What the redevelopment of the Great Western site will look like

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?).