'Montrose Apartments'
445 Alfred Street, Neutral Bay

In 1955 Neville Gruzman was a struggling young architect when he received an unusual request to draft a plan for a block of flats – not for construction, but to demonstrate the value of the site.

The land on Alfred Street in North Sydney was already occupied by two cottages. But the lots were slated for resumption by the Department of Main Roads who were then planning the Warringah Expressway, which would ultimately cut through the municipality and result in the destruction of several hundred homes between Alfred and Arthur Streets. A plan for new flats on the land would have suggested the potential value of the site and, therefore, increased the compensation paid.

After an intensive site visit Gruzman discovered that the owner’s intent had changed and construction was to proceed as soon as possible – perhaps because resumption was no longer imminent or possibly to stave off a forced sale. When completed, the Expressway just grazed the edge of this part of Alfred Street.

It was an extraordinary opportunity for an architect just one year into private practice. Gruzman recalled that ’fake Colonial and Tudor’ was still the fashion; but Modernism was also being more widely embraced: ‘Sydney at that time was one of the most exciting places anywhere in the world from the point of view of small architectural works... a few others and myself each attempting, in our own way, to solve human problems through architecture.’ (in Gruzman and Goad, Neville Gruzman: An Architect and his City, 2006)

Gruzman’s design for the small block of eight flats was innovative. In order to provide both views and sun for the living areas in each unit, he created the first double-storey flats in Australia. Just as interesting was the construction – a thin skin of glass and metal often called a ‘curtain wall’. Where other structures were obviously built of brick or concrete, ‘Montrose’ was an extraordinary early example of minimalist Modernism, where the load-bearing structure of the building was virtually invisible.

The building that Gruzman designed was to have been a smaller model for a much larger block behind. In the end this did not happen. The second building, built shortly after, was heavy with brick and concrete. It still looms over its smaller, elegant and lightweight predecessor.

The masonry of the large building shows its age. ‘Montrose’, by contrast, displays something rare among Modernist buildings. It looks new even when it is more than half a century old.