Website Banner. John Monash: Engineering enterprise prior to World War 1.

[Introduction] [Main Index] [Buildings Index] [Index of Architects] [Index of JM's staff and others] [Abbreviations] [Units & Currency] [Glossary]

Notes on Building Projects
[ prev ]  Page 11  [ next ]

Caution. The information on this page concerning buildings comes mainly from a speedy 'first pass' through the RCMPC records at UMA and from dipping into the Monash Papers at NLA looking for information on other themes. It is presented to indicate the nature and scope of John Monash's work in building construction. Details should be used with caution. For an overview of early development of reinforced concrete in Australia, see e.g. Lewis, M. 1988.

Melbourne Public Library: Domed Reading Room.

On this page:
1. Introduction and Summary.
2. How the Dome was won and lost.
3. Monash's continued involvement? The substructure.
4. Monash and the Dome.

The facade of the library is wide, with a central classical portico. Its roof-line is defined by a parapet. Just above this peep the octagonal walls of the Reading Room. Compared with the tall domes of Renaissance cathedrals such as St Peter's, Rome, the Library dome is low; more like that of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. It is an engineer's dome: efficient and self-effacing. View of the dome, looking up inside the octogan. The glazed, octagonal oculus occupies one quarter of the span. In place of the unrelieved shell of a true dome there are sixteen arched, radial ribs. These are linked at mid height by straight beams. This arrangement permits two circumferential bands of glazing. The effect is light and airy.

State Library of Victoria.
1. View from Swanston Street.
2. Reading Room interior.

1. Introduction and Summary.

The story told here contains large gaps because the RCMPC file on the project was not in their records when acquired by the University of Melbourne Archives. Fortunately, David Saunders saw the file when the firm was still operating and wrote a paper summarising its contents [1959]. (Writing from the viewpoint of an architect, he left some engineering matters unrecorded.) Miles Lewis has added crucial information in two papers [1985, 2003]. In particular, he once took photographs of RCMPC drawings that Geoff Taplin and I have not been able to locate, and some of them are reproduced in the 2003 paper. The following account thus relies heavily on the work of Saunders and Lewis, to which has been added material from newspapers and some information turned up by our own research in other RCMPC files.

To an engineer this is perhaps the most interesting and potentially prestigious of Monash's projects, but it proved a bitter disappointment for him. Judging by previous form, he may well have taken the initiative in convincing the architect, N G Peebles, of the feasibility and economy of using a reinforced concrete solution rather than a steel structure. Together, they would have agreed on the form of the dome, heavily influenced by its statics. We know he and his assistants prepared engineering calculations and drawings and submitted a quote to Peebles, which he accepted. On behalf of the Trustees of the Library, Peebles then called tenders from master builders for construction of the entire building, specifying the reinforced concrete work as a 'prime cost item', allocated to RCMPC at the price already agreed.

The architects' practice of specifying prime cost items was a factor in Monash's continuing domination of the reinforced concrete building industry in Victoria. The Master Builders' Association had for years been trying to outflank him, but he was not their only target. Prime cost items for other components made up more than half the value of the new building and were thus outside the control of the master builder. The fact that this prestige project was funded by taxpayers' money gave the MBA an opportunity to force the Library Trustees to call new tenders for the entire project, permitting open competition for almost all items.

The winners, master builders Swanson Bros, engaged the Trussed Concrete Steel Co of England to take responsibility for the structural engineering. It seems that 'Truscon' largely adhered to Monash's initial engineering scheme, whilst substituting patent Kahn reinforcing bars for the conventional bars specified by RCMPC. A significant change was made to the amount of glazing in the dome, and smaller changes to the profile of the ribs; but it is difficult to know whether JM played any part in these (see below). There is evidence that he continued to give advice on an occasional basis and received financial compensation for this and for his initial work on the project.

Since becoming involved with reinforced concrete in 1897, through his then partner J T N Anderson, Monash had devoted his skills and energy to promoting the new technology to municipal engineers and architects; he had fought vested interests, conservatism and lethargy; he had educating himself and trained assistant engineers, foremen, gangers and workers. To receive undiluted recognition for the engineering design and construction of the world's largest reinforced concrete dome to that date would have been a magnificent reward. The loss of this prize was not merely a blow to his pride; it was one of several indications that his dominance of the local reinforced concrete industry was coming to an end. Later, in 1914, he would claim only that the design of the dome had "emanated" from him, and deny responsibility for the substructure.

