Heritage Listing, an interesting case

At Balance Architecture and Interior Design we like to offer ‘balanced’ viewpoints. In the heart of the Melbourne CBD lies a fairly significant dilemma – the Heritage listed carpark at 180 Russell St.

Total Carpark from Russell Street, with Total house office above

The site is now listed on the Victorian State Heritage Register. This sounds impressive, but in reality there are over 1971 Heritage sites listed in Melbourne’s CBD ranging from buildings to features such as stained glass through to well – carparks. Notably at this point the Russell St Theatre located at 19-25 Russell St does not appear to have achieved Heritage Listing.


There were differing views prior to the listing of the Total Carpark for Heritage Listing. Here is a reprint of the Age article of August 9th, 2014. The author provides a rather entertaining insight into the listing of the site and those who would choose it was otherwise.

‘Ugly’ car park in heritage legal fight

The owners of a 1960s Chinatown car park have challenged its controversial heritage listing, arguing such protection is ‘‘irrational’’ while fighting to build a hotel tower on the site.

The Total House car park on Russell Street, once labelled ‘‘ugly’’ by Planning Minister Matthew Guy, secured a place on the heritage register in April due to its cultural significance.

The building, completed in 1965, is made up of seven concrete decks of above-ground parking, a nightclub, and a small box-shaped office. It’s considered to be an early example of Brutalist architecture in Victoria and a key site from the post-war car ownership boom.

But the site’s new owner, AXF Group, is fighting the heritage listing and wants to demolish the car park to build a glittering skyscraper.

In legal documents filed in the Victorian Supreme Court, the developer’s lawyers argue the heritage listing process was flawed on over a dozen grounds.

The Heritage Council of Victoria should have taken economic issues into account, thus making the listing ‘‘irrational, illogical or not based on findings or inferences of fact supported by logical grounds,’’ according to the court documents.

The developer’s lawyer, Stuart Morris, QC, told court on Friday that while development plans had stalled, wind tunnelling tests were still continuing.

The National Trust’s Paul Roser said the emerging legal battle could be a key moment in heritage protection. ‘‘The fight is clearly on to preserve our significant post-war modernist legacy,’’ he said.

The site was snapped up by AXF in 2012, reportedly for $40 million, and has been listed as ‘‘Sovereign Plaza’’ in legal filings. Early plans for the site show a 70-storey hotel and apartment tower decorated in gold and silver, but only if the car park can be torn down.
With its distinctive design, the Heritage Council found the existing car park was a ‘‘landmark’’ while the nightclub, most recently known as Billboard, was ‘‘the most extravagant nightclub experience in the city’’ when it opened nearly 40 years ago.
Melbourne Heritage Action Group originally nominated Total House for the heritage register. Spokesman Tristan Davies said the developer’s economic arguments were already tested during the heritage listing process.

“It doesn’t have to remain as a car park. There could be a few adapted reuses for it,” he said.

CBRE property director Mark Wizel said the case wouldn’t deter other Chinese investors from buying up 1960s-era buildings out of fear of facing a similar heritage battle. That’s because property owners still have an avenue of appeal, he said.

‘‘This shows the transparency of our planning system and our legal system,” he said.

A hearing for a court challenge is not expected until early next year.

Source: theage.com.au

Note the lawyer specialising in ‘Development’ and Heritage cases is a Mr Stuart Morris QC. Familiar? Mr Morris is currently representing the Corkman ‘Demolisher’ Developers.

But let’s look at the other side of the coin. Dr Alan Davies – the Urbanist frequently writes blogs for Crikey amongst others. He is a principal of the Melbourne based economic and planning consultancy Pollard Davies Consulting.

Here is his article in Crikey at the time, the second he had written on the subject.

Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?

There’re moves to preserve this 1960s “brutalist” building, but it’s architectural distinction is questionable. It’s unoriginal, uninspired and captures little of the vision of the movement.


Total Car Park, Russell Street, Melbourne

Last week I discussed moves to place a 1965 modernist building in Melbourne – the Total Car Park – on the Victorian State Heritage Register.

The point I sought to make is protecting buildings imposes costs on the wider community. We therefore want to be very sure the buildings we protect from redevelopment are really worth the cost.

I’ve subsequently had a closer look at the claims of architectural and historical distinction made for this building.

Its defenders worry its design virtues will be overlooked because it’s primarily a car park. I don’t think that matters – my conclusion is its intrinsic architectural merit is not only insufficient to justify formal preservation, it isn’t especially compelling on any level.

Commenters at Melbourne Heritage Action, the group leading the charge to register the building, think it’s worthy of preservation because it resembles, variously, a “1980s Apple Mac”, “something out of The Thunderbirds” and an “old-fashioned TV set”.

I acknowledge it’s interesting to a newer generation, but I don’t think the fact it evokes (unintended) similes in the minds of some observers is adequate grounds for preservation.

The fact that none of these references would’ve made sense when the building was constructed reinforces that doubt. By definition, they’re not historical claims at all.

