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Shell House


Today our architecture columnist Stuart Harrison turns his attention to another classic Australian building.

Shell House, on the corner of Spring and Flinders streets in Melbourne’s CBD was designed by Harry Seidler in 1989. A unique, curved bookend for the city’s Hoddle Grid, this enduring ‘object’ tower is one of Melbourne’s most important and distinctive tall buildings.

29th February, 2016
Stuart Harrison
Monday 29th February 2016

Harry, as he was pretty much just known, dominated the design of tall buildings in Australia in the 1970s and 80s. Seidler was an enduring presence in Australian architecture and design right from his arrival in 1948, after which he worked for nearly six decades, through celebrated houses such as the seminal Rose Seidler House (1950), to early residential towers such as the (still) controversial Blues Point Tower (1962) and then on to big corporate office towers – elevating the type into good architecture. It’s one of these we are looking at today in another ‘classic’ – Shell House in Melbourne, which defines the south-east corner of the city’s grid.

To understand Shell House, finished in 1989, we need to go further back to a couple of towers early in Seidler’s career – Australia Square (1967) and the MLC centre (1977), in Seidler’s home town of Sydney. Both present a rounded ‘object’ tower – Harry struck away from the rectangular forms of his houses when things got bigger and more public. This may have been a lesson from Blues Point Tower, either way, it showed an ability to create considered formal objects that reworked the office tower typology, whilst also providing a large amount of flexible office space. Shell House does this.

Typically, office towers have had two main elements – the ‘core’ (lifts, stairs, toilets) in the middle of a square-ish floor plate, creating a ‘donut’ of office space around the outside. The shape of Shell House’s floor plan is a more radical yet simple solution – an open floor plate that unfurls from its core, and aligns itself to the Flinders Street wall on the south side. It’s an elegant piece of design, creating a curling band of continuous office space with great aspect out to the south, north and east.

Shell House is fascinating for several reasons. It’s Seidler’s only tower in Melbourne, with a unique site on the corner of Robert Hoddle’s grid. A bookend to the city is created, and Seidler smooths this grand corner – denying the city a sharp edge as others may have done. This move also dealt with the recently completed city train loop tunnel cutting under the site, making building above it restrictive. The train line itself a curving form, trying to turn the corner of a grid city.

The building uses two main forms to resolve the ‘L’ shaped site – the tall tower and the side podium. There are three street entries – in addition to the main tower entry on Spring Street, the lower podium links Flinders Street to Finders Lane. Once in the main foyer off Spring Street, look up to see Arthur Boyd’s mural ‘Pulpit Rock, Bathers and Muzzled Dog‘. These entries are connected – you can walk through internally (do it!) as well as down the dramatic lane of stairs on the western side. In front of all three entries is a small plaza, an intimate public-like space. Seidler’s towers often have this element of (privately owned) public space around them, with distinctive brown slate tile underfoot.

Sky gardens, where the façade is pushed in to create protected balconies, scatter the façade of Shell House, adding subtle variation to the rigorous and repeating concrete framework of the building. The tower is co-owned by Daniel Besen, who has offices on the top floor. These refurbished suites, designed by Simone Serle, utilise sky gardens to great effect. The fit-out here builds on the original palette, and expresses key original elements such as a quintessential sculptural white Seidler staircase. Shell House has other uses at the lower levels – within the podium a gallery and lecture theatre are used for public events.

Seidler’s towers of this period – Shell House, Riverside (Brisbane), Grosvenor Place (Sydney) and Perth’s QV1 (one I watched being built as an excited teenager) are similar stylistically, with consistent elements and materials. These key elements include decent, effective sunshades on all windows – something not as common as you would think in Australia! The dominant style for office towers today is still unshaded glass – I remember Seidler saying in the early 90s that this was madness – and it still is.

Harry’s national family of office towers from the 80s and 90s all feature raking columns at the base, granite cladding, tall foyer spaces with expressed beams, with a restricted material palette of whites and greys. And all have a sculpture out the front, a classic modernist composition that allows the building to happily be the backdrop. Here in Melbourne, Charles Perry’s unpeeling work ‘Shell Mace‘ still holds this corner of the city.

Shell House. Designed by Harry Seidler and Associates, 1989. Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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