoria H2011.55/1415

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