May 21, 2018

Does Festival Hall warrant heritage protection?

Heritage Victoria's recommendation to list Melbourne’s Festival Hall on the state Heritage Register highlights the shortcomings of the current approach to heritage

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Festival Hall, Dudley St, West Melbourne

Australians regret the loss of many beautiful historic nineteenth century buildings like Melbourne’s Federal Coffee Palace. We’re also used to controversies about protecting buildings constructed in the post-war period with claims to high architectural value e.g. Sydney’s Sirius House.

Sometimes, though, buildings that lack aesthetic merit are nevertheless nominated for the highest form of protection solely because of their contribution to the course of social and cultural history. A contemporary case is last week’s recommendation from Heritage Victoria to list Melbourne’s Festival Hall on the state Heritage register because:

Festival Hall is historically significant as Victoria’s principal purpose-built boxing and wrestling venue… (and) is socially significant for its association with the boxing and wrestling community in Victoria.

Festival Hall is historically significant as one of Victoria’s primary live music venues since its opening in 1955…(and) is socially significant for its association with the live music industry in Victoria.

Heritage Victoria found Festival Hall isn’t significant on aesthetic or architectural grounds, but says its historic and social significance is embodied in the “external form and fabric”, as well as in most of the interior, including:

The volume of the internal space; the central timber floor; the tiered seating to the west and east, including the early rows of steel-framed timber bleachers to the east and west and rows of theatre-like balcony seating to the south; the location of the northern stage; the balcony to the south; (and the) highly intact original amenity areas.

The formal process isn’t finished yet. Heritage Victoria’s recommendation still has to be considered by the Heritage Council after 60-days of public consultation. The state Planning Minister has made it clear though that he supports listing.

They’re putting on a cheerful face, but this must be a blow to the long-standing owners of the site, who’d proposed to demolish most of the building and redevelop it for 179 apartments, 1,400 square metres of commercial space and 230 car parking spaces. They say their proposal would recognise the building’s history by retaining the Dudley St façade and incorporating the stage and boxing ring into the design.

So, is it worth protecting Festival Hall? There’s a logic to preserving a building which exhibits important architectural qualities, but the idea that “bricks and mortar” is the best way to capture important social values – or is even an effective way – is doubtful.

Preserving Festival Hall in perpetuity preserves the built form but tells us almost nothing about the social and cultural history of the place. Its importance doesn’t come from the structure, it comes from the intangible and ephemeral events and performances that occurred within it, like the time the Beatles performed there in the 1960s.

We lazily preserve buildings like this simply because we can, not because they’re an effective way of conveying anything of substance about the happenings, incidents and proceedings that went on within or around them. But buildings aren’t palimpsests; they don’t record what happened within them. They’re almost useless in that regard.

Even the architectural references to the stage, boxing ring and façade proposed by the owners, while welcome should it go ahead, tell us very little about what happened at the venue; they suggest it’s function but tell us almost nothing about the activities that make it socially important. They’re like reading the title, but not the book.

Adaptive re-use of the interior preserves the structure but conveys little to future visitors about the excitement when Lionel Rose fought in the ring, or the fever of expectation in the audience waiting to see Frank Sinatra. Some likely forms of adaptive reuse, say an office or a library, might even be at odds with the former uses that made it important.

Preserving this building forever is not an effective way of valuing history but it comes at a high cost. Owners must maintain heritage-listed buildings and ensure they aren’t neglected. Finding a commercially viable “adaptive” use that respects the values of a voluminous interior like Festival Hall’s could be very difficult. There’s no guarantee either that the public will have access to it.

The big price though is the inevitable reduction in the number of housing units that can be built due to the extensive restrictions imposed by listing. A condition like protecting the significance of “the volume of the internal space” is so all-encompassing it might mean redevelopment doesn’t go ahead at all. Depending on market conditions, either outcome could have negative implications for housing affordability.

And listing doesn’t mean Festival Hall will continue as a live music venue. The owners say it’s becoming unprofitable because it can no longer compete with larger and newer venues such as Margaret Court Arena and Hisense Arena.

Yet it’s possible to capture the venue’s social significance for current and future Victorians in far more effective ways. One option could be to keep it functioning as a venue by providing a public subsidy. That could be expensive, both financially and in terms of the opportunity cost of the site. Moreover, it’s not clear there’s a valid role for it any longer. In any event, it doesn’t reveal anything about its historical significance.

Another way would be to document its history through words, video, artefacts, voices, music, digital recreations of key events, and extensive interpretation. If we want to understand it’s social and historic role, we have to approach the task like a museum.

There’s likely to be plenty of images, videos, recordings and personal recollections held by individuals, companies and public agencies that would bring it to life far more effectively than preserving lifeless bricks and mortar. The latter is a (distant) second-best option that fails to give due respect to the history of the place.

At the least, it should be mandatory that all places listed on the state Heritage Register are accompanied by a thorough and extensive interpretation that’s easily accessible to users. But in cases where the building’s fabric has no significance in its own right, it’s time to rethink whether the cost of protecting the built form makes sense any longer when there are alternative “soft” ways of documenting its historical and social importance that are much superior.

