Total Car Park, Russell Street, Melbourne

Last week I discussed moves to place a 1965 modernist building in Melbourne – the Total Car Park – on the Victorian State Heritage Register.

The point I sought to make is protecting buildings imposes costs on the wider community. We therefore want to be very sure the buildings we protect from redevelopment are really worth the cost.

I’ve subsequently had a closer look at the claims of architectural and historical distinction made for this building.

Its defenders worry its design virtues will be overlooked because it’s primarily a car park. I don’t think that matters – my conclusion is its intrinsic architectural merit is not only insufficient to justify formal preservation, it isn’t especially compelling on any level.

Commenters at Melbourne Heritage Action, the group leading the charge to register the building, think it’s worthy of preservation because it resembles, variously, a “1980s Apple Mac”, “something out of The Thunderbirds” and an “old-fashioned TV set”.

I acknowledge it’s interesting to a newer generation, but I don’t think the fact it evokes (unintended) similes in the minds of some observers is adequate grounds for preservation.

The fact that none of these references would’ve made sense when the building was constructed reinforces that doubt. By definition, they’re not historical claims at all.

Indeed, I think the architect would’ve been horrified at the time by references of this type. He had pretensions to something much grander and more formal i.e. Japanese brutalism.

According to the write-up of the building in Melbourne City Council’s i-Heritage database (which only gives it a ‘B’ rating, incidentally):

Pre-cast or off-form concrete finishes successfully complete the prevailing Japanese Brutalist image, particularly that of the much lauded Kenzo Tange (see balustrade detail of the Kagawa Town Hall). More than any other multi storey commercial building in Melbourne, this design achieves the closest empathy with Tange’s work as well as a powerfully expressed, yet functional set of forms……

The ‘Statement of Significance’ says:

Melbourne’s most significant Japanese Brutalist design, achieving empathy with the style without plagiarism. Also a distinctive treatment of an adventurous use-combination, unmatched in form elsewhere in Victoria if not Australia.

Well, I think there’s an alternative interpretation: that it’s a derivative, second-rate implementation that captures none of the inspiration of the original style.

The second exhibit (scroll down) shows an image of a museum completed in 1960 by Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake. It’s a building that would’ve undoubtedly been familiar at the time to architects elsewhere.

I think it looks remarkably similar to the office “pod” on top of the Total Car Park.

The third exhibit (scroll down) shows the balustrade of the Kagawa Town Hall by the very famous Japanese architect of the era, Kenzo Tange. Again, the balustrade looks quite similar to the balustrade on the Total Car Park.

The i-Heritage database goes on to laud the structural design of the car park:

The base itself also consists of seemingly floating parking decks and the bland curtain wall of the office level is recessed so far as to appear almost disembodied from its frame. All of this was achieved with two-way cantilevering of the concrete slabs, done elegantly with cruciform beam cross-heads.

These details can be seen in the slide show provided by Melbourne Heritage Action.

But compare this building with how the cruciform beam cross-heads were executed by Tange in the Kagawa Town Hall. The Total Car Park looks like a bland, insipid imitation.

There’s subjectivity in these sorts of judgement of course, but to my eye it seems like certain elements in the Tange architectural vocabulary were picked up and applied directly in Melbourne.

I don’t have a sense that they’ve been creatively and imaginatively adapted to local circumstances, or even applied in ways that would justify terms like “interpretation”, “inspiration”, or “empathy”.

Here are some other buildings from the era by Kenzo Tange – Hiroshima Peace Palace (1955), Yoyogi National Gymnasium (1964), Yamanashi Culture Chamber (1966).

The designer of Total Car Park, who would’ve known of them, shows very little of the assurance and understanding of the brutalist style that Tange exhibits.

Whether one likes this style or not, Tange’s clearly on another plane. Those are buildings worth preserving.

The Total Car Park, by comparison, is dull, plodding and, to be frank, imitative. It’s a journeyman’s design.

It has pretensions to the Japanese Brutalist style, but it’s unoriginal, derivative, offers nothing new in its interpretation and captures none of the vision or energy of the movement.

It doubtless functioned well and satisfied users over the years and I can see why some think it’s “wacky”. But I can’t see a case for preserving it on the grounds of architectural distinction.

Museum designed by Kiyonori Kikutake (1960)
Kagawa Prefectural Government Office, designed by Kenzo Tange (1958)