Melbourne’s bold leap upwards: the inside story of Australia’s first skyscraper

Melbourne's bold leap upwards: the inside story of australia’s first skyscraper
Orica House on Melbourne’s Eastern Hill as it looks today / © David Collopy/Photofit

ICI (now Orica) House helped Melbourne throw off its Victorian dowdiness and become a modern city. Gideon Haigh tells the forgotten story of its creation

In a land boasting more skyscrapers per capita than any other country, Australians today would be pardoned for missing their first, a quarter the height of what’s now the tallest. Yet no building has exerted such influence on Australian cityscapes as Orica House on Melbourne’s Eastern Hill – its everyday inconspicuousness attests to the ubiquity of the form it pioneered.

Stand closer to what was originally ICI House and the view changes. “I tell people I’m showing round that this was the iPhone of Australian architecture,” says Tim Leslie, a studio director at Bates Smart McCutcheon (BSM), which not only designed the building but, in a form of architectural ancestor worship, have since made it their headquarters. “It was so different to everything that had gone before.”

As Graeme Davison, author of City Dreamers, a new history of the Australian urban imagination, puts it: “In one bold leap, Melbourne threw off its Victorian dowdiness and became the most self-consciously modern Australian city.” In the spirit of the 1956 Olympic Games and the advent of television, the International Style of ICI House married the cosmopolitan and the technological in exciting and optimistic proportions. In its wake, buildings soared.

Yet death and disaster also intruded. And not all the changes the building presaged were welcome. Aesthetic returns were to diminish swiftly: within a decade of ICI House’s slim, glassy elegance, the Gas & Fuel Corporation had inflicted on Melbourne not one but two hunched brown brick towers with tiny aluminium windows, proverbial in their monotony – the so-called ‘ugly sisters’. […]

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