Friday, April 4, 2014

Melbourne's Most Eccentric Buildings

Melbourne has some wonderful buildings. There are fine examples of different schools of classical architecture and some first rate contemporary designs dotted across the city. The best of these are among our city's most well known and beloved features.

The bulk of the city's buildings though, are functional more than decorative. While time and effort has been spent on their appearance, this is clearly secondary to their utility.

And then there are... the other buildings. Ones where the design and appearance clearly were important, but that still somehow didn't come out right. Ones that look just a little bit off, a little bit wrong, a little bit batshit crazy. And yet, still find their champions among the people looking at them, re-emphasizing how these things are always a matter of subjective opinion.

Some of these buildings have won design awards. Some of them have found their way onto world's worst building lists. All of them are an entertaining addition to our city skyline and a great conversation starter...


RMIT, Building 22

Corner Swanston and La Trobe Streets

The Green Brain is what it said in the prospectus, and what it probably still says on a plaque somewhere in the lobby, if mischievous students haven't looted it already. But a lot of locals know this by another, considerably less prosaic name: The Snot Building. And it only take a glance to understand why.

For the canopy of RMIT's Building 22 is encased in a lurid green, amorphous mass of fibreglass, stretching around the building's two street facing sides, that looks positively... protoplasmic. Designed by architecture firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall, and built at a cost of $5.5 million, The Green Brain covers a group of conference rooms and was chosen to highlight the university's intellectual and environmental credentials. As vice chancellor Margaret Gardner put it in 2011, 'What could be more apt at this time than that we embrace the symbolism of having a green brain?' The brain won a design award commendation in 2012, but the local response has been mixed (examples below taken from various websites):

Although, when it comes to exotic RMIT buildings in Melbourne, this is just the beginning...


150 Victoria Street

Looking a little an enormous Lego brick, or the beginnings of the Borg colonisation, RMIT's high tech 'Design Hub' stands in stark contrast to the decaying buildings around it at the top of Swanston Street. Housing the university's creative design space, the Hub is covered in thousands of sand blasted, computer controlled geodesic glass disks, that offer environmental advantages as well as a striking exterior. The disks are designed to track the sun throughout the day, and can pivot to control the flow of heat and light into the building's interior, drastically reducing heating, cooling and lighting costs. They also generate solar energy, a feature that RMIT plans to expand in the coming years, with the hope of making the building completely energy self sufficient. The Hub was designed by local architect Sean Godsell and cost $60 million dollars to build, with construction stretching over five years.

PORT 1010

1010 La Trobe Street, Docklands

Providing a conversation starter for anyone leaving Southern Cross Station by train, the Port 1010 Building on La Trobe Street sports a few surprises beyond it's optical illusion exterior. For starters its tenants - principally the Australian Customs Service and the Bureau of Meteorology - seem almost too staid to inhabit such a sideshow funhouse building. And then there is the building's environmental pedigree; packed full of resource saving ideas and efficiencies, including a recycled sewage plant that delivers recycled waste water back into the building, Port 1010 was the first building in Docklands to receive a 5 Star environmental rating when it was completed in 2006. But you can't really get away from that exterior (supplied by local firm Norman, Disney and Young); I mean, can you really believe all those parallel lines are dead straight?


717 Bourke Street

Serving as a companion piece to 1010 La Trobe is Seven17 Bourke, with both buildings sharing a similar geographical location, environmental rating and eye catching appearance. Designed and built across 2007-10 by local firm Probuild, at a cost of $190 million, Seven17 was also designed with environmental economy in mind and achieved a five star efficiency rating. Functioning primarily as office space - and with Channel 9 as principal tenant - Seven17 also has a small amount of retail space. A medium sized Travelodge hotel, with a more conventional appearance, sits behind the twisty main building pictured above.



Corner Swanston and Lonsdale Streets

The Shot Tower enclosed within Melbourne Central is such an everyday part of life in Melbourne, that I would guess that most people that live here would barely notice it. And yet... there is no mistaking the undoubted oddness of a long defunct industrial tower being kept beneath a conical glass dome in the middle of a busy modern shopping centre.

The tower was built in 1888 and operated by the Coop family, who also owned the still standing shot tower tower in Clifton Hill. It produced lead shot for firearms for nearly eighty years, before closing in 1961.

A sketch of the shot tower from 1891.

