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Ming Wing: The Best Laid Plans

by Conrad Hamann

By 1960 the commercial office tower was seen as the unique creation of Modern Architecture. The alliance of architecture with modern technology had produced a type of building which could be applied universally. So surely, a scientific and technical university ought to have one. The engineers' and scientists' needs could be met without ribbons of small clerical offices. However when the government of R.G. Menzies - Ming the Merciless, or Ming for short - insisted that there would be an influx of Humanities types (6160 in Arts and Commerce alone, on 1959 estimates), an opportunity arose. Apart from a few lecture theatres and the new pattern language laboratories, high rise accommodation would fill the bill admirably. Several universities had office towers already: Moscow, Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, the Senate Tower at the University of London. Nottingham Polytechnic and Hull University, both of which seem to have provided inspiration for Monash's Science and Forum areas, also had towers. When Geoffrey Dutton praised Monash's buildings in 1961, he publicly urged 'a vertical feature' The University of Melbourne, whose methods of project management Monash was eagerly emulating, had embarked on a series of tall towers, where everything from offices to laboratories was being stacked up in slabs. Several of these slabs had lecture theatres projecting at the ground floor, so that spatial and functional expression, then still prescribed by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, was dearly honoured. 'No Sydney Opera Houses, no Taj Mahals' was a Monash watchword, but a large slab could be a landmark, as well as reasonably monumental. It could also be practical and would solve the problem of 6160 students, as well as staff, in one fell swoop. The Melbourne 'towers' were built on a tight inner city campus already built up, whilst Monash's was to rear strangely from paddocks in Clayton. But by 1960 there were signs that the 6160 might be increased by further thousands. Monash was conceived in an era of carefree independence from public transport, so that in each of Osborn McCutcheon's master plans the car parks grew larger and the buildings were squeezed into a tighter arc. As a result the notion of ëGround conservation' began to dominate Monash memos.

McCutcheon planned the Humanities building to sit beside a large central forum. This was to be angled to take in landscape at a dramatic moment (the Dandenongs). It was also planned that the building would give Monash an urban piazza and, by using modern materials, and grand urban texture, at a time when the University seemed to have a backyard and barbecue flavour. If the Humanities building was to function as a landmark, it would have to have some civic address, as well as rising above the car park and future planned buildings to the south.

This collection of roles made the building's design a matter of pluralism and simultaneity, at a time when Modern architecture was much more inclined to formal and thematic purism. Monash's agreed palette of materials was not overly helpful either. The dark manganese brick, the various aggregate concrete claddings, the cement block screens 'for variety' were acceptably cheap, appropriately technological and were thought to be low maintenance. But at this time purist modern architecture was showing itself highly dependent on richer materials for major effect. Monash sensed in part what was required and asked, with slight hesitation, that the 'Arts buildings group' be as 'efficient, beautiful and timeless as the architect can make them. In universities of all ages the truly "timeless" and memorable buildings do appear to have been designed each in the living idiom of its own generation'. (Has Monash ever produced a timeless building?)

Eggleston, McDonald and Secomb, known in the profession as 'Egglestons', were chosen as architects. Rod McDonald and Ralph Koren were the principals. The choice was logical. They were already at work on a similar humanities 'slab' at the University of Melbourne, the Redmond Barry tower. The architects' course for the Monash Humanities building had already been mapped out on McCutcheon's master plan. First McCutcheon envisaged two overlapping tower slabs of nine and eleven storeys. Then came a longer, single 'main block' of eight to fourteen storeys and finally, two twelve storey slabs, both 460 feet in length, facing each other. The last option was chosen and stayed on the master plan until the first slab was being built, in mid-1961. At that point the design changed to a T shape and the parallel slab idea was abandoned. In the end the base of the T was not built and a single slab was constructed. (The 1973-75 extension reinstated the T, but in different form). The building became a stack of floors with long connecting corridors. In one discussion paper Monash expressed concern about the corridors, saying that 'most buildings of this type which depend on very long central corridors have proved unsatisfactory'. But its desire that the ranks of humanities of fices tee 'secluded' from the noise and distractions (the teaching and concourse areas) took priority. Similarly the early Monash aim of flexibility and easy building extension, built into the science and technology areas, was not possible here. A slab like this could not take major alterations easily, though internal positions could be changed with a sledge hammer. Likewise, with one or two departments planned per floor, the early Monash aim of a fellowship of departments and faculties, linked by genuinely common rooms and other meeting points, was made practically impossible. At best the vertical stacking would make the building read like a department store and at worst it would isolate departments and faculties.

Not surprisingly, Rod McDonald recalls that Egglestons found the general idea a real problem. In retrospect, one could argue, the then unbuilt eastern ring road could have been moved one or two hundred metres westward, with the result that the sort of difficulties the site posed by forcing compression would have been markedly reduced. But McCutcheon was still wrestling with the Wellington road entry precinct, the library and the Great Hall areas, and they demanded that the site stay small.

Certainly the building suggests none of the 'fit' the sense of close response to department needs, that mark the Science and Engineering precinct. Quite a few of the humanities departments were arriving as a bloc and the gradual and lengthy involvement of say, Chemistry or Civil Engineering, that helped shape the Science and Engineering areas was not to be evident in the final grain of the new Humanities building. Indeed the architects were told not to take instruction from the individual departments then forming. There were no doubt valid points for such a request, but it still suggests a change in the culture of Monash and this would influence the buildings it would produce. A large design effort, anyway, had to go into simply organising the Vertical Transport. The predicted need, due to teaching in individual studies, was that 1600-3000 people would have to be moved in ten minutes during peak periods. The escalators in the present building often seem a strange idea, but they saved almost forty percent on the space needed for eighteen lifts, which was the other solution. Then there was the constant juggling and trading of space and facilities to satisfy the Australian Universities Commission. This, too, had adverse effects on the building's internal grain. Many details look straitened. The main stair rails are tight against the flanking lift wells, where the natural tendency in modern architecture was to have a broad separation. The lift wells themselves are fitted in too far apart. The corridors are adequate for circulation, but little more. The main lecture theatres are each in collision with two of the eighteen 'spine' columns, that run through them from the office slab overhead.

