Does this carpark warrant heritage protection?

A car park seems an unlikely candidate for heritage protection, but an activist group "with 1,000 Facebook supporters" wants to save Melbourne's Total Car Park from being torn down.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Total Car Park, Russell Street, Melbourne

The Age reported yesterday that a “youth activist group”, Melbourne Heritage Action, has nominated the Total Car Park (see exhibit) for possible listing on the State Heritage Register.

The President of the organisation, 27 year old Rupert Mann, is quoted in the story:

This incredible whacky design is an extremely significant piece of Melbourne’s built heritage as one of the country’s only pieces of architecture inspired by Japanese brutalism……Melbourne’s architectural heritage is an essential part of its essence as a literary and cultural city. For many young people in Melbourne that identity is important.

It’s interesting the way the term ‘brutalism’ has evolved. When I was a pimply-faced architecture student, the mere use of exposed off-form concrete was nowhere near sufficient to qualify a building for the epithet ‘brutalist’.

It was a term strictly reserved for the likes of bulky, imposing, impenetrable brutes like Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture building, the High Court in Canberra, the National Gallery in Canberra, or Sydney’s thuggish Freemasons building (before it was prudishly tamed by the later addition of that street-level glass apron).

It’s a matter of opinion of course, but it seems to me that whatever claims this carpark has to architectural significance, brutalism isn’t up there at the top. The Age’s reporter, Marika Dobbin, seems to know this intuitively.

She deftly extends and elaborates the case for preservation. As well as its claimed brutalist stature and wackiness, it’s also a “Chinatown landmark”.

It’s not just any old carpark either; she says it looks like “a stack of seven floating concrete decks crowned by an old-fashioned television set.”

The offices on top “have a history of housing some of the city’s coolest architecture firms”. Current tenants include a number of architects and “bag manufacturer Crumpler.”

On top of all that, the site’s in danger from “a mooted skyscraper development”, apparently proposed by a developer who last year “donated $20,000 towards the re-election of Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle.”

It seems to have touched some sort of chord with readers.  Of the 2,555 who voted in The Age’s online poll, 58% answered ‘yes’ to the question: “should Russell Streets Total Car Park be saved?”

There are some interesting comments on The Age’s story from those who favour protecting the building:

Modernist Brutalist architecture needs to be saved. There are plenty of other sites they could demolish.

This is a great example of mid 20th century architecture.

One thing for sure,it’s a lot more interesting than the 5000 dog-box eyesore that’s sure to follow it.

It is one of the iconic examples of the style in this country.

Like we need another tower of boring apartments and another plaza of shops.

It’s almost seems like it’s one’s patriotic duty to “save” Total Car Park! After all, it’s evidently tied to Melbourne’s “essence as a literary and cultural city.”

Yet when I look at this building I see……yet another drab carpark, albeit one with a few floors of office space on top.

It relates poorly at street level; it’s contribution to the streetscape is questionable (after all, it’s a car park!); and is of little functional relevance in a place with the best transit access in the entire State.

Whatever tenants it currently has (there’s a nightclub in the basement, too), they don’t come with formal heritage protection. They can leave any time. It’s a specious argument.

Sure, it could continue to provide economical accommodation for businesses that can’t afford top rents, but it’s in a prime location and could provide a diversity of new uses – residential and/or commercial – to help enliven the northern part of the CBD and Chinatown.

There’s an argument to be had about the appropriate scale and type of development that should take place on the site in the event the carpark were demolished (not for 7-10 years according to the owner because of existing leases).

That however is separate from the issue of whether the existing structure has so much intrinsic heritage merit it ought to be permanently protected.

Melbourne knows better than most cities the importance of protecting its heritage. The city suffered appalling losses in the 1960s and 70s (which makes me wonder: what was previously on this site?).

But protecting marginally interesting buildings (less charitable souls would say ‘dross’) could make it harder to protect the stuff that really has value and wide community support.

