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Chemistry Centre

The building on the corner of Plain and Hay Streets was part of the former State Government Laboratory complex.  It was built in 1952 to house the Industrial Chemistry section of the Laboratory.  Later it was referred to as the Material Science Building, then the Chemistry Centre and today as ChemLabs. 

The first Government Laboratory was established in Fremantle in the 1890s, then transferred to Perth in 1906 to new laboratories on Wellington Street next to Royal Perth Hospital.  By the end of the 1930s the Government again needed to relocate its Laboratory, not only because it was outgrowing its Wellington Street site, but also because of the vibrations from the adjacent hospital plant caused the Laboratory to shake, damaging the fine instruments and equipment and making delicate operations virtually impossible for most of the day.  In 1940, the Government chose this site in East Perth which was commodious and largely undeveloped.   However, most importantly, seismographic examinations carried out on the site ensured that it was free of vibrations.  The new WA Government Chemical, Mineralogical and Analytical Laboratory in East Perth was occupied by 1942 although the final fitout of the building was delayed owing to wartime restrictions and shortages.  It was officially opened in November 1944.   

In 1952, a new Industrial Chemistry building was constructed on the corner of Hay and Plain Streets.  The industrial chemistry section of the Laboratory undertook testing for both government and private enterprise, and carried out a wide range of scientific research and support services becoming the premier analytical chemistry facility in the State.  The building is also significant as an excellent, and possibly the strongest, example of the Functionalist architectural style in the State and in particular the work of internationally acclaimed Dutch architect, Willem Dudok, whose work inspired the design of this building.  Being a chemical laboratory, it was a perfect platform to express the principles and inspirations of the Modernist movement which advocated progress through science and technology and designs that met functional needs, and represents the globalisation of architecture whereby architecture emerging from one part of the world is adopted and reworked in another part of the world to suit site-specific conditions.   

In 1986, the Government announced its future vision for a new site at Curtin University in Bentley.  Transitions and changes were gradually implemented until 2009 when all operations were relocated to the Bentley site and the East Perth laboratory was totally vacated.  In the meantime the site was subdivided and some buildings demolished in preparation for a significant redevelopment, with the iconic 1952 Chemistry Centre retained and conserved for repurposing.  The site is now referred to as ChemLabs. 

Detailed Description

The building on the corner of Plain and Hay Streets was part of the former State Government Laboratory complex.  It was built in 1952 to house the industrial chemistry section of the Laboratory and called the Industrial Chemistry Building.  Later it was referred to as the Material Science Building, then the Chemistry Centre and today as ChemLabs. 

 

The first Government Laboratory was established in Fremantle in the 1890s.  With the State in the midst of a goldboom, the main purpose of the laboratory was assaying – determining the content or quality of ore i.e. gold.  However, by 1904, the work had expanded along with the growth of Western Australia to include agricultural chemistry and explosives.  With these added responsibilities and subsequent increases in staff, laboratory operations transferred from Fremantle to Perth in 1906.  The second Government Laboratory was located on Wellington Street next to Royal Perth Hospital.   

 

By the end of the 1930s the Government was again needing to relocate its Laboratory.  This was due not only to the continually increasing operations of the Laboratory outgrowing it Wellington Street site, but also to find a more suitable location because of the vibrations from the adjacent hospital plant which caused the Laboratory to shake, damaging the fine instruments and equipment and making delicate operations virtually impossible for most of the day.  

 

Planning for a new Government Laboratory complex commenced in earnest in 1940.  A site was selected that was already owned by the Government with frontages on Hay Street, Plain Street and Adelaide Terrace, East Perth, being Perth Town Lots T8, T9, and T10.  The land was commodious and largely undeveloped apart from the stables and paddock area for the police horses belonging to the nearby Police Station.  The stables had to be demolished for the new Laboratory.  However, most importantly, seismographic examinations were carried out on the site prior to the building commencing to ensure that it was free of vibrations.  

