State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


Interior of Domed Reading Room, showing men standing on a portable scaffold, suspended from the ceiling, to enable repairs to be made to the glass skylights, ca. 1918. Gelatin silver photograph. H36621. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Argus photograph of men repairing roof. 1959. Black and white photograph. Les Smith [compiler] album. H2003/67-10. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Workman on lantern. Black and white photograph. 1959. Bob Milton [compiler] album. H2003/77-16. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Noel Belcher, photographer. Copper being unrolled onto Dome. May 1959. Colour slide. H2003.77/7. La Trobe Picture Collection. Noel Belcher was an architect with the Public Works Department.


The State Library: The Challenge of Redevelopment

CHALLENGES? What challenges? For us at Ancher Mortlock & Woolley the challenges in refurbishing the State Library's Domed Reading Room may not have been as controversial as the glazed shards at Federation Square — we simply reinstated the skylights — nor as evocative as the twisted and knotted forms of the National Museum of Australia — we simply disrobed and reclad the matronly forms of the domed roof — but the impact of the work in the Domed Reading Room, we believe, is no less dramatic and architecturally significant.
The challenges for our practice have come less from the process of bringing to reality bold architectural forms, but more so in maintaining a Masterplan vision, and the highest standards in design quality over an extended period of time.
Ancher Mortlock & Woolley won a national competition between nine selected firms in 1986, for a project that combined the existing Victorian State Library with the Museum of Victoria on the Queen Victoria Women's Hospital site. But subsequently the Government decided to sell the Queen Vic site, the Museum project was moved elsewhere and the scope of our project was reduced to the confines of the current city block. At this time, in 1989, it was envisaged that the State Library Redevelopment project would be completed in five stages over a minimum period of seven years. However, it has involved many more stages and, when due to be finished by the end of 2005, will have taken over 15 years to complete. In the time to date, the project has seen four changes of State Librarian and three State Governments. While I remember working as a young architect on the site-plan drawing for our competition entry, I have been involved initially as the project architect and now as director in charge, leading the design and documentation team from our Sydney office, for some twelve years and many thousands of frequent flyer points. If it is any consolation to Ken Woolley and myself, this tenure on a Library project is perhaps only rivalled by the architect for the British Library, who was commissioned on that project for over thirty five years.
A domed building has always been the centrepiece of the State Library's Masterplan. In the first such illustrated plan for the whole site, a drawing prepared in 1860, a tall central dome was shown, located on the site of the present McCoy Hall. But, perhaps as a portent to future trends, this master plan was changed, and by 1906 a new octagonal Library building with a domed roof was planned in place of the Rotunda and Exhibition Hall. This Domed Reading Room building was subsequently completed and opened to the public in 1913.
In our own, first Masterplan for the site, the winning competition entry, the Domed Reading Room gave rise to the primary architectural concept of the scheme. This proposed a new glazed skylight to a podium on the Queen Vic site, which was conceived as a dish-shaped inversion of the domed roof. Since this time, the architectural presence of the Domed Reading Room building has always been a major focus of our attention, just as it was in the original Masterplan scheme. The challenge
for us has been to assume the ongoing responsibility of the previous generations and maintain the overall planning principles, as the custodians of the State Library's Masterplan vision.
The Domed Reading Room refurbishment typifies our architectural design work and the challenges presented within the heritage context of the project. The State Library buildings are included on the registers of the National Estate and Government Buildings, with the Domed Reading Room interior, including its original furnishings and light fittings, noted of national significance. Its heritage conservation was required to be undertaken in accordance with the provisions of the Burra Charter. While the scope of the work required to meet these requirements seemed straightforward enough, the challenges in the Reading Room arose from the demands of meeting the Library's brief for the adaptive reuse of the Annulus spaces; the inclusion of new elements and technological services; the replacement of unsound surface finishes; and the reinstatement of the skylights.
The Library's brief to change the usage of the Dome Annulus on its upper levels, from closed access book-stack storage to public-exhibition spaces, necessitated the introduction of significant new architectural elements and extensive consultation with Heritage Victoria and Allom Lovell & Associates, the heritage architects. For the first time in its history, these floors required all the provisions for public access, which by today's standards necessitates compliance with the relevant disabled persons access codes and the DDA. A new passenger lift, general access stair and two enclosed fire-stair elements were required to service the new exhibition levels of the Annulus. These were carefully designed to be architecturally sympathetic with the heritage character of the space and to not be too intrusive in views looking upwards from the Reading Room. The exhibition spaces also required special track lighting systems, in-floor electrical/data outlets previously not there and increased wall hanging area, which was provided by partitioning over the perimeter strip windows.
At the main Reading Room level, the former West Link public entrance was readdressed to the new East Link at the opposite end of the room, to separate new general public access areas from the secured collection areas. In the adjoining Annulus, the small pokey offices were demolished and new service desk, computer, photocopier and group study carrel facilities were provided as the ancillary technical services to the Reading Room. The heritage-significant cedar-framed and glazed partitions to the original State Librarian's office and cataloguing room were also dismantled, relocated and rebuilt as a new suite of offices to be used by visiting scholars.
The design of the new architectural elements and provision of new technologies was a major challenge. It was a heritage requirement that the new elements be sympathetic with the historical character of the space and for the existing building fabric and decorative finishes to be preserved. Where new elements were to be installed, these were to be undertaken by a means that could enable the construction to be reversed and the fabric restored at a future date, if required. Our architectural response to this was to delineate the new elements from the existing, so they would

