In last week’s discussion of “Snowy To Point Zero” we said: “It is worth recalling (that one) impact of the original Snowy Mountain Scheme was… the workers … developed trades and skills that influenced construction (and thus made) Australia a concrete nation”. Some challenged us for proof (their emphasis). Here’s some evidence.

Migrant workers for the Snowy Mountains Scheme mostly came from Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary and Scandinavia. They were escaping war-ravaged Europe, seeking a new life in the new world. Many were skilled masons, carpenters and labourers and they needed to be housed in the undeveloped bush.

One of the first contracts in 1951 was for 200 houses at Cabramurra, and the SMS engaged a young Dutch project manager, Gerardus Jozef Dusseldorp, to build them. Dusseldorp, known from birth as Dik or Dick, arrived with 35 trained employees for a contract of £10 000. No ordinary manager of construction and men, Dusseldorp was highly skilled, articulate and collegiate in style. Having built the houses (many now destroyed in the latest bushfires) he could soon see much bigger opportunities.

In 1953, he moved to Sydney and formed Civil and Civic, a construction firm with his ambitions in the title: not to build small houses that many, such as Albert Victor Jennings, were concentrating on, but to focus on the larger civil projects and civic buildings. His first building was the North Shore Medical Centre (NSMC), designed by Dr Heinrich (Henry) Epstein; an Internationalist-style, rectilinear modernist building of eight storeys, ordered in plan and section, in concrete column and slab.

Epstein’s assured hand can be seen in the proportioning of ribbon windows with sun-breaking louvres on the two long sides and solid variegated brickwork on the ends. Dusseldorp was equal to the task of producing the robust and crisp detailing required by the design. Civil and Civic was successful in building several similar scaled buildings, notably Caltex House and its own HQ Lend Lease House at Circular Quay, (both now demolished) with its sun louvres arranged against the western sun.

Civil and Civic’s big break came when they won the contract to build Stage 1 (the base) of the Sydney Opera House. This included the curving wide-span precast beams at the entry and the precast panels of exposed aggregate in sandstone colours. None of this would been be possible in the early 1960’s without the civil engineering skills developed in the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Dusseldorp could see that the system that is now called the ‘building procurement process’ was lumpy, dis-organised and separated into silos of unrelated disciplines. He wanted to create a different management structure, to control the whole process. To gain the level of control needed, he formed a company to finance the projects. Again, he gave it a name to suggest its intent: Lend Lease. With no small ambition, the first major project was to change the way office towers were built in Australia.

When the Sydney CBD height limit of 150 feet was lifted in 1957, and a boom in business demanded office towers, most of Australia followed the US model of steel frames and curtain walls. The earliest Australian skyscrapers, such as MLC North Sydney in (1955; Bates Smart & McCutcheon) – now under threat of demolition, ICI House Melbourne in (1958; Bates Smart & McCutcheon), Unilever House Sydney in (1957; Stephenson & Turner, now demolished), and the AMP tower Sydney in (1962; Peddle Thorp & Walker) had steel frames and curtain walls, as elegantly detailed as any rival in the US.

By 1963 Dusseldorp had purchased a number of small buildings and sites between George and Pitt Streets in the heart of downtown Sydney. The aim was to build a ‘city block’ project, a smaller version of the Rockefeller Centre in New York, with two differently formed buildings rising from a public plaza.

In keeping with Dusseldorp’s philosophy of ‘collegiate inclusion’, everyone who would play a role in the project: architects, engineers, consultants, contractors and unions were all to work together. At the first meeting he said: ‘The complexity of modern construction projects is increasing very rapidly, for which there is only one answer. Teamwork… Nothing short of organized teamwork – from decision to build to the handing over of the completed project – will solve the problem’.

It was entirely different to the usual hierarchical organisation on most building projects. Dusseldorp had seen these conflicts firsthand, had negotiated the issues with his characteristic verve and charm, and had no desire to continue in that old oppositional way.

