Approved for demolition: Dallas Brooks Hall, Melbourne

I’m mystified there’s been no outcry from the media or heritage community following the decision of the Victorian Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, to allow the demolition of Dallas Brooks Hall.

This Melbourne landmark will be torn down to enable the construction of 273 apartments, 50 “lodging” rooms, 2,500 sq m of office space, a 1,000 sq m function room, and 478 parking spaces. (1)

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It’s puzzling because Dallas Brooks Hall is a well-known civic building and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Database as a building of State Significance for architectural, social and historical reasons. Here’s what the Statement of Significance says:

Architecturally, the Dallas Brooks Hall is unusual for including numerous halls and meeting rooms in the one complex and the major concert hall built in Victoria in the post war period before the Arts Centre. It is also a rare example of the 1960s neo-classical revival, derived from a traditional columned temple from the Greek or Roman classical period. It is a landmark in Melbourne.

Socially, the Dallas Brooks Hall, which could seat up to 2,300, has been a major venue for public events such as school speech nights, graduation ceremonies, concerts, public meetings and lectures since its construction and many Victorians have special memories of the place. It was also a major venue for musical events, especially pop music in the 1970s, with many notable local and overseas acts performing there.

Historically, the Dallas Brooks Hall, named after Sir Dallas Brooks, a top ranking Freemason and Victorian Governor, is significant as the headquarters of the Freemasons in Victoria, a secretive fraternal organization once reputed to have had a high level of influence in society. It has been Victoria’s premier place of Freemasonry, which is one of the largest and oldest fraternal organizations in the world. There are no other Masonic Lodge buildings of this scale in the state.

The complex opened in 1969 and was designed by Melbourne architects Godfrey and Spowers. The firm was established in 1901 and has persisted in various incarnations until today, having designed many major buildings in Victoria.

Yet while other 1960s buildings threatened with redevelopment like Total Car Park and Hoyts Mid City Cinema have attracted lots of public interest, the impending demolition of this well known building doesn’t appear to rate a mention on the web site of the National Trust (Vic) or of its affiliate, the usually activist body, Melbourne Heritage Action.

Melbourne City Council wrote to the Minister in December 2013 advising it had no issue with the proposed demolition. It noted the building is listed by the National Trust but “is not graded in the City of Melbourne Heritage Inventory”. Council simply told the Minister its Heritage Advisor has noted that:

…(Dallas Brooks) Hall has no recognised heritage significance within the Planning Scheme, its demolition is considered to be acceptable.

There’s no indication that there’s ever been any serious official action, or a grassroots campaign, to save Dallas Brooks Hall. With the Minister’s decision passing unremarked it seems like it’s game over for this Melbourne institution.

Now, my intent isn’t to start a campaign to save Dallas Brooks Hall. It might well be that closer examination would show that on balance the social benefits from the additional apartments and other spaces the owner wants to build justify its demolition.

Some might even think the heritage case for protection is weak. Perhaps it’s the sort of building that would be best “preserved” as a virtual 3-D exhibit in something like a national museum/gallery of architecture (see Is it time for a national architecture gallery?).

I’d certainly like to see the evidence and arguments the Minister relied on in reaching his decision, but my interest is in why it’s given rise to zero protest when lesser buildings have aroused strong community passion.

Why, for example, does a group like Melbourne Heritage Action fight vigorously and loudly to stave off potential redevelopment of the 1960s Total Car Park in Russell Street (see 2nd exhibit), yet is apparently silent on the imminent demolition of a major civic building?

I think the Total Car Park’s claims for heritage protection are much weaker. It was elevated to the State Heritage Register last year (on the motion of Melbourne Heritage Action) because it was judged to meet two of the criteria for registration.

One is it’s historically significant because it:

reflects the massive increase in car ownership in the post-World War II period and the infrastructure developed to accommodate the large numbers of cars in the City of Melbourne.

I find that an extraordinarily undemanding test; on that basis every road and freeway in Melbourne justifies listing on this criterion!

The other criterion is it’s “one of the earliest and best expressions of Brutalist architecture in Victoria” and “is also an outstanding example of Japanese influence on architecture in Victoria in the post-war period”.

It doesn’t strike me as unusual or especially significant that a utilitarian concrete  carpark, of all building types, looks harsh, severe and “brutal” – it’s a bloody car park!

As for its Japanese influence, here’s what the architectural expert retained by the owner is recorded as saying in the official report on the registration hearing: (2)

the Japanese influence is ‘very explicit to the extent that there is a significant degree of plagiarism where the influence is not demonstrated creatively but as a direct transplant of contemporary Japanese examples’

I discussed this building’s claims with respect to Japanese brutalism at length a couple of years ago ( Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?). I was circumspect in my choice of language, preferring to describe it with my customary delicacy as “a derivative, second-rate implementation that captures none of the inspiration of the original style”.

I noted the balustrades of the car park levels are remarkably similar to those of Kagawa Town Hall designed by the very famous Japanese architect of the era, Kenzo Tange (and Kagawa is not a car park). The office “pod” on top of the car park is likewise eerily similar to the museum completed in 1960 by Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake.

I wonder how much of the different attitude to protection of these two buildings is down to fashion rather than application of the heritage principles set down in the legislation.

Total House Carpark might generate support for its protection because it’s got that “wacky” office pod on the top providing office space for some small architectural practises. Dallas Brooks Hall on the other hand is staid and sober; heck, it was built by boring Freemasons and used for school speech nights.

These two cases alone don’t indicate the system isn’t working, but they should prompt the new Minister for Planning to have a look at how well it’s balancing protection of important post-war buildings against legitimate development considerations.

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  1. The Minister reduced the height of the proposed complex from 15 storeys to 12 storeys so the developer, Mirvac, will likely need to reduce the total size (original proposal is 68,000 sq m).
  2. The report of the registration application hearing is available here (scroll down to May 2014 under Recent Registration Decisions). As an aside, I wonder whether it will disappear entirely from the site once it ceases to be “recent”.
Total Car Park, Russell St Melbourne
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