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History of the Sydney Building

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Columnist for The Canberra Times

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The Sydney Building. Photo: Mildenhall Collection, National Archives of Australia

The Sydney Building. Photo: Mildenhall Collection, National Archives of Australia

If watching from Heaven the great Australian architect Sir John Sulman (1849-1934) will be grieving over the way in which fire has severely damaged his Sydney Building in Civic.

The Sydney Building and its companion Melbourne Building (the latter very badly damaged by fire in April 1953) were imagined and designed by him in the early 1920s at a time when he seems to have been having a Florentine phase. His design drawings (John Hunter Kirkpatrick went on to develop the designs) of arcaded loggias were derived, the Register of Significant Twentieth Cen-tury Architecture says, "from Brunelleschi's Foundling Hospital in Florence - First ...Brunelleschi's Foundling Hospital and the cloisters of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence".

Yes, with just a little Googling Canberrans can look at the Renaissance masterpiece of the elegant Foundling Hospital and will notice at once that this marvellous 1420s building is a parent of the 1920s' Sydney and Melbourne Buildings.

Although Sulman (who from 1921 to 1924 had been chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee) had his Florentine vision of the buildings in perhaps 1923, they were erected between 1926 and 1927 and then between 1941 and 1946. Excavations for both buildings began in August 1926.

These spasms of building came about because even though Sulman had imagined his designed buildings being built in one go, and completely, by the Australia government, something very different came to pass. What helps make the buildings so historically significant, the Register explains, is that they are the first buildings in Canberra constructed by private enterprise.

To Sulman's distress, Federal Cabinet decided in 1924 that each enterprise that wanted to get under the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings' distinctive Roman-tiled roofs would have to build their premises themselves, abiding by the overall design. And so the two buildings emerged as a series of businesses, each sharing a party wall with its neighbour.

But what distinctive buildings eventuated, although quite why Sulman wanted something Florentine in the new city is not quite clear (and by the way - historian Jim Gibbney in his Can-berra 1913-1953 complicates things by saying instead that Sulman's idea for the Sydney Building was "based on London's Regent Street and the Rue de Rivoli in Paris").

But Sulman's vision has given us, the Re-gister, describes, striking buildings that "combine a pitched Roman tiled roof and are embellished with cast roundels, shields and and consoles on the arcaded facades".

In spite of the tragedy of Monday's fire we should take heart from the way in which today's Melbourne Building, repaired and restored, shows no scars from the fire of 1953. It was the worst fire that Canberra had yet seen and it gutted the Florentine-looking icon, but today it is back to its Brunelleschi-inspired best.

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