2. How the Dome was Won and Lost.
The economic politics of construction.

Vertical cross-section showing the tall octagonal space under the dome of the Reading Room: 35m or 115 feet wide, and about as tall. It sits on a two-storey substructure and is surrounded by galleries six storeys high. Plan of the octangonal Reading Room, 35m or 115 feet acoss the flats, and surrounded by galleries.

The layout of the new Reading Room has been attributed to that of the British Museum, but Lewis [2003] favours the Library of Congress as the likely source. The Chairman of Trustees, H G Turner, and the Chief Librarian, E LaT Armstrong, were involved in planning, and the architects, Reed Smart & Tappin, sent the Trustees a drawing showing the "new octagonal Library" on 30 May 1906. The Argus newspaper published an architectural elevation on 23 June 1906, criticising the intention to build an iron dome painted to look like stone.

Since the death of Tappin in 1905 the architectural partnership had consisted only of Reed and F J Smart. In August 1907 FJS died and his son C P Smart, who had only recently completed his studies in engineering, joined the practice. The Library Trustees were concerned about the partners' lack of experience and they responsed by taking in E A Bates who was then acting President of the RVIA. The practice thus became Bates, Peebles & Smart.

Architects defend the use of prime cost items as a means of ensuring quality and/or achieving a particular aesthetic effect when one supplier is far ahead of the rest of the field, especially if the product is patented. A notable example is Utzon's attempt in the 1960s to nominate Ralph Symonds as manufacturer of plywood interiors for the Sydney Opera House [Drew pp.259-60].

Monash argued firstly that reinforced concrete construction was a task for specialists, and could not be entrusted to general builders. In its early days, when few workers and not many engineers were aware of the care required in proportioning, mixing and placing, there was some strength in this argument. (RCMPC itself was guilty of providing insufficient cover to reinforcement.) JM could cite RCMPC's wide experience in Victoria. He also claimed exclusive right to the use of what is now conventional reinforcement and could deprecate alternatives, such as expanded metal and Kahn bars, whose chief raison d'être was to circumvent early patents.

JM's arguments were presented to the RVIA on 23 June 1908 as part of a paper on "Concrete Construction".

Prime costing was important to Monash because it delayed the diffusion of his industrial secrets and hard-earned knowledge. On the other hand, it rarely allowed him to name his own price. RCMPC normally calculated the price of competing systems in brick, timber and steel to make sure their quote would be competitive, and the archives show that in some cases the client or architect did find a cheaper alternative.

For their part, the Master Builders argued that the principles of reinforced concrete were becoming general knowledge and they were capable of achieving the required quality. They resented the presence on their building sites of an independent operator who was, when JM could arrange it, contracted directly to the client. Claims and counter claims of delay and interference were common. JM objected strongly to the Builders' demand for a 10 per cent commission on top of the RCMPC quote, while the Builders saw this as compensation for the administrative costs and operational difficulties incurred by the presence of RCMPC. Their most serious argument was that the prime cost system allowed architects to hand contracts to favourite suppliers and personal friends at prices higher than would be achieved by open competition. Worse, it left the door open to corruption.

In February 1908 the influential journal Building reported a meeting of the Master Builders Association at which J W Swanson of Swanson Bros had spoken strongly against the increasing use of prime costing in both government and private work [Lewis 1985]. Almost simultaneously the MBA became engaged in a similar battle with Monash over the No.2 Reservoir at Preston, north of Melbourne. It had been designed by the Melbourne Board of Works as an enormous rectangular tank with massive walls of unreinforced concrete. Monash drew up an alternative scheme employing much thinner reinforced walls with slab footings and counterforts. The Board then called tenders allowing the submission of alternatives to the mass concrete scheme, on condition that designers submitted their calculations to the Board and took full responsibility for the safety of their work. The MBA argued that this had effectively handed the contract to RCMPC because it was the only local firm capable of accepting such conditions. (RCMPC's tender was £24,689 and the lowest for mass concrete was £31,361.) The Builders insisted the Board could have provided drawings and specifications of a reinforced alternative, designed by its own engineers or by consultants, so that Contractors could bid openly for it - or it could have left the field open to competing proprietary systems. Many of the Board's Commissioners were sympathetic to the MBA, but they failed to carry the day and the contract was awarded to RCMPC early in April 1908.

