Qld Cultural Centre complex designed by Robin Gibson (source: Australian Institute of Architects application for Heritage Register nomination. Photo by Richard Stringer)

The Qld Minister for Heritage Protection, Steven Miles, announced last week that the extensive Qld Cultural Centre complex in South Brisbane will be placed on the state Heritage Register.

The listing, which was originally proposed by the Australian Institute of Architects, includes most of the State’s premier cultural institutions; the Art Gallery, Museum, Performing Arts Centre and The Edge at the State Library of Queensland.

These were all designed by well-known Qld architect Robin Gibson and built by the Bjelke-Petersen Government over the period 1976-1988. (1)

The Minister emphasised the political dimension to the decision, saying it “puts an end to controversial plans – proposed by the former LNP Government – to build two high-rise towers in the precinct”.

He also noted that the decision wasn’t taken by him but by the Qld Heritage Council. I don’t know the reasoning behind Council’s decision because it hasn’t explained itself; at the time of publishing there’s still no mention of the decision on the Council’s web site.

However the Institute of Architect’s nomination form sets out the affirmative case. It argues the complex qualifies on seven of the eight criteria (a nomination only has to meet one!) for listing under the Heritage Act. On the criterion of aesthetic significance, the Institute says: (2)

(It) is of exceptional aesthetic significance as a highly unified and sculptural building complex painstakingly realised over more than a decade. It is recognised as a nationally pre-eminent example of Brutalist architecture, an aesthetic movement which was important in the second half of the twentieth century as a reaction to the abstraction associated with international modernism. (It) demonstrates key aspects of Brutalism, but softened, and made publicly palatable by its visual unity which results from the dimensional regularity both in plan and section, the repetitive use of cubic forms, often stepped, and consistent and well resolved details. Sand-blasted off-white concrete has been used throughout.

I expect there won’t be much criticism of this decision but there are some aspects to it worth thinking about further.

This isn’t a cost-free decision. It necessarily constrains to a significant degree the scope to expand and change the existing buildings within the precinct. These facilities were all designed 30-40 years ago and they’re already cramped for space and the demands of modern practice.

This is also a special tract of land. It’s a very large precinct in a strategic location; it’s in the CBD and on the river. It’s one of the most important sites in the city.

Listing limits the options available to future generations to do something else with such an important area. High-culture was doubtless an appropriate use back in the 70s but it might not make as much sense in the Brisbane of the future.

The Institute’s nomination conflates the cultural value of the institutions with that of the land and buildings. However it’s important to understand that listing protects the site and the buildings, not the institutions. The continuation of the various performances and exhibitions is not affected by this decision, only their future location and physical setting.

The Institute also puts much emphasis on the idea of a cultural precinct i.e. of having the major institutions co-located. I think listing could actually have the perverse effect of weakening the value of the precinct because it limits its potential for change.

But the bigger question is whether a cultural cluster is a good idea for Brisbane either now or, more importantly, in the future. Precincts are usually justified on the basis of agglomeration economies; all those productive artists/performers living and working cheek-by-jowl, learning from each other, and synergistically driving creativity.

That’s a rosy notion though, because Qld’s cultural precinct is not primarily about producing art; it’s mainly about consuming art. That’s an important function but it makes it an exhibition district, not an innovation district.

Nor is the precinct a hot-bed of numerous independent theatres, galleries and studios with the scope and incentive to incubate new talent and new ideas. It accommodates just a handful of major State-owned and state-managed cultural institutions with a remit to cater to the entire State.

Moreover it’s located in the State’s prime business region with some very up-market housing and commercial space; housing and studio space is well beyond the incomes of the vast majority of artists and performers.

The institutions also make a disparate group. The spillovers for artists and performers between the performing arts and the gallery, much less the museum, aren’t likely to be so large they make co-location necessary or even desirable. Maybe they’re stronger for arts administrators.

A cultural precinct seemingly make sense from a visitor’s perspective because there are multiple institutions on the one large site; it’s a one-stop shop. I don’t know how many visitors go to multiple buildings in the one session; I suspect not many.

These institutions don’t need to be co-located. They could operate in different parts of the CBD rather than on such a large, strategically valuable area of land. The Palaszczuk Government might even think about whether any of them might be better located in the suburbs where they might help drive urban development; and perhaps expand the range of visitors.

The idea of a cultural precinct was attractive to the Liberal partner in the Bjelke-Petersen coalition government of the late 70s and early 80s because it signalled Brisbane was finally a grown-up and sophisticated city. But it’s 2015 now; Brisbane should rightly throw off the cringe mentality and feel more comfortable in its own skin.

Many observers will doubtless assess the decision to list on the architectural significance of the precinct. In my view, the art gallery is a very good example of 1970s modernism – perhaps even an outstanding one – but the other buildings less so. The performing arts centre is at best pedestrian.

But because it heavily constrains what can be done with the site in the future, the hurdle for heritage listing has to be higher than good or even great. An important legal precedent merely exists on paper and in the ether; an historically significant building occupies space.

I agree with the Institute that Robin Gibson was a very good architect but not, I think, quite in the elevated class of some of his contemporaries, like the brilliant James Birrell. A case can be made for the Art Gallery, but I’m not convinced the rest of the precinct is important enough to justify protection for posterity, especially on such a strategically valuable site.

I have a particular interest in Brisbane because it’s where I spent most of my childhood. I think it’s best years are ahead of it. The Qld Cultural Centre complex has its virtues but it’s not a laurel worth resting on; Brisbane should aspire to more in such a pre-eminent location.

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  1. The decision does not cover the State Library, which was extensively redeveloped, nor the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), which opened in 2006.
  2. Section 35 (1) of the Qld Heritage Act 1992 says a place may be entered in the Queensland heritage register as a State heritage place if it satisfies 1 or more of the following criteria:
(a) the place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history;
(b) the place demonstrates rare, uncommon or endangered aspects of Queensland’s cultural heritage;
(c) the place has potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of Queensland’s history;
(d) the place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class of cultural places;
(e) the place is important because of its aesthetic significance;
(f) the place is important in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement at a particular period;
(g) the place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons;
(h) the place has a special association with the life or work of a particular person, group or organisation of importance in Queensland’s history.