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Heritage

Apr 12, 2017

What's the heritage value of this office block?

Another fashionably handsome modernist building with debatable claims to social and architectural significance is the subject of a heritage battle in Melbourne

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)

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9 thoughts on “What’s the heritage value of this office block?

    1. Alan Davies

      For me, VCAT’s decision (insofar as it relates to heritage) underlines the bigger issue; this building should not have had ‘B’ listing in the first place; much less the recommended ‘A’ listing. That doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting or pretty building; it means it doesn’t have the stuff to justify the costs it’s likely to impose on the wider community. I acknowledge it’s listing is in accordance with the law; the problem is with the law and the way it’s administered.

  1. rohan storey

    As I said last time you questioned the concept of mid century modern as being ‘heritage’, yes its odd that yesterday’s modernism is today’s heritage, but it certainly is that. After all they are 40 -60 years old now, the same age art deco was in the 80s when it started to be appreciated as heritage (and now there’s whole societies dedicated to their preservation). And yes of course it is “conflat(ing) aesthetic fashion with heritage significance”, because an appreciation of aesthetics is part of heritage significance – in fact it’s often the main aspect that people appreciate, including modernist heritage. (though in this case the building has added significance as the office of the architectural firm who designed it, who as you point out designed numerous important buildings). I really dont see why you go to such great lengths to pick apart the possible value of this particular building, especially when you quote quite a long list of other buildings by the firm that you claim have greater social and architectural importance (which include Estates House and Eagle Insurance, neither of which have great historic importance). That list in itself underpins the importance of this building as one of many excellent designs by a prolific and highly regarded firm.

    1. Alan Davies

      The issue I’m raising here isn’t whether or not post-war buildings can have heritage significance. My issue is with the push to protect buildings of any age that have doubtful claims on heritage significance.

      Being merely “pretty” or “attractive” to some strata of the population doesn’t qualify as aesthetically significant for the purposes of heritage protection.

      I “pick apart” this particular building because: (a) it’s a topical public issue (b) the claims to heritage significance are questionable (c) it’s not important architecturally; it’s close to a copy of Crown Hall rather than inspired by it (d) the restrictions sought by MHA etc might impose significant costs on the community (e) the distribution of the benefits of the sought-after restrictions is likely to be inequitable (f) the architects of the new development have designed a solution that respects the existing building by allowing it to shape the façade of the lower part of the tower.

      The last point is important. It raises the possibility of new ways of thinking about heritage rather than the old inflexible oppositional mindset that characterises much heritage advocacy in Melbourne.

      1. Bilby

        Alan, if you believe architectural significance relies on total international originality of form and design , rather than being inspired by other internationally renowned architects and buildings, then I’m afraid you’ve missed the entire point about heritage in Australia. How many Australian buildings count by your narrow criteria? The Opera House, tick. And … well, what else? By your criteria, the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Building would be pulled down by virtue of its mere emulation of Brunelleschi’s dome, our hundreds of recognisably renaissance and Palladio inspired Georgian and Victorian buildings would likewise be demolished as tacky imitations of the “real thing” in Florence, Sienna and Venice. Our Deco buildings would, likewise, be demoted by variously comparing them with finer and more nuanced examples in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. We have a colonial history, Alan, which means that our heritage needs to be appreciated in the historical context in which we find ourselves. Australian modernism is unique for its fine, sometimes local vernacular interpretation of famous (and admired, if not so famous) designs elsewhere, but if we are going to play the pea and shell game of finding the best, the most original and iconic expressions of built form between the “imitations” in Melbourne, in heritage terms, we are sunk, my friend.

        1. Alan Davies

          A building that’s a replica of a famous building or substantially plagiarises a famous one cannot lay claim to being “inspired by”. If it’s a copy, the value attaches to the original, not the copy. As for the Exhibition Building, it’s much more in architectural terms than just the dome. But more importantly, it’s heritage significance derives mostly from the momentous events it accommodated and from what Victorians wanted it to signal to the world about their colony.

          The 1960s and 1970s buildings like the one discussed above have very little to do with our “colonial history”; they need to be appreciated in their own “historical context”. Modernism never condoned replicas – even in the international era of curtain wall office towers, architects were expected to – and wanted to! – differentiate their work within the parameters of the style.