State Library of Victoria Photographic Section. ‘Studying in the Library: The Domed Reading Room’, [ca. 1994]. Colour Transparency

be clearly recognised and interpreted as a separate and contemporary overlay. The architectural detailing of these elements is deliberately robust in character. They are industrial looking and purposeful, not finely crafted, as the existing original building features are not like this. The new steel-framed stairs, for example, are designed as freestanding structures — simply pinned off the walls and floor. The stairs have mezzanine landings not only to provide elevated views into the Reading Room as the public progress from level to level, but also allude to the original steel-framed, book-stacked mezzanines in the Annulus. Similarly, the new materials and finishes were chosen to be referential to the existing heritage materials and colours, using bronze-coloured patinaed brass, industrial paintwork systems, woven brass mesh and moulded timber handrails, but without replicating the traditional detailing.
The Dome Words panelling is the most significant new element to be added to the interior of the Domed Reading Room. With Emery Vincent Design, these panels were designed as a frieze, which runs around the perimeter of the room and presents selected quotations and phrases by notable authors. The letters are incised into the
white panels, so that they are made legible and revealed to the passer-by, by the shadows cast when the panel surface is washed by the daylight that enters the space, or the up-lighting pelmet at night. The panels are hung off the heritage bookshelf metal supports as an overlay, in the wall height zone that was formerly occupied by shelves, before Occupational Health and Safety regulations determined these inaccessible and obsolete. The effect is to be restrained and respectful of the interior, so the words appear as a passive visual texture on the wall.
The reticulation and provision of new air conditioning ductwork, pipework, cabling, lighting and fire sprinkler systems provided a significant design challenge to ourselves and Norman Disney and Young, the services engineers. These had to be provided unobtrusively and where possible were to be integrated into the existing building fabric and behind the decorative finishes. In other cases the pipework and cabling are routed in a new services pelmet hung from the slab soffit above or in perforated metal enclosed risers, to deliberately articulate them from the existing fabric, like the other new architectural elements. For the air conditioning ductwork, the existing mechanical ventilation system and grillages in the Domed Reading Room were utilised as the first priority and augmented by additional supply and returns in the Annulus areas. The lighting of the Reading Room also provided a significant challenge. Balancing the conflicting demands to preserve the heritage ambience of the room provided by the incandescent spherical light fittings and the green glass shaded lamps; while meeting the recommended illumination levels of the Australian Standards and the desire to highlight the new architectural features.
The works associated with the replacement of some of the unsound surface finishes provided design challenges not only to ourselves and Ove Arup, the structural and facade engineers, but particularly to the construction managers during the works. The reinstatement of the dome roof skylights necessitated the complete removal of the copper roof sheeting, which had been installed in 1959 to help waterproof the dome. The extensive surface cracking had resulted in the ingress of water and subsequent deterioration of the plastered ceiling. It was agreed with Heritage Victoria that a traditional batten rolled zinc sheet roof would be an appropriate cladding replacement. Many of Melbourne's significant buildings have zinc clad roofs and the grey coloured appearance was considered consistent with the grey toning of the original cement rendered finish to the dome. The cracking to the existing dome slab and buttresses necessitated extensive specialist concrete repair work before the recladding could commence. The poor dimensional alignment of the concrete dome and its profiles tested the tolerances allowed for in the design of the prefabricated skylight frameworks and made the zinc sheet roof installation a challenge for the contractor. Similarly, the Dome Annulus floor slabs were found to be badly cracked and out of level in large areas. New toppings were required for the floor finishes but the weights needed to be carefully considered, as the existing slabs contain only a single layer of reinforcement and in some parts are less than 75 mm thick. Because of the slab thickness limitations, and to provide a flexible method of reticulating cables to the main Reading Room tables, it was decided during

