MLC Building turns 50: Keith sees how it has stood the test of time in the Adelaide City region of South Australia
Look at Adelaide's city skyline today and it's difficult to imaging that fifty years ago the building on the corner of Franklin Street and Victoria Square was the tallest.
But in 1957, the MLC building wasn't just our first glass tower - it was way ahead of anything built in Australia. So many modern towers have gone up since that you probably don't even give this pioneer a second look.
But stop and think for a moment - half a century ago Adelaide was still dominated by solid, imposing traditional buildings. Then along comes this new funny coloured sci-fi building apparently made of glass!
"In 1957 (the building) was unprecedented in terms of its appearance," explained Conservation Architect with the Department of Environment and Heritage, Paul Stark. "It was quite a significant departure from similar corporate buildings that existed pre-war in the way it stretched the building rules and the building industry."
Paul Stark reckons the building deserves to be recognised as the trailblazer it really was. "The architects were deliberately after a meccano type building that could be bolted together simply to reduce the number of wet trades on site and increase the certainty of building the thing and limiting the construction time and therefore costs."
That meant the old Windsor Castle Hotel on the corner of Victoria Square and Franklin Street made way for a state of the art building worthy of the Mutual Life and Citizens' Assurance Company's position of 'stability and strength'.
Like MLC's other buildings around Australia, it was designed by Melbourne architects, Bates Smart and McCutcheon. And their brief for the SA headquarters in Victoria Square was a challenge: Build Australia's first truly modern office tower using prefabrication technology - that meant light steel framing, curtain walling, integrated air conditioning and utilities and open plan floor space - everything we take for granted these days.
"The MLC building was the first time in Australia that it was done successfully," said Paul. "Even the idea of using aluminium and glass. The glass still had to come from England and there were 11-thousand square feet of glass used in the building. So in terms of a jewel like crystal-lined box it was an abstraction - quite unlike anything else. It is a compete turnaround where the structure is on the inside and the glazing provides the skin."
That aluminium and glass skin cladding hanging on the outside - the so-called 'curtain wall', was way beyond the building regulations of the day. So, not only did they have to prove the project could be put up, they also had to prove it was safe and that it would stay up!
Even if you can't recall the grand opening by Premier, Sir Thomas Playford (The evening paper published a 12-page supplement to mark the occasion), you will surely remember this modern edifice for something else... the Weather Beacon.
Linked to the bureau, the lights of the beacon could be seen far and wide - after all it was on the city's tallest building. Adelaidians were content in the knowledge that a reassuring forecast of weather conditions was a mere glance away...
"If the lights on the weather beacon were calm and showing white you knew it was the long lazy days of summer - perhaps cricket at the oval or a trip down the beach. If the lights were flashing red you knew that something like Armageddon was coming in terms of change!" laughed Paul.
So next time you are in Victoria Square have a good look across at what was the MLC building when it opened exactly 50 years ago. And the brochure said 'the beauty of our structure with its pale green, purple and silver holds and delights the eye from every quarter'.
Thanks to the State Govt. Heritage people for the detail and the Council's City Archives. As is often they cam up with a lot of the wonderful pictures of the construction. If you have any further questions please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Adelaide City Archives
Open Monday-Friday 8:45 am- 5:00 pm
Published 1st July 2007