The Manchester Unity Building – Owners fear Metro Tunnel risks


The Manchester Unity Building, an iconic Melbourne landmark located on the North West corner of Swanston and Collins St is considered to be ‘at risk’ by its owners corporation, from the tunneling works in Swanston St for the new Metro Tunnel.

The fragile facade of the tower is ‘at risk’ from the tunnelling but the danger is being overlooked says Kia Pajouhesh, Chairman of the Manchester’s owners corporation.


But first let’s get some perspective here. The Manchester Unity Building, located opposite the Melbourne Town Hall was constructed in 1932. The site had been purchased in 1928, but the onset of the Great Depression meant construction was initially delayed.

Architect Marcus Barlow designed the building which was duly constructed by W.E. Cooper Pty Ltd reputedly for a contract price of £215,000.


The building was constructed to a very tight construction schedule, using tracking methods for the first time in Australia. The build was completed in record time and the first section was opened to the public for shopping on the 1st of September 1932.

A grand opening celebrating the formal declaration of the building’s completion, featuring lights illuminating its tower and spine occurred on the 12th of December 1932.

The building is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. In its ‘Statement of Significance’ it is described as a ‘modern commercial gothic style’

Statement of Significance


The Manchester Unity Building was built in 1932 by Walter Cooper Pty Ltd. It was designed by the architect Marcus R Barlow to meet the corporate needs of the Manchester Unity Group, a friendly society with 28,000 members in 1932. The twelve storey building, located prominently on the corner of Collins Street and Swanston Street, has a concrete encased steel structure and is clad with moulded terra cotta faience. The overall effect is one of a modern commercial Gothic style. The structure is crowned with a corner tower of soaring, diminishing buttresses in a style presumed to be inspired by the Chicago Tribune Building, which received worldwide publicity when built in 1927.

Within twelve months of commencement of work the Manchester Unity building was officially opened by the Premier of Victoria. By early May 1932 the sub-basement, basement and ground floors were ready for shopfitters and other finishing trades to move in. The remaining floors were added at the rate of one a week, and by late July 1932 the roof was laid and work started on the tower. Newspapers carried regular reports on the progress of the building, and a trip to the city to watch construction was a regular event for many Melbournians.

440The Manchester Unity building was the first in Victoria to have escalators. These provided access to the basement and the first floor directly from the main arcade entrance at Swanston Street. It was also one of the first Victorian buildings with automatic cooling, and rubbish and postal chutes on every floor. Australia’s largest diesel generator, located in the sub-basement, provided an emergency power supply. Of the original lifts, two of the three have been converted to automatic operation but the beautiful inlaid timber and panelled interiors to the lift cars have been retained.
The exterior facade is clad in biscuit coloured terra cotta faience. The faience is intricately moulded to produce continuous narrow columns and shafts rising up the facade, serving to emphasise the verticality of the building. The bulk of the building extends to 40.2metres, which was the height limit for central Melbourne at the time. Prominence is given to the corner by the tower, which soars above the main bulk. Towers were permitted to break the city’s height limit as long as they did not contain occupiable rooms.


Internally there is extensive use of various Australian marbles as cladding to the walls. The ground floor lobby ceiling and cornices have high-relief depictions of Aboriginals, Australian flora and fauna as well as transport, building and primary industries. Cornice plaster panels in the corridors of all the floors carry depictions of the friendly society’s role in welfare provision.

Located on the eleventh floor are the former offices and boardroom of Manchester Unity. They walls are decorated with sliced timber veneer panelling. The boardroom table was constructed in situ and is nearly six metres long. The top is finished with a rosewood veneer and rosewood inlay border, and a moulded and carved edge. Twelve monogrammed leather chairs also survive. It is likely that the table and chairs were also designed by Marcus Barlow’s office, part of the total design of the building.


How is it significant?

The Manchester Unity Building is of architectural, historical, social, aesthetic and technical significance to the State of Victoria.

437Why is it significant?

The Manchester Unity Building is architecturally significant as one of the tallest building in Melbourne when it was completed in 1932. The architectural styling, with its soaring vertical emphasis, was a daring break from the conservative palazzo architecture of the 1920s, which was typified by large and dominant cornices. The styling was complemented by the fashionable cladding material of glazed terra cotta faience. The modern commercial Gothic style of the Manchester Unity Building stands in contrast to the ecclesiastical Gothic of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. The building is architecturally significant as the greatest achievement of noted architect Marcus Barlow.

The Manchester Unity Building is historically significant as the initiative that convinced Melbournians that the building slump caused by the Depression was almost over, such was the grand scale of the project and the speed at which building progressed. The fast building programme was controlled by the use of a works progress schedule, an innovation to the local building industry at the time.
The Manchester Unity Building is socially significant as a landmark in both positioning and scale. It challenges, for scale and presence, the Melbourne Town Hall located opposite.


The Manchester Unity Building is technically significant for the surviving original Otis-Waygood escalator between the ground floor lobby and mezzanine. The Manchester Unity Building was the first in Victoria to have escalators installed.

