Hoyts Mid City cinema Bourke St Melbourne. Planning Minister Matthew Guy hasn't made a decision yet on whether he will give it heritage protection. Photo by Ken Roe 2006

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, yesterday approved heritage protection for a further 87 buildings in Melbourne’s CBD that were built between 1850 and 1930, including the former Argus building and the Commercial Union building.

However he was criticised for not extending protection to a further nine buildings constructed post-war, between 1959 and 1976. They include a number of modernist and so-called ‘brutalist’ buildings:

  • Hoyts Mid City cinemas, 194-200 Bourke Street
  • London Assurance House, 468-470 Bourke Street
  • Atlas Assurance Co building, 404-406 Collins Street
  • Royal Assurance Group building, 430-422 Collins Street
  • National Mutual Plaza, 435-455 Collins Street
  • ES & A Bank building, 453-457 Elizabeth Street
  • Former CBA branch building, 463-465 Elizabeth Street
  • Former RACV headquarters, 111-129 Queen Street
  • Dillingham Estates House, 114-128 William Street

The key decision the Minister should make when considering any proposal for protection is whether the heritage value justifies the ‘cost’ in terms of how the site could otherwise be used. The benefits seem obvious to those advocating protection, but the potential downsides are not always well understood.

Apart from the cost incurred by the owners of each site, it’s really an issue of scale. A single site withdrawn from the pool of redevelopment opportunities will have a limited impact. But if the total supply of redevelopment sites is overly constricted due to heritage (or other) constraints, the cost of new residential and commercial developments could increase.

That could have significant negative implications like reduced housing affordability, not only in the city centre but also across the wider metropolitan area. Further, there might consequently be greater pressure to develop the (smaller) pool of remaining sites more intensively e.g taller buildings. Decisions on protection should be made with a full understanding of the wider implications.

Proposals to protect more recent buildings add a relatively new level of complexity to the assessment of whether heritage protection is warranted. There are a number of issues I want to discuss in relation to that. They’re more in the nature of observations than a structured argument one way or the other.

Although some post-war buildings already enjoy protection, making the case for newer buildings is considerably harder than it is for a grand nineteenth century hotel like the Windsor. The virtue of protecting very old buildings like the Windsor or the Regent Theatre is now beyond debate because virtually everyone gets their historical significance and likes the look of them. They’re very old and very elaborate; they’re from another era; and their architecture is very different to that of contemporary buildings.

But it’s less likely there’s broad-based support for protecting newer building like the Hoyts cinema complex or the National Mutual Plaza in Collins St. A significant proportion of the wider population is old enough to have witnessed the Hoyts complex and the other eight buildings being constructed and accordingly might not think they have historical value in the sense they understand it. They’ve probably never thought of them as being special or important buildings.

The modernist style doesn’t connect with the ‘great unwashed’ in the way that lost buildings like the now demolished Federal Hotel and Coffee Palace do. It’s not especially appealing to popular contemporary sensibilities. There’s an irony there – modernist architects ignored popular taste and ran their own race. It shouldn’t be surprising if there’s not much popular support for protecting such buildings now (although there’s undoubted support from many of the cognoscenti).

Another complexity is that few of these buildings have high intrinsic architectural merit. They’ve been proposed for protection because of the historical value of their function and as examples of the style they represent. They don’t even have to do the latter particularly well or with originality, as exemplified by the former ES&A Bank building at 453 Elizabeth St. Mostly they’re there because there’s not much else left from the era/style that’s still reasonably intact (although again the former ES&A Bank couldn’t be described as intact – it’s had apartments built on top!).

If it were still standing, I’ve little doubt that one of the most universally hated buildings in Melbourne, the Gas and Fuel Corporation towers in Flinders St, would be at the top of the list for protection. Built in 1967, the twin towers stood tall and defiant over the rail lines until they were demolished in 1996 to public acclaim to make way for Federation Square. It would be a simple matter on the strength of the current nine examples to devise a very compelling case for protecting them from demolition e.g. first twin tower development, first development over a rail line, first development integrated with a rail station, etc. The fact is a story can be put together to justify protecting almost any building.

The underlying issue with protecting newer buildings is they challenge conventional understandings of what ‘heritage’ means. As part of a separate exercise Melbourne City Council is proposing protection for an apartment complex completed in 1994 (that’s only one year before my son, now in Year 12, was born!). It’s reasonable to ask whether or not ‘heritage’ implies ‘history’ and, in turn, if that necessarily implies buildings must be assessed for protection with the benefit of (temporal) distance. If so, how much?  And if not……?

Most of history is recorded in relatively ephemeral ways (books, film, recordings, web sites) with some museums or  shrines to represent epochal events e.g. Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. There’s not much alternative of course; these are mostly events not things. In contrast, we protect whole buildings, sometimes on the basis of some arcane architectural history that’s understood by, and only of interest to, a microscopic fraction of the population. Of course, that’s because in the case of buildings we can. It suggests though that physical preservation might not always be necessary e.g. in the case of buildings whose value is marginal. Perhaps the most appropriate way to ‘preserve’ the Hoyts Mid City centre would be on film?

Here’s a challenging thought: today’s generations were done a disservice by the wholesale destruction of old buildings and streetscapes in the 60s and 70s, but were the generations of the 1950s better off because buildings like the Regent Theatre and the Windsor and Federal Hotels replaced what was there before them? We would give future generations greater choice by maximising the number of protected buildings. Yet if that limits economic and social improvement, we might do them a disservice.

Let me emphasise I’m not arguing against the principle of protection. As I said at the outset, this piece is more in the nature of some observations. I think it’s vital, though, that we understand protection always has both a private and a social cost – it’s never free. Those who benefit from protection aren’t necessarily or even usually those who pay the cost. We should think very hard about limits – what we choose to protect or not protect.

I think there are ideas, like the annual “preservation budget” proposed by Edward Glaeser, that’re worth thinking about. It’s also worth thinking about other options for ‘preserving’ some of our architectural heritage. Maybe it’s time we had a dedicated architectural heritage museum.