Jul 4, 2017

Is faux heritage the future?

Melbourne City Council requires the facade of this old pub to be retained when redeveloped even though the building has no demonstrated heritage value

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_58056" align="aligncenter" width="1492"] What the redevelopment of the Great Western site will look like[/caption] The Age reported last week that “another of Melbourne's heritage pubs will be knocked down for apartments” with only the facade retained. The 160-year old Great Western Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD has no heritage protection and will be replaced with a 26-storey apartment tower. Beer sales were down to around 15 barrels a week when the Great Western closed last year, compared to 42 per week in the early 2000s. So it's no surprise it’s joining the 30-odd traditional pubs that’ve succumbed to redevelopment in Melbourne over the last five years. Another historic pub lost? Justifed by the indignity of facadism? And to make matters worse, the openings proposed at street level are so wide users and passers-by will get little sense of the old building? Sounds awful, but it’s not as bad as it seems. We can take some comfort in the fact Melbourne still has “about 450" typical pubs. That’s a lot. Moreover, in terms of finding a place to socialise, Melbourne now has over 9,000 liquor licences. More importantly, the building isn't subject to a heritage overlay for a reason; it isn’t important enough. At the start of the year, I cited this Heritage Victoria document that says the Great Western was extensively altered in the 1940s and is now “of little architectural or for that matter historical importance” (see Does this building tell us much about social history?). I noted the frank way the author described the hotel’s architectural significance:
The superposition of the corner motif, on the parapet, is a ludicrous gesture and, though it is easily removed, its existence accentuates the total abuse already suffered by the rest of the facade.
It's regrettable the building was so extensively and unsympathetically altered in the past, but retaining the facade has little to do with historical significance. It's faux history; it's creating ‘olde worlde’ charm. This is a theme park approach to history little different from the pretend Doric columns on the front of some new suburban McMansions. In this view, heritage - faux or otherwise - becomes just another component of urban design. Council's urban design section put its view forcefully:
We strongly encourage retention and integration of this valued form into the development proposal from an Urban Design perspective to maintain a tactile, visually interesting and high quality masonry base, with a taller form set above.
The developer didn’t want the facade because it restricts the flexibility of the design; the original proposal was transparent at ground level. I prefer the look of a quasi-podium as now proposed that differentiates the 'base' from the 'tower', but that could be achieved more efficiently - and more honestly - without requiring retention of the facade. One of the downsides of the approved design is a "splayed" corner recommended by Council officers to improve pedestrian flow in King St can't be implemented because it would compromise the facade of the existing building. The Great Western doubtless has a fascinating social history; capturing that in media would make a far greater contribution to appreciation of Melbourne's heritage than keeping the (current) facade. It appears though that it hasn't been adequately documented; Council should get on to that (see Does this building tell us much about social history?).

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6 thoughts on “Is faux heritage the future?

  1. Bryan Stralow

    Australian cultural preservation is, in itself, a culturally derived initiative; based on the interest level of various stakeholders. Perhaps, due to our country’s young age, it would be wiser to market Australian Colonialism and make it fashionable to retain such valuable, and well constructed, icons, rather than remove what little Australian Federation and Colonial culture we actually have.

  2. Jacob HSR

    On the northern side of Bay St, Port MEL (99 Bay St I think) an old brick facade has been preserved and looks nice.

    But there should be a register of preserved facades so that people can look up a particular address and see what the building used to be 100 years ago!

    No point in preserving a facade if people have no idea what the building was used for before.

    There are several old buildings that have been converted into apartments in Port MEL. Was it a prison? A warehouse?

  3. lethell

    The idea, apparently uncritically adopted, that a building has no historical significance if it is no longer in substantially original condition needs to be questioned. History is a process of continual change and we can come to understand our history by reading that change. If we see buildings as living things, and our emotional attachment to them suggests that we do, then justifying their destruction because they are no longer in their original state is analogous to disowning old friends and family because they’re not as beautiful as they were when young. The destruction of buildings that connect us to our past alienates us further from our history and who we are, causes some grief for those who recognise their city as their home by means of them and justifies the destruction of our sense of belonging by turning that home into just one more monument to capital’s power to destroy our sense of community.

    1. Alan Davies

      If we want to understand our history and appreciate buildings as living things, then the focus should be on documenting and interpreting that history via media. Simply preserving a structure (inevitably and necessarily with a new use inside) conveys virtually nothing about its past role. Some buildings justify the social and private cost of preservation, but this isn’t one of them.

      1. Tina

        100% disagree with what you are saying Alan Davies.

        You are suggesting that physical history can be obliterated because we can preserve buildings in images and on paper. That is a ludicrous theory. Once a building is gone, it is forgotten and so is the story that goes with the street, it’s community and it’s surrounds.

        You are also suggesting that an altered building is not worth preserving anyway. Again. That is ludicrous. Alterations are part of a buidings history. In the case of this pub, the developer has managed to incorporate the buildings history in it’s overall design and that makes for a far better building than his proposal to create a glass box as it’s base. He is effectively altering it AGAIN and we get to see an evolution that we would not be seeing if the building had simply been demolished and started again.

        1. Alan Davies

          Tina, I’m suggesting (a) all protected buildings should come with extensive interpretation, and (b) interpretive media is a way of understanding those buildings where physical protection can’t be justified.

          Every building has an interesting and in some cases important history, especially at the local level, but we can’t protect them all because the social cost alone would be too high. There are already over 100,000 protected properties in Victoria.

          The amended design of this building incorporates parts of the residual shell, but it doesn’t even start to “incorporate the buildings history” or its “evolution”. A shell is not a palimpsest; if you really want to communicate the history of this building then you need to do the research and capture it in the form that’s appropriate e.g. media. In this case, it appears no one has ever cared enough to research the history of this building.

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