The Builders had an ally in George A Taylor, editor of Building, who had mounted a long campaign promoting alternative forms of reinforced concrete in opposition to Monash's local monopoly. In May, he fired a salvo under the headline: "A GRAVE DANGER. How the Australian Building Profession is Threatened with a Great Rival". It claimed that The Reinforced Concrete Company [RCMPC] "embraces in its methods the cleverness and ingenuity of the smartest of American combines. Here is a private company designing and carrying out buildings and other constructions; … usurping the positions of architects and builders; eliminating that element of check that is the sole protection of the client". Serle notes that the company had recently increased its capital from £300 to £4050 "in order to provide better evidence that it could guarantee against failure of large contracts".

During this time Monash and his assistants were working on the detailed design of the structure. In May 1908, he submitted a quote to BPS of £18,692 "for the whole of the reinforced concrete work in connection with the new Reading Room". This included massive columns and beams supporting the ground and first floors as well as the dome itself. Perhaps Taylor learned of this, because in June Building carried another article headed "The Combine System: Its Grave Danger in Building Construction: How it worked in America: A warning to Australia".

A drawing showing an early version of the dome was signed by Monash as designer on 4 July [Lewis 2003]. In November Monash quoted the architects a "round figure of £3,500 plus £300 for formwork" [Saunders]. The initial call for tenders for the entire building was issued by BPS in January 1909, with a prime cost item of £20,769 to be allowed for the reinforced concrete work.

On 5 February 1909 a letter appeared in the Melbourne Age over the pseudonym "Contractor" pointing out that the State government of Premier Sir Thomas Bent had voted £70,000 for the extensions to the Library and that £42,000 of this was "tied up to private firms at practically their own prices". It continued: "This iniquitous system is becoming far too prevalent in Melbourne, and it is time that some steps were taken to put a stop to it; virtually it means that a contractor accepts a contract for £70,000 upon which he pays a deposit pro rata to the total amount of the contract, he accepts sole responsibility, and he is liable for heavy penalties if he does not finish on time, yet in reality - as shown in this case of the Public Library - his actual contract only represents £28,000, although his responsibilities are for £70,000. The sub-contractors, who obtain their price without tendering, have the right to come on to the contract at any time to carry out the work to suit themselves and if they delay the contractor - which is frequently the case - it is the contractor who has to pay the penalty, and not the man who caused the delay." The practice was an evasion of the rights of the citizens to tender for all government work having a value over £100.

Lewis [2003] notes that by this time Sir Thomas was no longer Premier, but he was a member of the Board of Trustees.

RCMPC staff immediately sent word to Monash, then in Adelaide on SARC business, warning that "the Contractors have broken out in The Age". Monash wrote to Bates Peebles & Smart justifying his quote and citing costs for floors per unit area derived from past experience. Concerning the dome he wrote: "I can cite no analogous cost, but am convinced that such a dome in steel, would cost over £5,000 for the main framing alone". [All Saunders.]

Monash did not return to Melbourne until 9 February. On 6th The Age reported it had questioned Bates, who put the total of prime cost items at "about" £37,500. The reinforced concrete component was by far the largest, but significant items included Luxfer prism glazing for the dome (£5000), windows with galvanised frames (£4050), and fibrous plaster (£2250). Bates said none of the items had been "fixed for any firm or firms". As soon as the main contract was let these "secondary contracts" would be "tendered for on behalf of the main contractor, and let in his name". He would receive the normal trade discount of 10 per cent. Bates argued some items were made by "only two or three well known firms". As far as he knew, only one firm in Sydney had the machine necessary to make the galvanised iron windows which were of the latest American fireproof design. The Luxfer prism glazing was patented. However, the architects were willing to advertise all items if required. They were in the hands of the Trustees. "The big item is the reinforced concrete dome, and that can be advertised too."