The Manchester Unity Building is aesthetically significant for its intact interiors. The intricate plaster panel cornices and ceilings, the use of marble, and the inlays to the lift cars and sliced timber veneers in the boardroom all display a high standard of artistic workmanship that is without par for a building of this period. The boardroom table and chairs are historically and aesthetically significant. The survival of a boardroom table of this scale and grandeur from this period, complete with chairs, is unusual in Victoria. They formed part of the total design for the building.


The potential risk of damage to this building calls into question the difficult but necessary juxtaposition of development and preservation. It would appear that the building’s owners believe that not enough research or examination of potential damage to the building has been undertaken by the Authority charged with constructing the tunnel – the Cross Yarra Partnership, nor has it perhaps done enough due diligence on such risks to historic buildings – Manchester Unity, the Town Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral.

For a more rounded picture please read the article here reprinted from the Age Newspaper, April 12 2018.

Manchester Unity building warns of Metro Tunnel damage

Melbourne gothic landmark the Manchester Unity Building is at risk of cracking from tunnelling for the Metro Tunnel, its owners fear.

The fragile facade of the tower is at risk of cracking from the tunnelling, but the danger is being overlooked, says Kia Pajouhesh, chairman of the Manchester’s owners corporation.

The soaring Art Deco building on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets, built in 1932, is renowned for its narrow columns, glass walls and terracotta tiles.


The Manchester Unity Building on Swanston Street

Dr Pajouhesh has accused the authority and the consortium overseeing the project, the Cross Yarra Partnership, of failing to properly assess the building’s capacity to cope with vibrations caused by tunnelling under Swanston Street.

A one-hour property inspection was done on the building in February last year, but the assessment was “substantially deficient”, Dr Pajouhesh claims in a scathing eight-page letter sent to the authority.

“We are at a loss to understand the basis behind the decision to use land under the [Manchester] without this critical information,” he wrote.

Dr Pajouhesh is the owner of Smile Solutions, which occupies six levels of the building.

“This conduct leaves us with no confidence that the consortium has at heart the interests of the custodians of one of Melbourne’s most prized heritage assets.”


The 1932 building is one of Melbourne’s most beloved.

It comes amid revelations that five hairline cracks have emerged on the Westin building as a result of the early works at the City Square construction site.

A spokesman for the authority said the cracks in the building’s plasterboard were superficial, would not pose any structural risk, and would be rectified.

The Metro Tunnel project will provide much-needed extra capacity on the city’s rail network by allowing more trains to run through the city, outside of the City Loop. Once complete, the project will include five new stations and a nine-kilometre tunnel connecting the Cranbourne-Pakenham and Sunbury lines.

ad2ddc53bd65504e0bd52a527f836bc9edc9cf33Work is already under way to build the underground Town Hall station at City Square, but tunnelling under Swanston Street will not begin until next year.

The Town Hall station has recently been re-designed to make it larger and more spacious, and that will require more land.

The new designs indicate that tunnelling will occur closer to the Manchester building.

The consortium has already warned that St Paul’s Cathedral and Town Hall may have some superficial cracking, but their risk assessment did not include the Manchester building.

“[The Manchester] is much closer to the project’s CBD south station site than both St Paul’s cathedral and the Melbourne Town Hall,” Dr Pajouhesh says.

He also warns that “the grout between the tiles, which contains asbestos, is prone to failure.”

Dr Pajouhesh’s letter was sent on Tuesday this week, just as Melbourne University warned that the $11 billion underground rail project could damage equipment and facilities in the Parkville Biomedical Precinct.

The university’s chief financial officer Allan Tait said he was concerned that vibrations from tunnelling, and electromagnetic interference caused by trains running through the underground station, would “render critical research equipment inoperable”.

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre has also warned that radiotherapy treatment machines may be affected by vibrations.

The Metro Tunnel spokesman said the authority had been engaging with the owners of the Manchester building since 2015.

He said two property condition surveys were carried out for the building in February this year and a comprehensive condition survey would be done before tunnelling began.

“The project has some of the world’s best engineers and tunnelling experts working through these challenges,” he said.

A government spokesperson said the building owners’ concerns were “the types of issues that are routinely managed on similar tunnel projects in busy cities around the world”.


These are quite serious matters. Note that the grout used on the Manchester Unity Building securing the external tiles contains Asbestos.

It would be appropriate that the Engineers responsible for the tunnel, its excavations and its infrastructure do more than pay lip service to heritage values.

Recently, the Cross Yarra Partnership facilitated the removal of many heritage listed trees on St Kilda Rd and Albert St in preparation for the Anzac Station excavation. It was said these trees could not be moved as there would be too much disturbance of underground services. Somewhat surprising in that the proposed excavation is to be ‘six stories deep’ – and action that surely may ‘disturb underground services’.

Melbourne has some wonderful historic heritage treasures. This soaring Art Deco building – the Manchester Unity Building, the grand old Melbourne Town Hall and St Paul’s Cathedral are just the most obvious of many buildings possibly subject to damage with construction of the new Metro Tunnel. And at this stage it is certainly not too late to put in place remedial research and provisional works to protect these heritage treasures.

Progress and development don’t necessarily require wholesale destruction. It is a bold and exciting project (the Metro Tunnel). But let’s at least ensure the protection of our city’s icons for future generations. It’s really time for action and re-assurance.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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