Protecting the run-of-the-mill also runs the risk of limiting the supply of housing and thereby possibly increasing housing prices in the centre and across the broader metro area.

By limiting the supply of development opportunities it could increase pressure to over-develop other sites.

Making claims for protection that don’t seem “legitimate” to the wider public may devalue future actions where the stakes are higher. Maintaining credibility is important.

I don’t reject outright the idea that a carpark could have important heritage value. This one on Brisbane’s Wickham Terrace has a strong case for preservation in my opinion.

But it has historical interest, real architectural merit, and is part of the legacy of an important and talented regional architect. The Total Car Park isn’t in the same class.

I suspect some of the popular support for preservation comes from the office levels looking (very vaguely) like an “old-fashioned television set”. It’s a bit different.

I don’t think mere cuteness and novelty – as distinct from genuine historical and architectural merit – provides a sound basis for preventing a site from maximising its contribution to the life of the city. It’s not enough.

Nor is it enough to say “but I like it!” Protecting buildings imposes costs on the wider community (it’s surprising how often that’s not appreciated). We want to be sure it’s worth it.

Update: More on the Total car park, Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?

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12 thoughts on “Does this carpark warrant heritage protection?

  1. Dudley Horscroft

    There is only one car park that ought to have heritage status. That is the one in Leicester where King Richard III’s bones were found.

  2. Holden Back

    So were it to be converted to a vertical skate park, you could unleash a perfect storm of harrumphing NIMBY-ism?

  3. Grant

    It’s a car park, people……

  4. Smith John

    The heritage movement started with pretty Georgian mansions, moved on to Victorian weddingcake with some misgivings (it didn’t have the purity of the Georgian), and has moved similarly to more recent periods, with some misgivings at each stage.

    For the earlier periods, there was no particular conflict between ‘significant example of a historical period’ and ‘interesting/ attractive/ worthy [in a timeless sense] architecture’.

    The heritage movement has struggled with post World War 2 styles where those criteria do conflict – where the main historic significance of the style is, arguably, that it is as ugly as sin (‘What were they smoking at the time?’).

    I think it’s inevitable, and not necessarily bad, that ‘instrinsic merit’ somehow defined has a place in the heritage preservation decision. Accordingly, ugly deadends in the history of architecture will tend to be preserved less.

    Non-heritage goals also have their place, and where they conflict it’s a matter of values – there is no objective manual where you can look up the answer.

    I think that getting rid of ugly parking garages in central Melbourne is more important than preserving this building for its historic significance.

  5. Alan Davies

    Here’s Melbourne City Council’s heritage assessment of this building. Council only gives it a ‘B’ rating.

    Total Car Park has points of interest but so do many buildings. The challenge here is whether its points of interest justify the cost to the wider community of protection.

    And here’s the Facebook page of Melbourne Heritage Action. Interesting to see that quite a few of the commenters don’t think much of this building!

  6. St Etienne

    An “icon of the city’s modernist architectural heritage” aside, it’s the purpose of this building that prevents me from shedding tears over its potential demolition. I’d be more supportive of efforts to preserve buildings that have a useful place in a modern city, whatever archictectural form they come in. Multi-level car parks are the complete opposite of that.

