Shell House: a response to heritage

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Melbourne is a city that lives and breathes heritage, we have a lot of it but in regards to the age of it it’s certainly by no means a lengthy history for what is considered built heritage. This leads to a somewhat unique musing of what we consider to be heritage and what is worthy of protection for the future regardless of its status or perceived significance at the time of assessment. Shell House is one such building under going a re-assessment of sorts of its heritage value. Designed by Harry Seidler and constructed in 1989, the building which stands at the south eastern corner of Melbourne city is currently in debate as to whether it’s north facing plaza is worthy of retaining its current heritage listing. The plaza was classed as significant by the Heritage Council of Victoria and has been since 2017 when the building and entire site was added to the Victorian Heritage Register.

Sculptural in form, Shell House curves and sweeps around the corner of the city block of which it takes up, seemingly in constant movement. The facades of the tower itself clad with precast formed concrete whilst the lower levels of its two apposing plazas apply the very 1980s approach of glazed granite. Sculpture in a more literal sense encourages you to explore the space at ground level where stands the twisted bronze steel work Shell Mace by American Sculptor Charles Perry. Inside the foyer overhead on the facing wall is a large ceramic mural depicting Arthur Boyd’s work Bathers and Pulpit Rock from his Shoalhaven River series. The rear plaza is stepped over two visible levels, the space here speaks for itself in all its late modernist glory. The lower area disappears under the tower into a separated theatrette, although an external staircase leading up to the rear side of the tower has been inaccessible to the public since it was constructed. The space here is one of a subjective nature, the way and light it’s viewed within depends on the viewer and the ability to see what Seidler was trying to achieve with the space. To understand it, first it’s best to understand the modernist mindset of architects of the period when it comes to the layout of space within a city environment and how a tower interacts with the street at ground level, space is best utilised as just that, space. Cities are overly crowded, we need space to breathe, to stop and ponder, an urban rest stop to break from the foot traffic of which we get lost within. Modernist office blocks were a turning point for office spaces in cities, the undercroft was usually free flowing forms of which you cascaded levels to enter the building. Sculpture, fountains and plantings took pride of place to break up the monotonous jungles of concrete, rarely would a well designed tower simply have a doorway entrance from the foot path, there was a theatre to the way they were to be entered.

The need to pack more and more into a city’s environment leads to less of these open civic spaces, at least in the modern world. Such was the forward thinking mindset of architects like Harry Seidler in way of understanding that these concrete environments were never going to be anything but, and the human need to have everything in one space leads to no space, at least no open space as anything more than big enough to fit some sort of construction in is viewed only as real estate in the sky, little consideration is given to any volume of area at ground level save for use as entry to the floors above, or so this was the case for a number of decades. Modern tower constructions of the current times at the very least try to address this with ground level plazas fitted out with cafes, thought to layout and outdoor seating such as the case with recent additions to the Hoddle Grid in Collins Arch and the RMIT Winter Garden providing good examples.

The plan for a second tower to be built on the site at Shell House encompassing the rear plaza attempts to provide an open modern space at ground level whist utilising the open space above. In doing this the original plaza, Seidler’s vision for Shell House as a flowing modernist office block and the view of the northern aspect of the tower would be lost indefinitely, putting not only the remaining tower of Shell House but also every heritage listing that exists at risk. If we can so easily apply to overturn a heritage listing, what’s stopping it from happening over again from that point on.

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Matt.

2 thoughts on “Shell House: a response to heritage

  1. While I’ve never seen the interior of Shell House, the building itself jars me as an abrupt highrise on the corner of CBD perimeter streets. I would happy to see it demolished and something shorter and if it has to be, a bit bulkier. It would be a softer and nicer introduction to the city from the east.

    1. I also have never seen the interior save for a couple of online images. They actually guard it pretty well as far as photography goes (I got asked to leave three times whilst taking photos for this story) but I have to say I disagree personally. The tower itself I believe is pretty safe from demolition but I can absolutely see where you’re coming from, the building has a large south easterly facing facade that does take up quite a large area and from what I’ve seen whilst researching, you certainly aren’t the only person who feels that way.

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