Is it time for a National Architecture Gallery?

Moves by heritage organisations to increase protection for so-called brutalist 60s and 70s buildings suggests it’s time to get serious about establishing a National Architecture Gallery

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Former Hoyts cinema centre (Source: News Ltd)

The Herald-Sun reports Heritage Victoria has recommended to the State’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, that “the former Hoyts Cinema Centre in Bourke St be heritage-listed.” The Minister however is reported as saying “I don’t think we should be saving ugly buildings in Melbourne”.

Heritage advocates learned long ago that seeking to protect buildings primarily on the basis of their aesthetic merit or contemporary functional relevance is not a reliable strategy. They focus instead on a building’s historical virtue, broadly defined to include social, economic and architectural history.

The Executive Director of Heritage Victoria says the former Hoyts complex, which was completed in 1969, is significant at the State-level because:

  • It was the first multi-cinema complex in Victoria
  • It was the first cinema centre in Australia to incorporate a rentable office tower
  • The form of the office tower drew inspiration from Asia (when the dominant style in Victoria at the time was modernist curtain wall construction)
  • The building displayed early characteristics of the emerging brutalist style.

I think the claim in respect of the buildings contribution to the history of brutalism is far-fetched (see Does this car park warrant heritage protection?) but I’ve no reason to doubt the veracity of the other assertions. What I do query though is whether they’re of such moment that they justify the inherent costs of protection.

Protection isn’t free. Apart from the cost incurred by the owner, it imposes costs on the community. It can reduce the supply of alternative uses like housing or office space, with consequent implications for affordability. It can also increase pressure to develop other sites more intensively (see Does architectural heritage mean really old?).

Protection can also inhibit finding economic uses for a building. For example, community organisation Melbourne Heritage Action opposes a proposal to add a floor to the top of the Hoyts tower (1).

These costs distinguish buildings and large structures from the way other events and artefacts of historical importance are treated. The record of key turning points in the evolution of our society – for example, wars, universal suffrage, free public education – necessarily relies almost entirely on ephemeral media.

We can’t experience most history directly so we rely on books, films, debates and discussions. In the absence of a physical presence, we consequently tend to focus more on their meaning and implications.

Even where there’re tangible manifestations, like paintings and artefacts, they’re almost always small and portable. They can be accommodated in galleries, museums and interpretation centres.

That enables them to be managed and safeguarded at a fraction of the cost of protecting a building. They can also be supported by interpretive media and displayed along with contextually similar objects.

Take the history of nearly any field – for example, the Australian trade union movement – and it’s recorded almost entirely in ephemeral media and small artefacts like banners and photographs.

However with buildings we have the option of preserving them in their entirety so inevitably that’s what advocates often seek to do. In effect we give them the same significance as the natural landscape notwithstanding some buildings proposed for protection have only been around for 50 years or less.

There are certainly some existing structures that warrant the cost of protection. We paid a high price for the wholesale demolition in the 1960s and 70s of many important buildings constructed in our cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But in the overall scheme of things the historical claims to protection of buildings like the former Hoyts cinema complex or the Total car park are much less compelling. That’s not to say they don’t have some historical value but rather that it’s not enough to justify the private and social costs of preservation.

I have to wonder how a proposal to demolish Sydney’s Cahill Expressway or Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway would fare on the same logic used by Heritage Victoria. I expect these barriers between the city and the water would have a much more convincing historical case for preservation than the former Hoyts cinema centre.

As an alternative to protection, we could instead “preserve” some worthy buildings in a National Architecture Gallery. It would exhibit documents and artefacts associated with a particular building, but the key offering would be a virtual re-creation of the structure.

3-D modelling and developing holographic techniques would enable a virtual walk-through of a building and, moreover, provide simulated access to parts – like offices and services – that would very likely remain off-limits to the public if the building were protected. Indeed, a National Architecture Gallery could bring back to (virtual) life those valuable historic buildings already lost to demolition.

A computer-generated representation isn’t, of course, the same as the real thing. It can’t substitute for preservation of really important buildings and structures, although it could provide a useful complement offering a much richer and more accessible way  (e.g. on-line) to appreciate them.

It would however be a way of addressing cases where the social cost of protection exceeds the social benefits; or where the benefits accrue to a very narrow section of the community.

As it happens I disagree with Mr Guy’s view that the former Hoyts cinema centre is ugly. These are subjective judgements and tastes will differ, but I think it’s quite handsome, if bland. I think it has some historical interest too.

But the fact it’s an attractive building isn’t enough to justify permanent protection. If I can get a rich appreciation of an important social advance such as the eight hour day largely via books and articles, I can live without the social cost of a permanent ten storey monument celebrating the coming of the first multi-cinema complex to Victoria.

If I want to know more about this building then a permanent 3-D walk-through in a National Architecture Gallery would be a pretty good outcome.

Update: Planning Minister Matthew Guy picks Melbourne’s eyesores.