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8 thoughts on “Does Festival Hall warrant heritage protection?

  1. Forest

    The fact that it can’t compete with larger arenas is a perfectly good reason why it should be protected – planners in Sydney and Melbourne are obsessed right now with prestige event venues like stadiums and large arenas, while giving no thought to the smaller venues (from places like Festival Hall to the local pub) that produce the acts that we need to fill the former.

    We could do worse than to look at the UK’s efforts to prevent neighbourhood pubs from conversion to residential or commercial properties, and think about adapting them to protect the constantly at-threat nightlife venues across our cities.

    1. Alan Davies


      Whatever the merits of that argument, it’s about regulating the market for arenas; it’s not an argument for protection on heritage grounds.

  2. Warwick Mihaly

    I think your suggestion of documenting important venues like Festival Hall via soft means is a good one. We should do this more with our heritage places. But I disagree that architecture is an ineffective way of conveying the happenings that went on within them.

    I’d like to argue four of your points:

    Judging the value of a building based on current interpretations of aesthetics is short-sighted. The Victorian and Federation era buildings so cherished today were considered eyesores in the 1960s and 70s, so much so that many buildings of these eras were stripped of their period detailing. Aesthetic appreciation changes over time – what is unloved today may find new life tomorrow. The poor outcome likely to beset the Sirius Building is an important example of this short-sightedness. If it happened to be a red brick, Victorian era housing development with delicate iron lacework around the edges, do you think Mark Speakman would have rejected the NSW heritage council recommendation to list it? This is not to say that Festival Hall is likely to be considered beautiful by the next generation, more that we should be wary of including poor aesthetics as a relevant factor at all.

    Festival Hall is hardly the first building to be nominated for a heritage listing based on its social or cultural values. Indeed, buildings that were the first of their kind or represented the height of a particular industry are often given high protections. The Murtoa Stick Shed in the Wimmera is a good example of this – it’s a stunning building internally, but externally it’s just a big shed. It’s also very inconveniently placed to be a tourist attraction, regularly loses large pieces of roofing in high winds, and is in the way of local farming activities. But it was the largest grain silo of its kind, and built at an important juncture in both Australian wartime and manufacturing history. To lose it would be a tragedy. Social and cultural values are what inform our architecture, and in return architecture exists as a lasting record of those values.

    Architecture is most definitely a palimpsest, and it certainly has the power to convey meaning despite not at that moment being in use. There’s simple logic in this: back in the heyday of Festival Hall, might you not have appreciated the excitement of a big concert the morning after? No music to be heard, but the echo of a large space and empty seats waiting to be filled. Consider also the layers of meaning preserved in buildings like the Colosseum or Parthenon. I’m hardly placing Festival Hall on their level, but the layers of social, cultural and historical meaning that cling to a building are preserved in its fabric as they are with the great European ruins. There are other, contemporary versions of buildings-as-museums that find ways to reinvigorate the past, in particular houses. Harry Seidler’s Rose House, Wright’s Fallingwater, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye no longer serve the purpose for which they were built, but that doesn’t stop them from conveying the importance of those purposes. Why not take your suggestion of soft recordings of the history of Festival Hall and find them a home in Festival Hall itself?

    Every building has the possibility for a sensitive and relevant adaptive reuse. A library may be an unsuitable use for Festival Hall, but what about a film or recording studio, coworking space or sports centre? Consider Kerstin Thompson’s recent conversion of the former Mounted Police Stables into VCA’s new School of Art. Thompson is a master of adaptive reuse, and across all her projects exerts a highly considerate approach to reimagining an old building as something new. At the School of Art, the rhythm of the old horse stalls has been preserved in new artist studios, the timber structure has been preserved and revealed. Even paint finishes have been restored. There is much to love about this approach to adaptive reuse, and the balancing of additions and subtractions to both honour the history of a building and make it useful once again.

  3. rohan storey

    Even if it were converted into a market or offices, with maybe a mezzanine, it would still convey a sense of place, where you could easily imagine the activities that made it significant.

    1. Alan Davies

      Rohan Storey

      Problems with that: (1) most of those who remember it in its heyday won’t be around for much longer, yet it’s protected in perpetuity; (2) conversion to offices or a market still doesn’t convey much about what makes it historically and socially important. It’s like knowing the title of the movie (Rocky would be appropriate) but never seeing it; (3) depending on the permit conditions, it could very well be difficult to find a financially viable use for such a large space (what would it cost to heat and cool?).

  4. Horst (Oz) Kayak

    With such culturally significant and aesthetically pleasing sites such as Erskine House, Lorne failing to achieve a heritage listing; one has to wonder why a spoiler for re-development has arisen at Festival Hall.

    1. rohan storey

      Erskine House is in fact on the Heritage Register, though that didnt stop the compromise of apartment blocks built around the edges and the loss of some of the lawns.

  5. Andrew

    Well said. A dreadful, entirely forgettable building, but so many great memories. A museum of sorts on the site is a great idea.

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