The building's height - 50 metres in this instance - was a key part of the shot making process; hot lead would be dropped from the top of the tower and, during the fall, its high velocity would cause it to form naturally into a perfect sphere. The round ball of lead would then land in a drum of cold water at the base of the tower, which set the shape.

When Melbourne Central was built - over five years between 1986 and 1991 - the heritage listed shot tower had to be incorporated into the design and the glass cone was the result. A small museum was eventually opened inside the tower, which is now operated by the clothing chain R.M.Williams, co-tenants on the ground floor.


170 - 190 Russell Street

This building presents an entirely unique concept for Melbourne, if not Australia; a modern office block, on top of a multi-story carpark, on top of a row of retail shops on top of an underground nightclub. As well as all this, it's also Melbourne's most notable example of the 'Brutalist' school of architecture (popular in Japan after World War II) and even has a hip sounding name. Total House truly has it all. It also has at least one high profile critic:

Suffice to say that Mr Guy has not yet decided whether his office will protect Total House from demolition and/or redevelopment. Built in 1965, the building was identified as a site worthy of heritage consideration by the City of Melbourne as early as the 1980's. An excerpt from the Melbourne Heritage Action website summarises the argument for the building's protection:

As of writing, the Victorian State Government is considering a proposal for a new 60 story development on the site.


Flinders Street

Buildings designed to house popular attractions can be a special breed. Simple, classic designs and straight, clean lines are often at odds with the building's purpose, so architects sometimes opt for a more exotic approach for these projects. One example of this is Melbourne's Sea Life Aquarium, a particularly flamboyant construction on the north bank of the Yarra River, built in 1999 at a cost of $26 million.

Designed by local firm Peddle Thorp, the aquarium's sculpted concrete form, canopies and tapered proportions are meant to resemble a sailing ship at anchor. What it does actually resemble, is more a matter of opinion. In a 2011 poll of local architects and design experts conducted by The Age to determine Melbourne's best and worst buildings, the aquarium came out easily on top in the worst category, polling nearly twice as many votes as the runner up. A selection of comments from the poll:

Peter Brook, design director at Peddle Thorp, took issue with some of the criticism, describing the aquarium as 'an innovative piece of design on many levels.'


717 Flinders Street

Walking down the unfashionable west end of town, the casual visitor is suddenly struck by something totally incongruous; nestled on the north bank of the Yarra, wedged between abandoned warehouses and active shipping terminals, is what appears to be a Spanish Mission, circa 1900's So-Cal. A closer inspection reveals this as the local branch of the Mission to Seamen, a worldwide Anglican charity that has been providing gentle recreation and spiritual guidance for sailors since 1853. Built of stone and rough hewn concrete, the mission contains a small chapel and bell-tower, a meeting hall, lecture hall, tiny garden, dining room and quarters for the chaplain and his family.

The spherical gymnasium, unfortunately no longer used.

Unique features of the building include a spherical gymnasium, which looks like an observatory, and the pulpit in the chapel, which has been designed to resemble a ship's prow, replete with rudder. The mission also used to feature a cinema and dance hall, both sadly now defunct.


Flinders Street

Melbourne has never been able to make up it's mind about what belongs on this prime spot - on the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street - and over the years has tried locating a morgue, a train station, a shopping plaza and a modern office block there. Something I've written about in detail here. But there's no doubting that the design of the current incarnation - a public square mixed with an art gallery, a cinema/visual art museum and some offices - provokes a mixed reaction.

In 2011, Fed Square made a list of the world's ugliest buildings compiled by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph. Conversely, the same site made a list of world's best public squares in US magazine The Atlantic lat year (although this came with a caveat, as the square's design was still listed as 'unconventional'). And local opinion has always been divided between two camps:

Did I miss anything good? Leave a comment or drop me a line.


  1. The Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands Education Centre sprung to my mind, because I worked there for a bit ( A building from the super-modern and sustainable school of design. Still not sure how I feel about it, but it's a unique building and it provides great views of the wetlands - plus it won a bunch of awards, so it must be good!

    P.s. Absolutely love your blog! I'm currently researching Victorian Melbourne and your posts have come up a bunch of times and have always been extremely informative, so thanks.

  2. Nice one! I'll look into it as I was thinking of another post on this topic, only with buildings outside of the CBD. There's some really interesting ones across the city.

  3. Total House is now on.the Victorian heritage register - yay! But a minister could still intervene to allow demolition...also I love the green.brain, can't really explain why, but it is definitely the oddest of the odd.