  1. Apparently MHA’s opposition wasn’t successful in this case (but no formal objection from MHA?)
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4 thoughts on “Is it time for a National Architecture Gallery?

  1. Alan Davies

    melburnite #3:

    There might well be some buildings with heritage listing that I wouldn’t agree with but many more I would, so I’m not “questioning the idea of heritage altogether”. It’s extreme to portray someone who objects to some proposed listings, and possibly even some existing ones, as anti the whole concept of listing.

    The difficulty with buildings is that they cost vastly more to protect than other events/artifacts of historical interest. Further, how they function and how they relate to the city is relevant because they can’t simply be locked away or moved somewhere out of the way (like The Yellow Peril).

    So when it comes to buildings, we need to think very carefully about what we protect and whose interests it serves. Our primary need is to understand the forces and consequences of history; that’s the really important stuff. We don’t have to preserve the physical evidence in every case.

  2. melburnite

    I am worried that when it comes to the preservation of modernist buildings that you raise objections that could just as well apply to older places already listed, in effect questioning the idea of heritage listing altogether.

    For instance historical significance isnt just the ephemeral stuff that comes from an era, or the records of events. History also belongs to physical places, where you can experience the place just like those who experienced it 100 or 40 years ago. For instance Trades Hall, built on the back of the 8 hr day, with its neo-classical prominence, many meeting rooms and main hall where many decisions were made, is mainly historically important, but experiencing the real thing is something that 3D modeling photographs or records cannot give you. Then there is the history of architecture as an art itself; this is also something that is best experienced by the real thing, not a model. Though as you rightly point out, as an art, you cant put buildings in a gallery, they have to stay where they are (usually).

    Then you argue there are costs associated with preservation that must be taken into account. Namely that keeping one place means expense for that owner and ‘tying up’ a place means redevelopment must go elsewhere which is more expensive somehow, as if there arnt hundreds of other places already being developed. I havnt seen any evidence of the latter, except perhaps in regard to large heritage precincts in the middle suburbs, which sends development to other areas, but the houses themselves are actually made more valuable by the protection.

    And then you argue that being attractive isnt enough. Yet this is the basis for the bulk of heritage listing, if often unstated. I suppose you are arguing in this case the Hoyts building isnt attractive ‘enough’, but its attractiveness is subjective, and not a basis for listing in this case. It is seen as important in the history of architectural development for many reasons, and is also quite a unique design; so there are good objective reasons for assessing it as important.

    You also seem to have a time limit, saying that in effect that 50 years isnt ‘old enough’. English Heritage has a 30 year rule, which is considered just long enough to enable an appreciation of historical context. 50 years is too long – if we had that, then art deco buildings like the Russell Street Police Station, built 1943, would not have been protected in the 1980s, and may have been demolished or extensively altered before it could be protected.

    I think you should do a bit of research around heritage listing – there are a number of studies looking at the economic effects, and the results appear to be as often positive as negative. The Burra Charter (available on-line) explains the accepted criteria for identifying the significance of a place, and how to manage change, since listing doesnt mean ‘no change’. Not to mention the intangible benefits of having historic buildings around, giving us a sense of continuity and lived history, attributes that are hard to give a cost benefit to, but which do exist.

    I also think you should look up some of the less then 50 years old modernist and brutalist places the Heritage Vic have already listed, like the former BHP tower (1973) on Bourke and William, Harold Holt Pool in Malvern (1969) and the State Government Offices 1 Macarthur Street next to the Old Treasury (1966) and see what you think…..

  3. Russell

    Yes, cities change, as they should… But not always for the better

    Quite few years ago (late 80s) I was involved in a campaign (basically me writing unpublished letters to the editor) to save the Balmain Power Station on Sydney’s Iron Cove from demolition by listing it.

    This was way before the Tate Modern, and industrial buildings were widely despised – much like “brutalist” building like Hoyts are today. The power station (not to be confused with the still standing but crumbling away White Bay Power Station nearby) was a massive and incredibly elegant 30s modernist structure – now remembered only by a single forlorn plaque. My suggestion then that it was “heritage” was treated as a joke.

    It was torn down after several developers went broke fighting Leichhardt Council – which had its powers stripped but regrettably returned during the resulting 15-year planning debacle. This beautiful structure (try Google Images, you’ll see what I mean – but don’t confuse it with White Bay) was eventually replaced by some astonishingly mediocre Council-approved apartment blocks. They’ve been aptly labeled (by Elizabeth Farrelly and others) as “Balmain Sores”

    Russell: This seems to be it. (AD)

  4. Malcolm Street

    Re. not relying on contemporary aesthetic criteria, quite right, given that both Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station and Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building only a few decades ago were regarded as eyesores.

    Re. the virtual gallery idea – new buildings are produced as 3D computer models first anyway, so in the future very little new work will be needed to create the sorts of models you are referring to.

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