Jenny Brown April 21, 2012
An intriguing tower called the shots when designers worked around it in the '80s.
Imagine the head for heights required of the workers who constructed the monumental chimney-like Shot Tower, which is such a singular landmark at the start of the Eastern Freeway at Clifton Hill.
In 1882, brickies had to build on a six-metre base a gradually narrowing structure that wound up to a perilous height of 48 metres. They did a good job.
With its punctuations of small arched windows and decorative bands of polychrome patterned bricks, the Clifton Hill Shot Tower is acknowledged as a masterwork of bricklaying.
Second, imagine trudging up to work during the 60 years the tower was used as the manufacturing site of the lead pellets, or shot, used in military and hunting shotguns? The smelting site is at the top of the chimney.
The height of one of the last two remaining shot towers in Victoria - the other is within Melbourne Central - was the important factor in making molten lead into dense and deadly balls. The longer the drop, the bigger the shot.
In a process invented by an 18th-century hunter and plumber in England who had observed the way raindrops became spherical as they fell, molten lead was poured through a sieve from the top of the tower to drop down the shaft into a trough of cold water at the base.
Theoretically, the pellets would be perfectly round and ready for polishing and sorting. Those that weren't were taken back upstairs and melted again.
For most of their working lives, the two shot towers, which were ultimately owned by the family firm started by Walter Coop, were Melbourne's tallest structures. The Clifton Hill Tower, which operated until 1947, was such a dominant feature that pilots flying into Essendon Airport used it as a visual marker.
The 1888 Coops Shot Tower in what was then the industrial backblocks of Little Lonsdale Street produced six tonnes of shot weekly within a 50-metre-high castellated tower that had 327 treads to the smelting platform. It ceased operating in 1961 when newer, shorter-form shot production was engineered.
In the preparations for Melbourne's underground rail system that from the early 1970s razed most of the block between Swanston, Elizabeth and La Trobe streets, a heritage listing preserved this survivor of a rare form of 19th-century industrial architecture.
But how to integrate the brick relic sitting at the heart of a multi-use area the city council hoped would shape up as ''an outstanding major development … a zone of crucial importance to the city?''
An international design competition held in 1981 marked the start of a ''fragmented and cumbersome planning process'' that eventually settled on a Japanese-led bid that, from 1986, fabricated a new, shiny bright sector of Melbourne on top of some original red-brick factories.
In one of the strangest architectural juxtapositions in the city, Coops Shot Tower (now mainly occupied by country-attire retailer R.M. Williams, and with the remnant machinery of shot making in a small museum) sits under the cone of the 20-storey glass and steel structure designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa.
The Melbourne Central Shot Tower Museum, Level One, corner La Trobe and Elizabeth streets, is open during retail hours. Entry is free. Melway 1B M1.