Edmund Barton Building. Harry Seidler (1973) barton-offices-feature

Modifications to the Edmund Barton building

Disturbing news report from the Sydney Morning Herald about the fitout of Harry Seidler’s heritage listed Edmund Barton building on Kings Avenue. It seems like the consultation with Seidler and Associates promised by the owners of the building, Stocklands, isn’t working out so well. The Federal Government spent over $40 million refitting Anzac Park West for the Australian Federal Police but found it was too small, so it sits empty. The AFP now plans to spend $115 million fitting out the heritage listed Edmund Barton building.

Penelope Seidler and Peter Hirst (Seidler and Associates) have written to the Parliamentary Public Works Committee seeking more information about the protection of the building’s heritage values, voicing their concern about how the proposed security measures and changes to the ground level will affect the external appearance of the building. Seidler and Associates were initially advised by Stocklands that they would cooperate to ensure that the integrity and heritage values of the building were not compromised.

Why is it important? The post-war international Edmund Barton building is one of Seidler’s most important public buildings and arguably his best non-tower office block. The contrast between rectilinear and curved forms was an important and recurring theme throughout Seidler’s career and is fundamental to the idea of this building. The open ground floor accommodates quadrant shaped glass lobbies for the three entries, while the circular cores form the corner of the building and conceal the vertical services.

We have made various suggestions on preliminary designs for this work but have not seen any drawings for some time.

— Seidler and Associates

To viewers in the offices above, the quadrant shaped conference hall expresses its theatre seating and acoustic form and the cafeteria shows its long span shell-shaped roof elements. This theme of visual tension and contrast between the rectilinear and curved elements is reinforced by the courtyard paving pattern and in the two sculptures by Norman Carlberg, one in each courtyard. A fountain had the same effect, but it was filled in some years ago and replaced by landscaping. Underpinning this is the clearly expressed resolution of the two major parts of the structural system: 22.5m I-shaped spandrel beams and 15.8m T-beams of the spanning floor systems.

The building is also a rare example of Seidler’s work in Canberra, being the most significant of the two intact Seidler office buildings here. A quick overview of Seidler’s Canberra work:

  • 12 Yapunyah Street O’Connor (1956): demolished
  • Garran Group Housing (1968): demolished in the late 1990s
  • 11 Northcote Crescent, Deakin (1951-52): extended twice, no heritage protection
  • Canberra South Bowling Club (1959): extensively modified
  • Campbell Group Housing (1964): intact, but no heritage protection
  • Ethos House (1970): intact
  • Macgregor townhouses (1980): intact
  • Lakeview townhouses in Yarralumla (1982): intact
  • The Edmund Barton building (1973): intact—for now

I think that statements being made by the AFP about the nature of the modifications (reported in the Sydney Morning Herald) are of concern.

Mr Keelty told the committee security measures would include a ‘transparent perimeter barrier’ to control pedestrian access to internal courtyards and bollards to stop unauthorised vehicles from approaching the building. Federal police executives said heritage values would be enhanced by reintroducing some of Mr Seidler’s original concepts by making the internal courtyards more welcoming for staff.

— Sydney Morning Herald

The idea that it was Seidler’s intention to close off the courtyards so as to make them more accessible for staff simply doesn’t ring true. These courtyards were designed as spaces for staff and pedestrians, with the fountain (long since filled in), works of public art, a cafeteria and a theatrette. The building bears all the hallmarks of a Seidler building—maximizing public open space at the ground floor. The sculptures and the buildings in the courtyard are positioned to control the open areas and make them more intelligible to the pedestrian as well as office workers who look down into the courtyards from the windows above. Closing this courtyard off to the public contradicts this aim and will not enhance the heritage values of the building.

A related concern, but thus far not mentioned, is future public access to the works of art. Closing the area off for security reasons and restricting access will deprive the city of two important works of public art by Norman Carlberg, the internationally acclaimed American sculptor who worked in the modular constructivist style and studied under Joseph Albers at Yale in the late 1950s. Black Widow is the free standing black painted steel form standing 4.8m high in the west courtyard. Concrete Form is the 7.3m high precast concrete sculpture in the east courtyard. These two important works were installed in 1975.

While unrestricted access to public art can be a grey area when such works are located inside commercial buildings and schools, for example, I would be interested to see some kind of statement about how these sculptures will remain accessible to the public once and if these alterations are made.