Before and after looking north along Queens St
Before and after view of podium looking east over Queen St towards river (Customs House on right and heritage-listed fig tree in back centre)

Brisbane City Council’s decision to approve a 47-storey residential tower that Cbus wants to build next door to the city’s historic Customs House on the Brisbane River has ignited a firestorm of criticism.

Some of the disapproval is about process issues including code assessment, transferable development rights, flexible height limits and other arcane planning gobbledegook; but the approval is valid. Some of it’s about the impact on views of the former Customs House from various vantage points; but they’ll be no worse than at present.

Many of these objections are tactical. The underlying issue I think is the idea that such a large building so close to the heritage-listed Customs House disrespects it and reminds many of the city’s fraught history in protecting its historic built environment e.g. Cloudland ballroom, Bellevue hotel.

The Chair of the Qld Heritage Council, Professor Peter Coaldrake, put the case for the prosecution succinctly: it “would compromise the dignity of Brisbane’s iconic heritage-listed Customs House”

Courier-Mail columnist Kathleen Norris says the Cbus proposal “demeans” Customs House as surely as demolishing it:

Proportions matter. Size matters. Breathing space for these heritage buildings matters. No one’s talking demolition but there’s more than one way to ruin or demean a heritage building or place, its outlook, its gravitas, just as comprehensively as if you called in the Deen Brothers.

She reckons the issue goes to the idea of what kind of city Brisbanites want. She sought the opinion of Richard Kirk, President of the Qld Institute of Architects:

He says other cities around the world tenaciously protect and celebrate their heritage buildings, while Brisbane has new buildings jammed right up against its historical landmarks. “This shows a complete lack of understanding of their role in place making and of the ongoing contribution their low scale and intricate detail provides to the richness of the city.’’

The lead designer of the new building, Architectus, says it sought to make the open undercroft of the podium consistent in scale with Customs House; moreover, it says the building will be no closer than the existing five storey building it will replace.

Even so, I think it would be hard to deny that it will impact on the setting of Customs House.

Partly that’s because of the sheer size of the new development in terms of its height and width, but I think it’s also  in part because of the “busyness” of the proposed podium with its intensely articulated façade and profusion of greenery. It’s an attention grabber in its own right, not a bland background like the existing building it will replace.

This issue of giving heritage-listed buildings “breathing space” is an interesting one because there are costs as well as benefits. What if the Cbus proposal had been denied in order to maintain the “dignity” of Customs House? In that event:

  • The existing five storey building on the northern side of Customs House that’s slated to be replaced would remain. It presents a solid barrier to the river whereas the new development will be “porous”; it will be raised at ground level and provide more public space and direct pedestrian connections to the river.
  • The opportunity to provide an architecturally interesting building reflective of the sub-tropical character and contemporary aspirations of Brisbane would be foregone. Some argue the Cbus proposal is the “right building in the wrong place” but that’s a dubious proposition. It’s very unlikely the same coincidence of commercial and architectural variables that come together on this site will serendipitously come together on another one.
  • An increase in dwelling supply of around 250 units would be foregone. Rather than small one bedroom CBD units so many complain of, most of the proposed apartments have two and four bedrooms (forget “shoddy dogboxes” and cue “penthouses for silver-tails”?).

So what? Are these benefits sufficient to justify a building of this scale so close to an historic building? Alternatively, is the Customs House so valuable that this building should not have been approved?

Customs House is certainly historic – it was completed in 1896 – but it’s value lies primarily in its former utilitarian port function rather than its architectural merit. That value demands protection of the building but it doesn’t make a case for sanitising development on adjacent sites.

In design terms, it’s an accomplished building of its time and it’s certainly quite handsome, but it’s not outstanding architecture like, for example, Robin Dod’s St Brigid’s in Red Hill completed 18 years later. Again, it most certainly warrants protection against demolition, but it’s arguable its architectural merit is so great that development should be constrained on adjacent sites.

It’s quite common in Europe to see historic buildings cheek by jowl with newer developments. Perhaps we suffer in the “new world” from the implicit assumption that there’s always more space to sprawl somewhere else?

There’s already a 22 storey tower on the other (southern) side of Customs House that’s at least as close to it as the proposed building will be. In fact there are plenty of tall buildings in the immediate vicinity of Customs House.

This is, after all, the CBD. It’s a vastly different place to what it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Customs House had large grounds surrounding it and few other buildings competing with it in scale. This building is an important part of Brisbane’s history, but despite the hyperbole it’s not London’s St Paul’s or the Sydney Opera House – 25 metres separation is enough.

Customs House no doubt reflected the Victorian spirit of Brisbane when it was completed in 1896 and its historic value is beyond doubt. But in my view the greenness, openness and connection with the river of the proposed building captures the contemporary character and aspirations of Brisbane much better than the worthy but staid Victorian pile. The new millennium deserves some air too; the two buildings can live and breathe together despite the age gap.

Update:

Looking north on Queen St
Looking north on Queen St with Customs House in right foreground