The Age itself declared: "It is the duty of the Library trustees to instruct the architects to invite public tenders for the whole of the items enumerated. The public money is being spent, and no firm has a right to any preference; nor will it suffice for the architects or contractor to obtain prices from certain firms without advertising. Whether it be necessary or not to add to the main specifications or to re-advertise them, Parliament will expect the Library trustees to draw up specifications for the whole of the material and work required, in order that all contractors may be placed on exactly the same footing. Further than this, Parliament has laid down the principle that substantial concessions shall be granted to local manufacturers as against the imported. The trustees will meet to deal with the tenders in about three weeks' time, and their action in the matter will be watched with the keenest interest. Any deviation from the principles laid down by Parliament will doubtless lead to the Government stepping in and may prejudice the interest of the institution."

That the force of the campaign was directed at the architectural profession as much as Monash is indicated by a letter from "Contractor No.2" in the same edition of The Age. It expressed the "thanks of all fair-minded men and ratepayers" to No.1 for "the lucid way in which he has exposed … the iniquitous system adopted by architects of giving large sums of public money away to favored individuals without any competition". In a project worth £70,000 the Builder had only £30,000 worth of work but must carry "the risk and liability of the whole". Would the architects accept fees based only on the lower figure "or will they still expect their commission on that part of the job that they have given to their friends (the commission on which amounts to about £2400)?"

Gibson and Wears, in Melbourne, must have decided that the only way to retrieve the situation would be for RCMPC to take on the role of Master Builder itself. On 9th Monash, about to return from Adelaide, sent word to them that he "viewed the Library proposal very favourably" and they should tender for the whole job [Saunders].

Next day, The Age reported that the matter had been brought up in Parliament and the Premier had promised to make inquiries. A letter from "Master Builder" referred again to the "favoured friends" of architects, and reported further prime cost items, the major ones being £4000 for marble facings to walls and £1853 for "asphalte". This brought the total to £44,255. The writer admitted the architects had named no names "with the exception that a much favoured individual is given the monopoly of asphalte paving by the naming of his trade mark" and that "certain patent items had been specified when alternatives just as good might be found". He accused Bates of inventing the story about secondary tenders to hoodwink the library trustees "who cannot be expected to grasp the seriousness of the existing state of affairs". He accused architects in general of prejudice or favour and of not trusting "the builders who have built Melbourne". They were "out of date" and "incapable of designing and specifying methods of modern construction" so that they had to "hand over professional work, for which they are paid, to some favoured individual to design and afterwards carry it out at his own price". Thus the professional work was paid for twice over "and the individual will make sure he gets a good profit". This left the door open for corrupt practices "of the nature of those recently exposed in America". The use of prime cost items was a practice "full of temptation, and one that should be avoided."

The MBA held a meeting about 11th and passed three resolutions. The first requested that RVIA members and other architects use prime costing only when "absolutely necessary". The other two read:
2. "That in the case of reinforced concrete, iron, or steel work, the master builder will require (in the interests of fair and open competition) that the architect provides complete specifications of his requirements of these materials, so that the builder may tender for and afterwards have full control in the execution of the work, subject to the Architect's plans and supervision."
3. "That in the case of tiles for floors, wall facings, and other materials, which from an artistic point of view should be open for selection, the architect should 'prime cost' the value of the materials only, leaving the cost of laying or fixing to be provided for and done by the builder."

The resolutions were to be forwarded to the RVIA and a deputation was to approach the Trustees; but before these moves could come to fruition, the Trustees met in camera. According to a report in The Age of 13th, Armstrong emerged to say that, with one or two exceptions, tenders would be called for every separate item in the contract including the reinforced concrete girders, lintels, and dome. The only exception he could think of offhand was anything patent, such as the special glazing. He added that BPS had strenuously denied they had allocated any part of the work to favoured individuals.

Saunders saw notes that Monash made on 16th, when marshalling his arguments against open tendering for reinforced concrete construction. "In Australia there are at least six separate specialised companies dealing with reinforced concrete." Prices from all of them would be competitive. The principal reason for using the specialist was that the nature of reinforced concrete demanded that design and execution should be under the same man, because supervision must be "specialised, scientific direction", which was beyond the capacity of any architect. Regarding arguments in favour of open tendering "… exactly similar claims … have been unsuccessfully advanced in other countries, notably Germany and America". Thus both sides were drawing on experience in the USA to support their opposing arguments.