The architect for Australia Square was Harry Seidler, whom Dusseldorp had met when he approached Civil and Civic to build his brother Marcell’s first apartment building in Ithaca Road, Elizabeth Bay. Dusseldorp rebuffed them, saying the apartment layouts were poor, weren’t appropriate and wouldn’t sell, but he was subsequently impressed when Seidler returned shortly thereafter with better plans.

Australia Square’s shorter rectilinear slab building on Pitt Street was built first to ensure a return on funds and to meet Dusseldorp’s emphasis on speed. Many times he had seen delays on projects, often caused by union-management fights, cause cost blowouts that could ruin a project, and also a fledgling development business. After meeting the time and budget constraints on the smaller building came the tower, round and 50 storeys, with a public plaza at the base and a rotatirestaurant at the top.

Australia Square used innovative construction techniques that derived from the Snowy Mountains experience. The complex structural beams were resolved by Italian Pier Luigi Nervi – the foremost engineer at that time. Nervi and Seidler designed the exposed concrete web in the double-height foyer space, creating the largest private space in Sydney at the time.

The columns, which taper towards the top, were factory made as hollow pre-cast concrete panels with the exterior washed away to show white aggregate; used as permanent formwork they were filled with concrete on site to make a continuous column, with the uniform exposed aggregate providing a high-quality external finish.

Migrant workers for the Snowy Mountains Scheme mostly came from Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary and Scandinavia. They were escaping war-ravaged Europe, seeking a new life in the new world. Many were skilled masons, carpenters and labourers and they needed to be housed in the undeveloped bush.

Australia Square set the approach for most of the office towers for the next 30 years, concrete-framed building with precast or cast in-situ concrete exteriors and ribbon or ‘punched’ windows, recessed into the frame, providing shade from Sydney’s bright sun. The style is unclad, raw and brutal, in contradistinction to the prevailing ‘curtain wall of sheer glass that was prevalent elsewhere in the world.

Seidler remained the chief consultant architect to Lend Lease for 40 years, designing their key buildings in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Even when Seidler designed towers for other clients, such as Grosvenor Place in Sydney, they were built in the same way.

Almost all the towers built in Sydney after Australia Square were concrete, both frame and exterior. Sydney Water Board HQ (1965; McConnel Smith & Johnson), Sydney University Law School (1969; McConnel Smith & Johnson), Qantas Centre (1970; Joseland & Gilling), the MLC Centre (1978; Harry Seidler), King George Tower (1976; John Andrews International) – all were wholly or mostly concrete, in-situ and precast. Even the occasional steel-framed building, such as Norwich House in Bligh St (1970; Stephenson & Turner), was still clad in precast washed aggregate concrete panels to look like a typical Sydney ‘concrete’ building. Sydney’s CBD had the most consistent set of buff-white/yellow-cream concrete-framed and clad buildings in the world.

This form of ‘build-once’ concrete construction, originally intended as a speedy approach for a culture in a hurry, moved from cost-conscious towers to public buildings such as the city’s Masonic Centre (1974, Joseland and Gilling) and the Dee Why Library and Civic Centre (1966 and 1973, Edwards Madigan Torzillo and Briggs) who created in Canberra two of our greatest public buildings: the Australian National Gallery (now NGA) (1970-1984) and The High Court of Australia (1972-1980). Our best ‘build-once’ concrete.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme remains the largest civil engineering project in Australia’s history. Both the Labor and Liberal parties increased the migrant intake to provide workers, especially with skills in large-scale civil-engineering construction, particularly in concrete. The SMS transformed Australian built culture, bringing expertise through two threads: the reliance on immigrant workers, and their skill in concrete.

Some of this material was previously published in The Other Moderns, ed Rebecca Hawcroft, NewSouth 2017 (Chapter 10 by Tone Wheeler), and is drawn from Lindie Clark, Finding a Common Interest: The story of Dick Dusseldorp and Lend Lease, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002 and Mary Murphy, Challenges of Change, the Lend Lease Story, The Lend Lease Group of Companies, 1984

plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact +one at [email protected].