  7. Jim Wright

    In nominating any structure for heritage status, the main question to be asked is “what is it about this structure that contributes to the standing of the city, its culture, its role in the nation and the world and so forth. There is no doubt that it is an interesting building, but is it famous enough, or does it send a message about Melbourne or does it attract enough professional interest that people would want to visit and admire it ?
    Melbourne already has a carpark which is on the heritage list. It is the underground carpark at Melbourne University and it is reasonable to ask why it is so favoured. When it was proposed to construct it in the South Lawn area, the University insisted that it should be built underground and that the South Lawn (including substantial trees) should be reconstituted over it. This was a really tricky project because of the limited budget, but an extremely elegant solution was put forward by Dick Van Der Molen, a somewhat eccentric but very talented and inventive engineer. The roof was to be constructed from 120 odd concrete umbrella shapes called hyperbolic paraboloids. These have a bidirectional arch shape which would allow trees to be grown in the 2 metres or so of soil over the columns, reducing to half a metre or so at midspan. This geometry is very popular for roofs because it is formed from the intersection of straight lines, which makes it easy to pour concrete and the mathematics allowed a very thin layer of concrete, carrying only its own weight, to span really substantial distances (hence the type name “shell roof”).
    But now we come to the hard part. The loads on the roof were huge compared with its weight and the usual maths did not stand up. Some of the latest structural engineering software was shipped in from the University of Berkeley in California, the Melbourne University’s mainframe computer was restarted in single user mode every night to do the calculations, and in the end, it was concluded that it would stand up. The construction phase was constructed ahead of time and within budget.
    Since then, it has been used as the backdrop for several TV programs and has been quoted worldwide in technical publications. The really nice thing about it (I think!) is that inside, it has the aura of a medieval crypt and resonates very well with the traditional view of a university.
    I would not go so far as to say that the building under discussion should match the South Lawn Car Park in its character, but it is reasonable to suggest that any structure put forward for heritage status should b e instantly recognisable as making a specific contribution to Melbourne’s fame, character or culture.

  8. Alan Davies

    melburnite #3:

    You can find something special or different about almost any commercial building. That isn’t the point. What matters is whether that characteristic is sufficient to justify protecting the site against redevelopment to a higher use.

    Thanks for mentioning the opinions of the general public. They’re extraordinarily important in a society like ours, not least because the public carries the “cost” of protecting buildings. That’s why I say we need to be sure it’s worth it.

    JMNO #4:

    Can’t assume it’ll necessarily be 60 storeys. Council’s controls on the site, according to the The Age’s story, are 15 metres in Little Bourke and 60 metres in Russell. That might not mean much at present in other parts of the city centre, but this isn’t Southbank. Also, this site won’t be ready to go for a few years yet apparently, so the political outlook could be vastly different then.

  9. JMNO

    I think it is an extraordinarily ugly building, an example of the worst aspects of brutalist architecture. Don’t like the idea of yet another 60-storey building but this one isn’t worth keeping. I’ve always thought it was a blight on the landscape!

  10. melburnite

    Alan, I enjoy reading your architectural criticisms, because they reveal that your opinions are pretty much those of the general public.You decribe the Total Carpark as drab, run of the mill, or at a stretch ‘a bit different’, while the Wickham Terrace carpark has ‘real architectural merit’ yet none of these opinions are elaborated or explained.

    I think there is an instant prejudice against carparks because of what they are, raising images in the mind of dark low plain concrete places full of cars. Listing the Wickham terrace carpark came up against the same opinions in the 90s when it was proposed for listing, but is now widely appreciated. Perhaps the same could happen with Victoria’s best modernist carpark building.

    Many in the architectural community, and even the wider public already find it aesthetically appealing, not simply because it is Brutalist, but because it is a bold and unusual design. The stacked cantilevered carpark decks, with double eight entries, topped by a huge concrete box floating above on concealed supports, with deep-set curtain walls only on the north and south, together create a striking piece of architecture. Its always worth looking at ones own knee-jerk reactions, and preferably as many images as possible, when passing opinions of architectural merit.

  11. hk

    Maybe there should be a competition to find the ugliest intersection as seen at street level in the CAD. Would the street level frontage on this corner be a strong candidate to be awarded first prize?

    There is a need for street scape protection to limit visual ugliness in central Melbourne. Heritage is only one factor in retaining Melbourne’s beauty and liveability.

  12. Dylan Nicholson

    I’d prefer to see proper externality-pricing that increased the cost of ripping down and replacing buildings. It seems hard to believe there aren’t ways of refurbishing this into a unique and economically and environmentally vibrant place.

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