H R Crawford's building for Sniders and Abrahams was close to completion not far from the Library [see Lewis 1988, p.17].

On 23 February 1909, the RVIA considered the Master Builders' resolutions at its Annual General Meeting; but the battle was already over. On the same day Monash wrote to Colonel Reay, his contact at the Herald newspaper: "It is unfortunate that you did not get back in time to take a hand in the fight. What was troubling me, and what still troubles me, is that the Library Trustees have been bustled into taking a course of action based upon hearing one side only. As they have arrived at a decision there is nothing more to be said".

3. Monash's continued involvement? The substructure.

3.1 Monash as consultant?

To what extent can the present Reading Room and Dome structure be attributed to Monash? Saunders concluded that JM had largely "faded out of the picture". This would not have been surprising, given the views expressed above, and his need to preserve his intellectual property. He was not as fearful as Gummow of industrial espionage, but was reluctant to release details of a design until he was sure he had secured a contract - and even then would demand that municipal engineers and their employees maintain strict secrecy. Unfortunately for him, the world was changing. The theory and practice of reinforced concrete were becoming general knowledge. Also, in response to hard selling of proprietory systems of reinforced concrete, and malpractice on the part of some design-and-construct firms (most publicised in the USA), architects generally were welcoming the advent of consulting engineers - individuals who offered them unbiased advice on engineering matters, prepared technical drawings, analysed tenders and supervised construction on their behalf.

The situation as regards reinforced concrete played a part in the formation of the 'Concrete Society' in London in 1908. It became the 'Institution of Structural Engineers' in 1923.

It would have been hard for Monash to see himself in the role of consultant only, but there is some evidence that he continued to give advice and was paid for it. The original file held a memo in which JM recorded that RCMPC could "continue to advise on the design, provided that we be relieved of any responsibility as to the efficient carrying out of the work by other persons". Saunders commented: "This arrangement would place all responsibility in the hands of the architects, unless they turned to others who would offer some sort of guarantee. Their decision seems to have been that Mr. Smart would supervise all the structure, including the dome, but that for the design of the dome itself, Truscon would be brought in."

Saunders suggested it would have been logical for Swanson Bros to press on with construction of the substructure according to the RCMPC design, rather than await re-design by Truscon. An RCMPC drawing (Lewis 2003, p.52) was initialled by J A Laing as draughtsman on 5 March 1909, after JM had admitted the battle lost. It shows reinforcement of the floor beams and columns according to the RCMPC system (which a modern engineer would recognise as 'normal' reinforced concrete). However, Monash never signed it as Engineer, and a contemporary photograph (Lewis 2003, p.55) shows that Kahn reinforcement was installed in the floor beams. It seems likely that Truscon or C P Smart retained the concrete dimensions fixed by RCMPC, and re-designed the reinforcement on the Kahn system.

The Octagon has two Annexes with conventional rectangular building frames. A drawing for the Western Annex, shows conventional (RCMPC) reinforcement similar in style to that of the 5 March drawing. It bears no date or initial, but is marked "Clerk of Works Copy", suggesting it was used for construction. There is a reinforcement drawing for the columns of the Reading Room substructure in a different hand. The absence of dates and initials suggests this one did not come from the RCMPC office, or that JM was keeping his distance. Both these drawings are in UMA, deposited by Bates, Smart & McCutcheon.

Correspondence during March 1909 showed that Smart referred to Monash for advice. He suggested that the reinforcement of some members (presumably in the substructure) could be reduced; but JM strongly disagreed. Smart was evidently relying on rules recently published by the Royal Institute of British Architects [Ref.]. Monash advised: "It should be remembered that rules of design, etc., as adopted by the RIBA must be taken as a whole. You must not take a single clause here and there out of its context. That is exactly the error which led the NSW Government into the failure of the Mittagong Reservoir. One essential condition of the whole of the RIBA rules is that the assumption is made that the work will be carried out by experienced constructors. If that condition be absent, one is not entitled to adopt the narrow factors of safety proposed upon totally different assumptions". After discussion, JM commented: "It appears that we are not at issue at all". He gave Smart his views on the use of Kahn "or any other trade bars" and ended "I need only add that I will be pleased to discuss further any aspect of the matter that occurs to you".

