ICI House, East Melbourne


Today, ICI House (now Orica House) appears as a modest high-rise city building. However, at the time of its opening in 1958, it was a ground-breaking project for Australia, utilising the latest in technology and workplace thinking. The experiences of World War II construction and the desire to shape a new post-war future were to have a profound impact on the architectural approach to building. ICI House introduced a new modernity to office design in Melbourne, becoming the city’s first skyscraper and the tallest building in Australia.

ICI House was the headquarters of the British company, Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand (ICIANZ). Architecture firm Bates, Smart & McCutcheon (BSM) was engaged, in 1952, to design the building, and was well-placed to produce a bold and modern design. Osborn McCutcheon, director of BSM since 1926, had turned the long-established firm into an award-winning design practice in the 1930s with an unprecedent three RVIA medals. With the onset of war, McCutcheon was appointed Chief Architect for the US Army Corps of Engineers, South West Pacific Area (as well as Deputy Chairman of the Commonwealth War Workers’ Housing Trust) and with a dedicated team of architects and engineers he produced hundreds of designs for military infrastructure across Australia. Following the war, he invited two colleagues from the Corps of Engineers to join him as partners of BSM, Douglas Gardiner and Phillip Pearce. This new leadership team’s exposure during the war to rapid, systemised, modular prefabricated methods, in tandem with the detailed use of written specifications, was to have a profound impact on the approach to BSM’s post-war projects.

A black and white photograph of four men in suits sanding around a model of a skyscraper. In the foreground is a table covered in architectural drawings. Architect Sir Osborn McCutcheon, second from right, with a model of ICI House. Source: Bates Smart. A colour photograph of a glass skyscraper. There are several trees in the foreground showing the enormous scale of the building. ICI House, 1958, by Wolfgang Sievers. Source: National Library of Australia.

In their article “Invention from war: a circumstantial modernism for Australian architecture” in The Journal of Architecture, architectural historians Philip Goad and Julie Willis further illustrate this transformation of the BSM practice:

McCutcheon introduced the notion of teams of specialists within a multidisciplinary office (unique at the time). He was an advocate of integrated thinking and integrated systems. There were seven departments: architects; structural engineers; services; estimating; interior design; accounting; and general clerical and filing. He had, in effect, recast his Melbourne office as the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Technically, the building incorporated a range of innovative solutions. Victoria in 1952 was just emerging from a period of material and labour shortages, and there was a strong desire to use the latest in prefabricated, modularised and systemised-based construction. Perhaps the building’s most notable characteristic was its lightweight glass “curtain wall” facade. As the tower rose above the surrounding cityscape, breaking through the 132ft (40m) height limit prescribed by Victorian regulations at the time, it became known as the “Glass House”.

A black and white photograph of an entrance to a modernist building. To the left of the doorway is a modern style steel fountain that is an abstract circular shape. Landscaping at ICI House, by Wolfgang Sievers. Source: Bates Smart.

Due to its independent structural steel frame, the facade was not load-bearing, so glass could be used the full length of all elevations, like a curtain. The continuous north and south ribbon windows allowed the interior to be flooded with natural light, a radical transformation from the small punched windows of traditional masonry buildings. Mass-produced curtain walls relied on the technological advancements made during the war in both aluminium production and cold setting rubbers which allowed glass and metal to be bonded to weatherproof a building. Another technological innovation was the use of prefabricated and dry construction techniques to allow for speed of assembly, an approach used extensively in remote areas during the war. Fire-proofing of the steel frame and flooring was achieved from a range of innovative precast concrete units, which removed the use of wet concrete on-site. Dry trades allowed for the simultaneous interior fit-out to occur at lower levels without the risk of wet cement or wash downs spilling down from above. In tandem, a military-like schedule of trades and crane lifting times was carefully planned to maintain a strict and ultra-efficient sequence of construction. View film of the construction of ICI House.

A black and white photograph looking down a marble staircase. The marble of the floor and staircase is designed in a minimalist pattern of contrasting shades. Next to the staircase is a window and a small manicured garden can be seen on the other side. Detail of stair and landscaping, ICI House. Source: Bates Smart.

In tandem with the “machine-like” approach to construction, modernism sought to create a healing and human-centric connection to nature and an egalitarian approach to society. The design of the new headquarters captured these ideas, a building flooded with the sun’s natural light, surrounded by landscape and air. The top floor of the 19-storey building was the staff cafeteria providing a full lunch for 400 people per sitting, and placing the workers above the executives who were located on the floor below. The rooftop promenade allowed staff to enjoy fresh air and unparalleled views of Melbourne. A games room was provided in the basement for recreation, a nurses’ station for wellbeing and a 100-person theatrette on the ground floor for education.

A colour photograph of a large cafeteria made up of numerous sets of tables, each surrounded by four chairs. Cafeteria at ICI House, 1958, by Wolfgang Sievers. Source: National Library of Australia.

The building occupied only 41% of its site, allowing the rest of the ground plane to be dedicated to landscaping, fountains, a pond, and artwork. Planting was integrated across all floors, surrounding staff with nature whether it be internal or through the uninterrupted views of surrounding gardens. Open stairs connected floors, allowing for ease of inter-floor movement, while generous banks of lifts ensured that staff could seamlessly move throughout the building. Air conditioning, to match best overseas practice, provided workers with improved comfort and stable internal conditions, while a basement car park removed cars from the streetscape.

A black and white photograph of a man and woman sitting at an office desk next to a large glass window. Through the window is a park and the top of the dome of the Melbourne Royal Exhibition Building can be seen in the distance. Office interior at ICI House overlooking Carlton Gardens. Source: Bates Smart.

ICI House represented a holistic approach to many of the ideas of modernism and the “machine age”, with its use of latest technology and connection to nature and sun, just as society was entering the “atomic age”. Urban historian Graeme Davison observes in City Dreamers, “in one bold leap, Melbourne threw off its Victorian dowdiness and became the most self-consciously modern Australian city”.

In 1989, sympathetic alterations were made to ICI House under the direction of the original architects, and in 2005 the building was included in Australia’s National Heritage List.

Located on traditionally owned Aboriginal lands.