 

The new WA Government Chemical, Mineralogical and Analytical Laboratory was designed by the Public Works Department, under the guidance of Principal Government Architect, Paddy Clare.  Construction began in 1940 and by 1942 the building was occupied, although not entirely fitted out and completed owing to wartime restrictions and shortages of building supplies and labour.  It was officially opened in November 1944.  Originally estimated to cost £31,000 the total cost ended up being £42,000.  Owing to the war-time restrictions at the time it was completed, the fit-out was initially limited, there were shortages of new scientific equipment and no funds were available for landscaping.  However, the new Laboratory, which covered an area of 22,000 square feet, was still a vast improvement on the old one and included new innovations such as mechanical ventilation and installation of electricity and there was plenty of room for future expansion.  At its official opening, the impact that the new Laboratory would have upon the life of the community from “the cradle to the grave” owing to the range of work that could now be carried out was emphasised, making it was the envy of the other States. 

 

The first expansion of the new Laboratory facilities was announced in 1946 when approval was given for the establishment of an industrial chemistry section of the Laboratory and a budget estimated at £10,000.  Work in the industrial chemical division was limited because of the lack of proper facilities and purpose-built unit process laboratories were desperately needed.  Site visits to laboratories in the eastern states were made to inspect the latest equipment and technology in this field resulting in the State Government, eventually providing a grant of £26,000 to purchase the new plant and equipment.   However, although the war had ended, post-war austerity and restrictions were still effecting the building industry with mass shortages in labour and materials, and construction of the Industrial Chemistry building did not commence until 1952. 

 

The new Industrial Chemistry Building constructed on the corner of Hay and Plain Streets was also designed by Paddy Clare and the PWD architectural team, using brick and tile to harmonise with the fabric of the existing Laboratory buildings.  The building measured about 130ft long and 40ft wide and comprised a single large room with a concrete floor to house the large unit process plant as well as two small laboratories and office facilities.  One of the important features of the building is its architectural style.  Although built after World War II, its design was influenced by the Functionalist Style that was popular in the Inter-War period (1915-1940) and in particular the work of internationally acclaimed Dutch architect, Willem Dudok of which Clare and his team were familiar.  Being a chemical laboratory, it was a perfect platform to express the principles and inspirations of the Modernist movement prevalent at the time and influencing architects such as Dudok who advocated progress through science, technology, truth in art, and designs that met functional needs.  The building was and continues to be referred to by architectural academics as an excellent example of Functionalist design style from the 1940s and possibly the strongest remaining example of its type in the State.  It also represented the globalisation of architecture in the post-war period, illustrating how architecture emerging from one part of the world is adopted and reworked in another part of the world to suit site-specific conditions.   

 

Although mostly completed and opened by the end of 1952, it was not until 1956 that it was fully functional and all plant and services installed and operating.   The centre undertook physical and chemical testing for both government and the private enterprise.  As well as the testing carried out for the mining, water and public health sectors, its involvement in agricultural research in WA was particularly recognised and viewed as an important source of technical knowledge and problem solving on a broad range of issues.  Its capacity for wide ranging scientific research and support services cemented its position as the premier analytical chemistry facility in the State.   The broad variety of specialised work included investigations into the uses of forest products and industrial wastes, development of chemicals from seaweed, production of rare metal salts and plastics, examinations of sand and clays on building sites to determine stability of the ground for carrying heavy buildings, and even investigations into the bacteriology of ice-cream and other frozen foods.  

 

In 1986, there was again a need to review, rationalise and re-accommodate the extensive operations of the Chemical Laboratory.  The Government announced its future vision for a new site at Curtin University in Bentley which would consolidate the laboratories as a single unit within the Department of Mines and include a Mineral Research Centre.  Transitions and changes were gradually implemented to various functions and structures at the Government Laboratory in East Perth until 2009 when all operations had been relocated to the Bentley site and the East Perth site was totally vacated.  A heritage assessment was undertaken as early as 2002 for potential entry onto the State Register of Heritage Places, however it was only after many years of consultation that the place was interim registered in 2016.  In the meantime the site was subdivided and some buildings demolished in preparation for a significant redevelopment, with the iconic 1952 Chemistry Centre retained and conserved for repurposing.  The site is now referred to as ChemLabs. 

 

West Australian 18 November 1944 p. 5 

Daily News 4 April 1946 p. 7 

Great Southern Herald 3 August 1951 p. 10  

West Australian 3 September 1952 p. 6

Location