          1. Bilby

            Plato’s theory of Forms always did give me a headache, Alan, and your arcane arguments about the perceived failings of this most assured, and very much Mies inspired piece of Australian modernism are beginning to do the same.
            You can’t have it both ways – yes, the Royal Exhibition Building is significant for more than just its dome, or even its architectural expression (a now unbelievably rare typology thanks in large part to urbanists, politicians and town planners who have, one by one, condoned the demolition of each of the remaining iconic structures from the once widespread Great Exhibitions / World’s Fair movement around the world, leaving just one – the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne). It could just as easily be argued that the fact that the REB housed the first parliament of Australia was incidental, and more a product of inter-colonial rivalry at the time rather than a selection based on architectural merit or raw floor space! Moreover its association with the Great Exhibition movement has only very recently been appreciated as being of any moment, as several previous demolition attempts demonstrate (the last in the 1980s).
            In the present case, the Yuncken Freeman offices similarly have an important cultural association with the history of architecture (and specifically modernist corporate architecture) in Victoria. In this way, this little CBD building is a rare point of connection with an important local company and manifestation of this architectural movement.
            And as to the claim that the building is any more of a “replica” than any other architecturally significant building in Melbourne – in what way can you possibly mean this?
            You seem to be claiming that it “replicates” Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall building, rather than taking inspiration from it. If so, how?
            At even the most cursory glance, the main floor of Crown Hall is marked by a single, double height space, whereas the Yuncken Freeman offices are made up of two low-slung main floors, one on top of the other. How can a double storey building be meaningfully regarded as an exact “replica” of a single storey building?
            And if this is what you mean by “replica” then surely each and every other historic Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco and Modernist building in Australia is a “replica” of more essential “originals” overseas? Or am I missing something here?

            1. Alan Davies

              My comments might be many things, but “arcane” is certainly not one of them! The external mullions of Flagstaff House are a straight “lift” from Crown Hall. I’m guessing from your one-storey vs two storey comment that your not an architect, Bilby; it’s stylistic differences – architectural idiom – that matter here.

              1. Bilby

                What is your agenda here, Alan? You haven’t addressed my argument, but instead resort to personal taunts. You’re “guessing” I’m not an architect, are you? Good for you. However, your argument was categorically not about “architectural idiom”, you said, “Modernism never condoned replicas … architects were expected to … differentiate their work within the parameters of the style.” Even if Yuncken Freeman “lifted” the use of structural I-beam mullions from Van der Rohe, what relevance does this have to whether the building is historically and architecturally significant in an Australian context? And in any case, comparing the Yuncken Freeman offices to Mies’ Crown Hall shows a lack of nuances appreciation for his work – the “cantilever” and expressed white painted soffit of the first floor, the curtain wall ground floor elevations and pavillion form of the plaza building of his Chicago Federal Center are surely a closer comparison for our wonderful interpretation of his work here in Melbourne. Or, if we are really looking for the “original”, perhaps Van der Rohe’s 1949 Lake Shore Drive apartments in Chicago are more apt? And then there’s Seagram, of course.
                And, as I already argued, almost every heritage building in Australia is entirely derivative of architectural idioms from elsewhere. Again, according to your criteria, if we exclude “momentous events” which Victorian and Edwardian structures would you retain in Melbourne? By your standards, Alan, we would be left with Parliament House, the Royal Exhibition Building, the Shrine of Remembrance and little else, since being poor copies of an architectural idiom originally expressed elsewhere at an earlier time, they are worthless to Australian culture.
                Meanwhile, even in Ireland, where heritage protection, “… focuses on protecting the city’s Georgian and Victorian architecture and only includes buildings of the late 20th century if they are considered “exceptional”” Ronald Tallon’s magnificent, if shamelessly Van der Rohe inspired (copied?) Bank of Ireland has already been given a state listing:
                “The bank was added to the record in 2010 because it was judged to be “Dublin’s finest example of the restrained and elegant Miesian style” by Dublin City Council’s conservation department.”
                http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/permission-for-refurbishment-of-former-bank-hq-1.2167847