All the above paragraph based on Saunders. The 20,000 gallon reservoir at Mittagong, NSW, had only recently collapsed, spilling its contents. In May, a large drain cover built by a competitor in Melbourne collapsed under the load of a dray. The vehicle, horse and driver all fell into the hole. [More.]

Swanson Bros signed the Library contract on 17 May 1909. There is evidence that Monash was depressed and anxious following this reversal, which had serious implications for the future of RCMPC. He wrote a letter to Peebles that the latter described as "pessimistic and somewhat petulant". Replying on 25th, Peebles diagnosed Monash as "overworked … and altogether run down" and prescribed a trip to Mount Buffalo, scene of happy camping trips organised yearly by JM for a group of select friends. He continued: "I must earnestly beg of you not to write to me again in such a strain as I would not for the world have my latest and greatest idol shattered. The idea of a man of your vast intellect and attainments, unimpeachable honor and social standing, being in any way affected or disturbed by fancied humiliations and the puerile calumnies of a few of the members of the Master Builders Association is simply preposterous, as is also your anxiety with regard to the future of your business affairs. I am confident that your business instead of decreasing will increase ten fold as a result of what you term the 'recent crisis'. I am very sensible of the great amount of time and energy you have expended in connection with the library job, and deeply regret that your efforts were not rewarded with the success they merited. You have at least however the consolation - slight though it be - of knowing that you will receive an adequate fee for your consultations. I will take this opportunity of tendering you my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the very valuable hints on re-inforced work and the very great assistance you have given me in the preparation of the contract. I keenly appreciate the invariable courtesy and patience you have extended to me throughout and you may rest assured that I shall ever do my very utmost on your behalf."

In August 1909 Monash calculated the theoretical strength of concrete plates, experimentally reinforced with meshses of thin wires, that Swanson Bros wished to test. [Details] Lewis [2003] notes that Peebles became friendly with the builders, and in September 1909 he made an attempt to get Swanson and Monash to settle their differences. JM responded: "I have no objection whatever to meeting Mr Swanson at any time to discuss matters, if a meeting of this kind could be arranged; but obviously it is not possible for me to take the initiative". A few days later, Peebles replied: "I shall endeavour to bring about the meeting of which you speak at an early date, but I am not now very sanguine as to the result".

I have seen no evidence that such a meeting took place. As part of these exchanges, Peebles sent Monash a present of a walking stick to replace one broken on the previous expedition to Mt Buffalo. JM thanked "My dear Peebles" for a momento of "happy times spent together", and a "token of our personal friendship which I feel sure will endure through many a little storm through which we, as men immersed in the stress and hustle of the world's affairs, may have to pass".

3.2 A knotty problem ~ eight beams and a column.

Plan indicating the layout of the grid of beams supporting the floor of the Reading Room and surrounding galleries. Eight raidal main girders meet at a central column. Reinforcement drawing showing bars crammed into the main girders and heading for the central column.

1. A 45° sector of the Reading Room floor. Beams shown brown, vertical members black. (Based on a photo by Miles Lewis of a drawing in the J Thomas Collection.)
2. Extract from "Type Details". This detail shows the congestion when only four beams meet at a column. (From a photo by Miles Lewis of a drawing in JTC.)

It is possible that Monash took a hand in solving a difficult problem caused by the unusual layout of the Reading Room floor, which is supported at its centre on a single large column. Eight heavy beams radiate from this column to the walls, each supported halfway along by an intermediate column. The beams are crammed with reinforcement which, to provide strength in the top, would ideally continue straight through the column. With eight beams meeting at the central column this was impracticable. It seems that the solution to this critical detail was not elaborated until late in the day. A half-scale sketch dated 7 September 1910 shows a flat plate welded to the top of a heavy metal cage, designed to be buried within the concrete where the column and beams intersect. The top bars of the beams hook into holes in the horizontal members of the cage, while a large hole in the centre of the plate allows the vertical rods of the column to pass through unhindered. The handwriting on this sketch looks like Monash's. (A drawing showing full details of the intersection and cage bears the stamp of BPS but no date.)

4. Monash and the Dome.

4.1 Introduction.

Combined cross-section and plan showing a typical arched rib and adjoining circumferential members.