State Library of Victoria Photographic Section. ‘Studying in the Library: The Trescowthick Information Centre’, [ca. 2000]. Colour Transparency

construction to provide a false floor over the existing floor. The existing tables and pulpit were rolled out of the way and the brown linoleum flooring was removed. For heritage reasons this had to be replaced in a matching finish, which fortunately could be supplied by the original linoleum manufacturer.
But despite these building-related issues, arguably the most significant challenge for the project occurred with the discovery of asbestos fibre in the plastered surfaces of the Domed Reading Room and Annulus interiors. After negotiation with the Building union it was agreed the plaster finish would need to be totally removed from the Annulus area walls and slab soffits and up to a height of four metres in the Domed Reading Room. This necessitated the removal of all the timber architraves and skirtings, the decorative moulded plaster elements, and the dismantling of the perimeter shelving system. Airtight bubble enclosures were set up in the affected areas, then the plaster was removed and the brickwork joints raked back. The masonry and concrete surfaces were repaired and sealed before the reapplication of new plaster, and the reinstallation of all the decorative elements and shelving.
On the upper walls of the Domed Reading Room, a light fabric gauze was applied as a stabilising layer over the existing plasterwork before the new paint finish was applied. Of course this laborious process delayed the construction programme and added significant cost to the project. But all this seemed merely incidental, when after the birdcage scaffolding was removed from the interior space, the full splendour of the skylight reinstatement works was revealed.
The dome skylight works were not part of the original scope of the project, though the Conservation Plan recommended their reconstruction. However, the Kennett Government provided additional funds specifically for the reinstatement of the heritage skylights, which to date have seen their restoration in the Domed Reading Room and McCoy Hall. Copies of the original dome skylight and lantern roof details were obtained from the Melbourne University Archives. The challenge was to replicate the appearance and lighting effect of the original Luxfer patent glazing system, but using modern technologies to reduce the solar heat gain, provide water tightness and meet the current structural codes. When the copper roof sheeting was removed, it was revealed that none of the original skylight glazing and T-bar framing remained, except for the structural steel framework of the lantern roof. Unfortunately, traces of asbestos fibre were discovered around the skylight openings, which meant all the minor demolition and preparatory concrete repair works needed to be done under hazardous material removal conditions once again
The skylights and glazed lantern roof systems, are constructed with an outer and inner layer of glass with a sealed air cavity between. The outer layer is a 10 mm thick heat-strengthened and laminated glass in a powder-coated aluminium frame, which was set out to match the original framing module. This glass was selected for its low reflectivity and high thermal performance characteristics. The inner layer is a 9 mm thick laminated glass of clear and Spotswood patterned glass, which diffuses the natural light. Based on early photographs, the original inner layer was thought to be composed of a pattern of clear and coloured glass quarries mounted in a frame of copper cames, but unfortunately at this time, such panels could not be replicated within the constraints of the glass installation code, nor our budget. However, now complete, the skylights reintroduce daylight into the Reading Room, they both diffuse the direct sunlight and exclude the ultraviolet light that is detrimental to the life of the books. The hemispherical bosses, which originally adorned the pinnacle of the lantern, have also been reinstated with a 24 carat gilded finish — the proverbial cherry on top of the icing on the lantern cake.
While I have been invited to talk about the architectural challenges, one should also recognise the management, financial, construction and workplace challenges that a project such as this presents to our Government client, the other project team members including Peter Richards, our architectural agent in Melbourne, the State Library staff, and Baulderstone Hornibrook and their contractors who have been responsible for bringing the outcomes of our architectural and engineering challenges to reality. All this on a construction site in the centre of the operating State Library facility.
Challenges? What challenges?
The reinstatement of the original Queen's Hall skylights is currently on the drawing board, and undoubtedly many more architectural challenges lie ahead before this project is completed.
The above is the text of a talk given by Phil Baigent, a director of Ancher Mortlock & Woolley, Architects, at a Forum on the Dome held at the State Library of Victoria on 18 June 2003.


‘The Burra Charter’ is the Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance as endorsed by the Australian Heritage Commission: it defines the conservation principles, processes and practices for the preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adoption of significant building sites.
Philip Baigent


The La Trobe Journal gratefully acknowledges permission from the following to reproduce images and texts in this number:
  • Architectural Science Review (for the image on page 49)
  • Bates, Smart, Architects, and the University of Melbourne Archives (for items from the Bates Smart and McCutcheon Collection)
  • Melbourne University Publishing (for extract from Solid Bluestone Foundations)
  • Alison Scott (for extract from ‘Mainly from Memory’) Sarah Tomasetti (for extract from Thoroughly Decent People)