Flagstaff House today

The Age reported on the weekend, under the headline Is this office block worth saving?, on the developing struggle to protect a two-storey “modernist heritage building” in the western end of Melbourne’s CBD.

To the casual observer, the two-level office block opposite Flagstaff Gardens in King Street wouldn’t bear a second glance…But Flagstaff House, on the corner of Batman and King streets in West Melbourne, is a modernist heritage building and a battle is brewing to save it, led by Melbourne City Council and heritage activists.

Designed by well-known architects of the era, Yuncken Freeman, Flagstaff House was built in 1968 and originally used as the firm’s offices. It’s protected by an individual heritage overlay under Council’s planning scheme.

The developer, DCF Property, wants to build a 24-storey tower with 70 apartments and 158 hotel suites. But The Age’s headline is misleading. DCF Property proposes to incorporate the façade of Flagstaff House in its development, whether for marketing reasons, architectural expression, or because it calculates it’ll make getting planning approval easier (see second exhibit). The interior has been changed in the past and now has little heritage value.

The point at issue is whether the proposed tower is sufficiently differentiated from the existing building. National Trust chief Simon Ambrose is quoted by The Age as saying the proposal would leave only a “tokenistic facade.” Rohan Story from Melbourne Heritage Action says:

What is currently a very horizontal building would become just a footnote at the bottom of what is a very large building…It could be a good idea if the tower is set back a long way and the facade at least looks like a separate building and sits in its own context.

Council refused planning approval and the developer has appealed to the planning court (VCAT).

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Flagstaff House’s heritage value is attributed in part to the reputation of the designers, Yuncken Freeman, who designed a number of notable post-war buildings in Melbourne and other cities, including Sydney Myer Music Bowl, State Office Block, and BHP House. It’s also claimed to be significant because the firm designed it as its own office.

Flagstaff House is described in the West Melbourne Heritage Review as architecturally and aesthetically valuable because it’s inspired by the work of internationally famous architect Mies van der Rohe:

The new Flagstaff House is inspired by van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951), among others. As a `skin and bones’ (van der Rohe) architectural concept, the design can be seen as a horizontal parallel to the commercial towers of BHP house (1967-1972) and the aluminium clad Eagle House (1971-2)…

Aesthetically, the most accomplished, early small-scale International Modern office designs in Victoria, serving as a prototype for the design and development of BHP house as well as an advertisement for the firm’s design direction; perhaps one of the most faithful of the Mies van der Rohe inspired designs in Victoria, following an internationally applauded design theme.

Is this office block sufficiently important that it warrants restricting the form of development? That question will be addressed in the planning tribunal on the law as it stands, such as it is; my interest is in the broader (non-legal) claims of this building to heritage protection.

Great care is needed when protecting buildings because it’s not the same as safeguarding other heritage objects, like literary or artistic works. It invariably comes at a significant cost. Increasing the setback on this building is likely to impact the project’s profitability and perhaps its viability. That could in turn directly impede the supply of apartments and hotel rooms in the city. Moreover, those who demand protection aren’t usually the ones who pay for it. The burden is carried by the property owner, by home seekers who could face prices higher than they otherwise need to be, and by businesses who might have to deal with higher accommodation costs.

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Bearing that in mind, there are some relevant points to consider:

  • Flagstaff House is not listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. Nor is it registered by the National Trust. It’s protected by an individual heritage overlay as part of the Melbourne Planning Scheme. Around 6,100 properties are protected by overlays in the municipality. It’s graded ‘B’ but a review in 2015 recommended upgrading it to ‘A’ status.
  • Yuncken Freeman was a successful firm in its day, but so no doubt were many other organisations in various fields e.g. law firms, medical practices, corporations, public agencies, sports clubs, community organisations. It’s contribution to the city’s social and economic history is worthy, but unexceptional. This seems a weak rationale for incurring the cost of protecting a building.
  • The building’s claim to protection on architectural merit is stronger but still problematic. It’s claimed to be inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House, but that’s a stretch. The latter is a small, almost transparent dwelling set in a bucolic landscape; the relationship with Flagstaff House is superficial.
  • Mies’ S R Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology, completed in 1956, is a much more plausible stimulus. Indeed, the resemblance in the facade is very direct. I’d argue it’s more derivative of Crown Hall than inspired by it; there’s not much indication Flagstaff House provides an original interpretation of Mies’ trademark idiom.
  • There are other extant buildings in Melbourne designed by Yuncken Freeman from the 50s to the 70s that have superior claims to protection on the basis of their contribution to the state’s social and architectural history than Flagstaff House. These include Macarthur Place, Cardinal Knox Centre, Eagle House, Estates House, Sydney Myer Music Bowl, BHP House, and more. There’s the ACT Law Courts, Canberra Civic Centre, and the Eagle Star Insurance Building in Adelaide.

In my view Flagstaff House is a handsome building. The renders show the designer of the new development (Plus Achitecture) has sought to integrate the original facade with the tower, repeating the vertical ribbed mullions of the original. I think that works well; it’s a respectful and appropriate approach that politely exceeds the contribution Flagstaff House makes to the history of the state’s architectural development.

I think the big issue highlighted by this debate is the increasing tendency to conflate aesthetic fashion with heritage significance. Historical and architectural narratives are being conjured to justify protection of newly fashionable modernist buildings from the 60s and 70s with scant regard for their real heritage significance, or the cost imposed on others.

Proposed development by DCF Property, showing retention of the facade of Flagstaff House (source: Plus Architecture)