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History

06 Nov 2019

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Computers come to Southbank

Most major office buildings in Melbourne in the post-war era were commissioned for banks, oil or insurance companies.

But a new trend emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with the arrival of large computer companies, which established offices and service bureaux along the stretch of St Kilda Rd between St Kilda Junction and the Shrine of Remembrance.

Typical was the arrival on St Kilda Rd of Control Data Australia (CDA) in 1965. Converted to apartments in the 1990s, the building is now Parklake Towers apartments. Computer companies were in the business of providing large-scale mainframe machines for government (such as the CSIRO), the banking industry, military and education – the days of the personal computer (PC) were far away.

But the biggest name in computing was IBM. In 1964, IBM released the System/360 – the computer that defined the modern computer industry. By 1970, this machine had become the dominant computer in Australia, with a design that provided a consistent architecture across a number of computers in their range – a radical approach at the time when computers produced by a single firm were generally incompatible with each other. It was hugely successful and installed by many large companies, replacing many labour-intensive operations, such as airline booking systems.

In this era IBM occupied many offices around the world, invariably prominent and stylish.

Melbourne’s turn came in 1974 when the world’s leading mainframe computer company leased a building on the corner of Sturt and Coventry streets in Southbank, on the site of a former knitting mill. Beneath its large IBM neon sign, it included facilities for a large mainframe, processing of data, display of hardware, hundreds of terminal lines, and education services. Special arrangements were necessary for electricity, air-conditioning and security (with specially treated glass), which became the norm for computer facilities in years to come. It also housed a special tenant on the fifth floor – ASIO, whose officers immediately appropriated all the best car spots!

Designed by the Melbourne husband and wife team of Josh and Mary Pila, the free-standing building was lauded for the large amounts of space and natural light provided on each of the 10 floors, together with its flexibility of layout. The load-bearing exterior walls eliminated the need for external columns and were finished in reconstructed granite or white quartz.

It not only housed computer operations but looked like part of the process with a multi-window façade designed to resemble punch-cards used then in computer processing. IBM relocated to City Rd, Southbank in 1993 - like other corporate buildings, 221 Sturt St was converted to apartments and named Southside Towers.

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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