Photo by Lewis of a drawing in JTC. (For a good image see Lewis 2003, p.51.)

To what extent does the present form of the dome reflect Monash's influence? The scheme worked out with Peebles and engineered by RCMPC in 1908 is recorded in a superseded drawing (above). Lewis states that it is "labelled", rather than signed, as being "designed by J.M." on 4 July. In either case, we must weigh the possibility that one of his lieutenants - Laing or Fairway - did the work and the principal received the 'glory' as often happens; but given JM's personality, knowledge of arch bridge design, and what the project would have meant to him, we can be confident that at the very least he would have led design meetings, closely supervised work, and performed independent checks on computations. It is fairly safe to attribute this scheme to him personally. (It is strange that Saunders does not mention this drawing, because it should have been in the firm's possession when he researched c.1959.)

The question then arises, to what extent did the form of the dome change from this original scheme, and who was responsible for the changes?

4.2 Changes in the oculus and skylighting.

The most evident feature of the drawing above is a profile of an intermediate rib with its buttress, but below the rib is a triangular part-plan showing a 22.5° sector of the dome. (The width of the opaque bars of the T-beams and of the glazed areas, as seen in plan view, has been projected from the rib profile.) Expanding this to 360° we obtain the layout shown in the schematic plan below, left. Eight major ribs rise from each re-entrant corner of the octagon walls to meet at an oculus in the crown. Between them are eight intermediate ribs. Spanning from rib to rib are, in the upper part, three 'rings' of shallow T-beams.

Some time before the dome was built, the width of the oculus increased from 10 feet to 32 feet (below, right), the amount of glazing on the slopes was reduced from four bands to two, and the profile of the ribs was altered. It is impossible, from the evidence I have seen, to say whether these changes occurred while Monash was still actively involved, or whether they occurred during the Truscon era.

1. Plan showing the original RCMPC scheme for the dome. The oculus is much smaller than in the final scheme, but the dome is fully glazed, so that the plan view looks like a spider's web of radiating and circumferential lines. Spacer. 2. As built. Plan of the Truscon scheme, with large oculus but only two bands of glazing.

1. Schematic plan of the dome as conceived by RCMPC/JM, 4 July 1908.
2. As built.

In the diagrams above, the positions of the Reading Room walls, the ribs, and the T-beams stems (webs) are indicated in dark brown. In a true plan view these would be concealed by the concrete plates, indicated here in lighter brown. White indicates glazing. Remember that as the slope of the surface increases towards the edges, the apparent area of glazing in these vertical projections becomes a smaller proportion of its true surface area. Both diagrams are based on photos by Miles Lewis of drawings in JTC.

4.3 Changes in the profile of the ribs.

Ribs that ran from the oculus to the re-entrant corners of the octagon were labelled "corner ribs" and those that ran to the middle of the straight sides were "intermediate ribs". The sketches below compare the initial profile of an intemediate rib, as agreed between Peebles and Monash in July 1908, with that proposed by PBS to Truscon on or before 27 April 1910.

As there are few visible dimensions on the available images, the drawings below are scaled from photographs and photocopies. The following discussion assumes there has been no significant distortion of originals or reproductions.

Comparison of the profiles of the arched ribs in the RCMPC and Truscon schemes. The RCMPC version springs at about 45 degrees to the horizontal and then follows a roughly parabolic curve to be horizontal at the oculus. The Truscon version springs at the same angle, but follows a circular arc, and is still rising when it meets the oculus. Its top is slightly higher than that of the RCMPC rib.

Based on Lewis's photo
of the drawing in JTC.

Based on a drawing in UMA
Bates, Smart & McCutcheon Collection

The profile of the intermediate rib in the initial 1908 scheme (above left) suggests that RCMPC saw opposing pairs of ribs as forming an arch like a Monier bridge, spanning the full width of the Reading Room. The horizontal thrust at the top would be transmitted through the walls of the oculus, but the principle would still hold. The drawing shows that the full arch was to be composed of three circular segments, the central portion having a radius of 98'-8" and the outer portions 58'-6". An iterative process of graphical calculation might have been used, similar to that employed for the bridges [example], but adapted to the concentrated loads received from the oculus walls and T-beams.

