The Argus Building
Corner Elizabeth Street and La Trobe Street
A few years ago, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle labelled the historic Argus Building on the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe streets a “bomb site.” Disused for a decade, the interior of this once-charming neoclassical site had fallen into ruin.
After a string of different owners the heritage property, which once housed the famous Argus newspaper, is now in good hands. The Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT) is only months away from finishing a massive interior rehabilitation and refurbishment that will see this historic building returned to grandeur – albeit more contemporary.
The Argus was in print for 111 years before it closed in 1957. It spent 30 of those years housed in this six-storey building designed by architect Godfrey Spowers. Built between 1924 and 1926 in a Beaux Arts style that’s heavy on ornamentation, the stone exterior features imposing columns rising three storeys high.
The 88-year-old building boasts one of Melbourne’s few remaining original interwar interiors: the former Advertisement Hall is a space with soaring ceilings, ornate decorative mouldings and impressive, copper-framed windows, which are without doubt, the most spectacular feature of this new addition to the Open House register. Look out for decorative details such as floral motifs running along the wall, the ceiling rosette and the column capitals carved into curling leaves.
The interior of the Argus is still under construction, and winding your way from the hall to the second level of the building, you’ll catch a glimpse of the building’s years of dereliction. The graffiti on a still-exposed brick wall will be covered up come October.
The second floor of the building, once home to the newspaper’s printing press, is enormous. With half of its ceiling gone, there’s a dramatic void up through the third storey. The original steelwork has been left exposed, the beams’ height is an indication of the scale of the printing machinery that used to be housed here. The third-floor windows get you up close and personal with the elaborate sandstone column capitals.
Pay attention to the windows on the upper floors, which are a combination of old and new. MIT had special parts made that would allow the new aluminium window-frame to fit into the original copper mullion – the vertical bar between panes of glass.
Royal Melbourne Hospital Tunnels
The tunnels below the Royal Melbourne Hospital are the all-important bowels of this institution. This subterranean network reaches far beyond the footprint of the hospital.
The original tunnels were built in the late 1930s, and were designated as air-raid shelters during World War Two. Overhead, a mesh of antique piping runs along the ceiling in all directions. These tunnels wind underneath Royal Parade and Grattan Street, linking the hospital with others including the Royal Women's and Royal Children's.
Standing at an intersection of two of the tunnel highways, to our left is a passageway that leads to the medical archive and mortuary. To our right, a corridor leads to the kitchen.
Down the well-worn halls, we venture into a room with two elephantine royal blue generators, which pack 1.2 megawatts of power each. Located below the hospital entrance, it’s possible to lift the roof up here and get the generators out of the hospital if need be. The humming machines are kept warm so they can be started within milliseconds if the power goes down.
Then it’s time to leave the past and enter a new section of tunnel redolent of a science-fiction movie. This sloping, narrow passageway takes us about five metres below ground level. On either side of a raised pathway of galvanised aluminium are floor-to-ceiling pipes, transporting steam, water, oxygen and waste through PVC, copper and steel tubes of all different sizes. There’s a perpetual hum in this submarine-like passage, sometimes drowned out by the sound of water running through a huge black PVC pipe.
This new section of tunnel, built in the early 2000s, protects the hospital’s critical operating systems. Called the donut by staff, its runs around the entire hospital boundary – the critical and unseen veins of this important Melbourne institution.
The Blackwood Street Bunker
This piece of Brutalist architecture tucked away in North Melbourne was for decades covered in cream render that did little to attract passersby. But when Clare Cousins Architects moved into the building last year, that custard exterior was chipped back, revealing a modular façade of raw concrete.
The Blackwood Street Bunker is an example of the brutalist aesthetic of the 1970s (think the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road and Graeme Gunn Plumbers & Gasfitters Union on Victoria Street) merged with the contemporary interior architecture of a working design studio. It’s an example of adaptive reuse of a building that for many developers probably screamed demolition.
Starkly different from the industrial exterior, the open-plan interior of the Clare Cousins office is warm and light, dominated by the use of plywood for the walls and joinery. Even the ceiling is made of plywood – a contemporary take on the passé and outmoded ceiling grid that dominates many older offices, and which are often completely removed by designers of today’s loft-like workspaces. The stripped back concrete floor is one link to the exterior.
Look out for the vintage Planet desk lamps under which Clare Cousins’ staff toils. A white Flos lamp juts out of the plywood wall above a marble-top table by Sydney-based industrial designer Henry Wilson, around which sit chairs by Italian brand Billiani.
The firm gutted the interior to the external walls, leaving intact only one wall besides the shell, which runs down the centre of what is a quasi-shared space. The architecture firm shares with a commercial construction company called Maven. Technically the office consists of two buildings, with two titles, so for the design team this was an exercise in trying to bring the two offices together while also maintaining separate identities. Each firm has its own entrance, while toward the rear the companies share a large kitchen and outdoor deck space.
Mystery surrounds the origins of this site: the companies that developed and built it no longer exist, and Cousins’ staff has not been able to find a record of the architect. The designers wondered if it may have been designed by Graeme Gunn, due to its similarities to the Plumbers & Gasfitters Union, but decided if it had been, they would know by now.
Open House Melbourne 2014 runs Saturday July 26 and Sunday July 27, allowing the public free access to the city’s most significant and unique buildings. A small selection of locations require entry via ballot selection. For a list of ballot buildings, click here.