Three claustrophobic elevators seem to huddle on the fifth floor of the Nicholas Building in perpetuity. You can call it bad luck, but not once during my time as a tenant in the building was a lift waiting at the ground floor when I arrived. Gone are the days of Joan and Dimmy, the lift attendants that made headlines as the last of their kind; the stalled automated replacements testament to the fact that humanness is hard to replace.
That word – humanness – is somewhat of a buzzword in the property industry, so the fact that it’s so useful in describing the Nicholas Building isn’t surprising. It’s the kind of place that developers, placemakers, urban planners and city councils strive to create, but so often struggle with. It’s community-minded and neighbourly, loved equally by those who rent space beneath it’s leaky roof and those that stumble up its stairs for the first time, perhaps searching for a denim jacket at the first-floor vintage store but instead finding themselves many floors up, wrist deep in a button collection, face-to-face with You Am I’s Tim Rogers (who worked from the studio next to mine while writing his recent memoir), or with their nose in a Comme des Garçons catalogue from 1986.
It didn’t get this way overnight, but it definitely wasn’t planned – the Nicholas Building was built by pharmacist brothers, giddy with new-found wealth after patenting Aspirin during World War II. It took decades and hundreds of creative minds to become the Nicholas Building that we know today. Like an ecosystem it evolved gradually, strongly and organically. The Nicholas Building was shaped from the inside out, by its tenants, not only by its architect or owner.
In 2010, Nicholas Building alumni and esteemed Australian writer Ben Eltham interviewed Christie Petsinis, whose architecture firm, Folk, occupy a space on the eighth floor. Having written in depth on the building as part of a university research project years ago, she has become the in-house expert on its history. She tells Eltham, “the idea of having natural daylight, and becoming an internal street and then reflecting the other laneways which intersect around this area, where there are all these small-scale happenings and events … really this area is kind of the model which is being implemented for other developments around Melbourne.”
For Melbourne’s creative community, the building at the intersection of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street is ubiquitous; chances are, if you’re working in the creative industries you know (or have known) someone who worked from the address. Few other buildings in Melbourne’s CBD offer space that is as flexible or affordable. My relationship with the building began as a teenager, with friends receiving tattoos from an artist who worked from a room overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral, and recently came to a head when I said goodbye to my sixth floor studio, a space I shared with a room of filmmakers, designers, VR developers, copywriters and DJs. Co-working spaces have merit, but the dynamic of the Nicholas Building means you become friends with your neighbours, collaborate across floors and make lasting professional (and personal) connections.
“It’s the kind of place that developers, placemakers, urban planners and city councils strive to create, but so often struggle with.”
People will tell you that the Nicholas Building isn’t what it used to be. Sure, the lift operators are gone, the rent has gone up (by approximately 30% in 2014 alone) and the building seems to creak more than ever. But the ecosystem remains intact, with new contributors sprouting projects within its walls every year. And those creaky walls, the product of more than 90 years of internal creative energy, may be what keep the Nicholas Building as we know it. Its heritage listing has secured its future as Melbourne’s newest Metro station emerges around it – a station that with any luck will be designed with humanness in mind.
Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
Photography by Matthew Slade