On 2 July 1909, Truscon prepared a drawing entitled "Details Shewing Dome Reinforced on the Kahn System" which was modified on 7 January 1910. The rib profile is very close to Monash's original, but incorporates the enlarged oculus and reduced glazing panels of the final scheme. There is nothing to indicate whether these were the changes made in January 1910. The slight divergence from Monash's profile may be due to distortion in copying, but is more likely a response to the changed distribution of load. It is tempting to conclude that Truscon initially took over the RCMPC profile and substituted Kahn reinforcement, but the matter is once more clouded by doubt about the date of changes to oculus and glazing, and by Monash's practice of concealing reinforcement details until the contract was 'in the bag'.

At some time on or before 27 April 1910, the architects prepared a drawing of yet another profile for the intermediate rib (above, right) to be sent to Truscon. The extrados (top surface) lies on a single circular arc of radius 79 feet. The intrados was also a single arc. A note on the drawing (which provides the only means of dating) gave Truscon permission to make a slight modification, if necessary for "constructional purposes", but required them to hold the rise of the soffit at 26'-10". This represents an increase of about two feet on the rise of the original profile, if scaling from photocopies can be trusted.

Truscon drawings show bands of reinforcement stretched round the perimeter at the base of the dome to contain the outward thrust at the feet of the ribs. The reinforcement in the T-beams could serve as a similar tie at three more levels along the rib, but would be effective only for the corner ribs. Without access to the original RCMPC file we cannot know whether the RCMPC design took advantage of these features, which would allow some degree of 'dome action' rather than 'arch action'.

At the feet of the intermediate ribs the bands are angled slightly up the slope so that an inward component of the tension is available, even though the edge of the dome is straight at that point.

Another question left unanswered is whether the design was based on an overseas precedent. Monash often adopted this course and usually provided a reference at the head of his computations.

4.4 Link through W W Harvey.

Working drawings for the structure of the dome were prepared by Truscon in June 1910. They were authorised in November by "Nic. K Fougner" as Chief Engineer of Truscon. Amongst these is a sketch that provides an intriguing link to Monash. It is dated 30 June 1910 and carries a hand-written note: "Recd & forwarded 1st July 1910. W. W. Harvey".

Harvey studied engineering at the University of Melbourne, sat for his final examinations in November 1905, and worked and trained under Monash from then on. In April 1907 he became Resident Engineer of the Adelaide office (SARC) under JM's constant supervision. The burden of the rapidly expanding business seems to have affected his health and he tendered his resignation amicably in March 1909, continuing to run the office until the end of the year. Saunders concluded that in 1910 Harvey was based in London, liaising with Truscon on behalf of Bates Peebles & Smart. More on Harvey.

4.5 Monash's own claim.

The final piece of evidence linking Monash to the dome is a letter he wrote to the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in May 1914. Professor Henry Payne had been reported in its Proceedings as saying that the design for the "building" had emanated from Monash. JM tried to get him to write to the RVIA to tell them that he had really meant to say "dome" instead of "building". When this did not work, JM himself wrote to the RVIA saying the account in the Proceedings gave the impression that he "did not disclaim credit for the original idea of the Library Building". He asserted that Payne was refering only to the dome "and as I was in fact closely concerned in working out the original idea for same with Mr Peebles, I felt justified in abstaining from any disclaimer on the occasion in question". [The journal Building & Real Estate, October 1913, reported Payne as referring to the Dome only.]


In June 1914 cracks were discovered in the dome. These seem to have been mainly in the surface slabs. The remedy was to cover them with malthoid water-proofing. The Herald newspaper published an article defending reinforced concrete in similar terms to those used by Monash when persuading municipal engineers not to worry about initial leakage through the walls of their service reservoirs [link]. Saunders records that in 1917 Payne and his colleague Bernard Smith announced concern over the adequacy of the tension band around the base of the dome. A Melbourne representative of Truscon conducted a model test and convinced them that the dome was safe. In 1929 J A Laing, now an independent consulting engineer, checked the strength of the band and decided that, though highly stressed, it had an adequate factor of safety.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict[Top.]

Other 'Building Notes' pages: [Previous] [Next]

[Main Index.] [Building Index.] [Brief Overview of Projects.]