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.