In short, there was little exceptional about the Ming Wing internally, and, given the specific determinants, that is hardly surprising. Grant Featherston furniture enlivened the interiors, and Egglestons managed foyer enrichments with stone-clad lift wells and richly stained timber. Terrazzo paving at the ground floor gave 'an added touch of luxury, with unexpected thrills in wet weather. Monash got its accommodation, and could congratulate itself on having successfully avoided anything that suggested Opera Houses and Taj Mahals. So what were the Ming Wing's accomplishments?

It was an engineering romp, literally, in what was very much an engineers' university. Bill Irwin, who had finalised the Olympic Pool and the Myer Music Bowl, oversaw this aspect and in construction the Ming Wing was a virtuoso performance. During construction there was a new floor every nine working days. The chisel-edge window mullions, in ranks like matchsticks, could be hoisted and positioned for welding in four minutes. To stiffen the building against the tonnes of wind pressure building up round its huge bulk, there were four great bulkheads as in a ship or airliner running foundation to roof, two at the east and west end walls and two each at the foyers. The bulkheads were expressed subtly at the end, with the inner bulkheads being expressed less clearly. As David Bradley has observed, what more need be said about the wind? The mullions and spandrels, the latter precast in ripple concrete, were geared to the human dimensions of the offices. The spandrel and mullion combination, with its cream and grey-green colouring, was like that of Walter Gropius's Pan Am tower in New York. This was a gigantic building that arrayed its mullions and spandrels in similarly vast numbers, reflecting Gropius's concern to balance detail on a human scale with monumentality in a structure that at a distance read like a gigantic sculpture. It was much admired at the time, but later criticised for its gigantism.

Egglestons were faced with trying to find a similar balance in the Ming Wing, between its human scale and its monumentality. At one extreme they maintained the human scale by using small windows for the offices. There were 1210 small windows on the original south side alone. Individually they showed where the offices were (or at least, that there were a huge number of them). At the other extreme the building read as a huge sculpture. Far beyond the human scale, it was indeed monumental. Egglestons realised, as Gropius had done with Pan Am, that there had to be an intermediate realm, to engage a person fifty or a hundred metres away, as well as one close up. Gropius's solution was to use open galleries at intervals up the facades.

Egglestons had two solutions. The first was to evoke traditional city buildings of grand, but resonant, scale. On its north side the shelter aisle for the main lecture theatres became both a cloister and the colonnaded loggia of a great square. St Mark's in Venice springs to mind. This looked good in the early planning stages, when the forum area was to be paved. In the event, however, it was not, and when in the mid seventies Monash landscaped the forum area, to make it rural and picturesque, this connection was lost. At its ends the Menzies building read as an Italian bell tower or urban refuge, with a medieval scale. It was most striking in the early morning, when it glowed iridescent, as the sun struck its myriad marble tiles, since removed. In early evening it stood with great drama against the green, sulphuric Clayton sky.

The second solution to the problems of scale and the need to create empathy with people approaching the building was to break open the great facade of small windows and grey-green panels. Egglestons dropped a sheer transparent curtain wall down over the twelve foyers, placing the escalators right behind the glass on the south side. This ensured a frisson-laden ascent, but more importantly set up a huge scissors pattern that claimed the centre, and drew the eye of an observer outside, away from all those office windows. This transparent area was a huge window by day and a vast lantern at night, when the escalators were a black, zigzagging silhouette. You could see people both riding up and down on them, as well as walking in the foyer. The building really was inhabited It also was animated somewhat as Konstantin Meinikov's Soviet buildings of the 1920s had been (if Mr Menzies had only known...?).

This is what made the later extensions so problematic. The first 'Towing' scheme of 1961 had a thin wing projecting to the ring road and was chamfered at its junction to maintain as much as possible of the transparent foyers. But you can see from the plans that the foyers would have been largely obscured. The Law and Education faculties, in this plan, were to be physically part of the Menzies building, spreading out from the base of the T-wing on either side. By late 1964, they had been split off, which allowed the Menzies building a few more years in its original built form. The Circular Lecture Theatres - later recast as the Rotunda - also took some pressure off the need immediately to expand the Menzies Building. But by 1973 the construction of the south wing began. It broke the slab form and completely obscured the foyers from the south side. Placed to suggest a classical portico, the south wing actually just added several hundred more windows. With its nine floors (the original slab as eleven floors) and no cornice, it looks tacked on, despite continuing the original window and spandrel detailing. It is hard to read it visually. A grand doorway at its base turns out to be a fire escape, and the main entries are now off round the side somewhere. The intermediate level of scale had gone. The internal finish never matched that of the original building. No new lifts or escalators were added to cope with the increased volume of people.

There is a proposal now to glass in the undercroft area of the south wing. This would revive a fragment of the original building's glassed central bays, perhaps its greatest asset. Something of the original life-inside-the-glass could return too, if the Manton rooms were divested of their funereal brick and an entry lounge were developed. The users of the building deserve it.