Indeed, I think the architect would’ve been horrified at the time by references of this type. He had pretensions to something much grander and more formal i.e. Japanese brutalism.

According to the write-up of the building in Melbourne City Council’s i-Heritage database (which only gives it a ‘B’ rating, incidentally):

Pre-cast or off-form concrete finishes successfully complete the prevailing Japanese Brutalist image, particularly that of the much lauded Kenzo Tange (see balustrade detail of the Kagawa Town Hall). More than any other multi storey commercial building in Melbourne, this design achieves the closest empathy with Tange’s work as well as a powerfully expressed, yet functional set of forms……

The ‘Statement of Significance’ says:

Melbourne’s most significant Japanese Brutalist design, achieving empathy with the style without plagiarism. Also a distinctive treatment of an adventurous use-combination, unmatched in form elsewhere in Victoria if not Australia.

Well, I think there’s an alternative interpretation: that it’s a derivative, second-rate implementation that captures none of the inspiration of the original style.

The second exhibit (scroll down) shows an image of a museum completed in 1960 by Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake. It’s a building that would’ve undoubtedly been familiar at the time to architects elsewhere.

I think it looks remarkably similar to the office “pod” on top of the Total Car Park.

The third exhibit (scroll down) shows the balustrade of the Kagawa Town Hall by the very famous Japanese architect of the era, Kenzo Tange. Again, the balustrade looks quite similar to the balustrade on the Total Car Park.

The i-Heritage database goes on to laud the structural design of the car park:

The base itself also consists of seemingly floating parking decks and the bland curtain wall of the office level is recessed so far as to appear almost disembodied from its frame. All of this was achieved with two-way cantilevering of the concrete slabs, done elegantly with cruciform beam cross-heads.

These details can be seen in the slide show provided by Melbourne Heritage Action.

But compare this building with how the cruciform beam cross-heads were executed by Tange in the Kagawa Town Hall. The Total Car Park looks like a bland, insipid imitation.

There’s subjectivity in these sorts of judgement of course, but to my eye it seems like certain elements in the Tange architectural vocabulary were picked up and applied directly in Melbourne.

I don’t have a sense that they’ve been creatively and imaginatively adapted to local circumstances, or even applied in ways that would justify terms like “interpretation”, “inspiration”, or “empathy”.

Here are some other buildings from the era by Kenzo Tange – Hiroshima Peace Palace (1955), Yoyogi National Gymnasium (1964), Yamanashi Culture Chamber (1966).

The designer of Total Car Park, who would’ve known of them, shows very little of the assurance and understanding of the brutalist style that Tange exhibits.

Whether one likes this style or not, Tange’s clearly on another plane. Those are buildings worth preserving.

The Total Car Park, by comparison, is dull, plodding and, to be frank, imitative. It’s a journeyman’s design.

It has pretensions to the Japanese Brutalist style, but it’s unoriginal, derivative, offers nothing new in its interpretation and captures none of the vision or energy of the movement.

It doubtless functioned well and satisfied users over the years and I can see why some think it’s “wacky”. But I can’t see a case for preserving it on the grounds of architectural distinction.


Museum designed by Kiyonori Kikutake (1960)


Kagawa Prefectural Government Office, designed by Kenzo Tange (1958)

source: crikey.com.au


It would appear to be somewhat of a divided opinion on this particular building. What do you think? Is it meritorious? Does it provide a unique perspective on the times it was constructed? It is a very valuable piece of Real Estate. Do you think that given the State Government overruled a Heritage listing for the first time earlier this week (the APM Boiler House in Fairfield) that Heritage Listings such as this will stand unchallenged?

From a National Perspective the following locations feature on the National Heritage List here in Victoria:

  • Abbotsford Convent
  • Bonegilla Migrant Camp – Block 19
  • Echuca Wharf
  • Eureka Stockade Gardens
  • Flemington Racecourse (the old Grandstand was recently demolished
  • Glenrowan Heritage Precinct
  • HMVS Cerberus
  • High Court of Australia (former)
  • ICI Building (former)
  • Melbourne Cricket Ground (completely new Grandstands)
  • Murtoa No. 1 Grain Store
  • Newman College
  • Point Cook Air Base
  • Point Nepean Defence Sites and Quarantine Station Area
  • Rippon Lea House and Garden
  • Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens
  • Sidney Myer Music Bowl
  • St Kilda Road and Environs

There appears to be little rhyme or reason to selection on this list or for that matter on the State Heritage Lists. It comes down to opinion. Of those we have listed, 7 sites have undergone or are undergoing very significant change in more recent times. It is precisely for this reason that our suggestion is to convene a summit of involved and interested parties to qualify, identify and protect our true Heritage buildings based on Architecture, history and community expectations and usage.


Old Member’s Grandstand at Flemington Racecourse

So at 3pm (or thereabouts) when the horses thunder down the track at Flemington and head into the straight to finish their two mile romp, look across to the right of screen at the construction project – the new Grandstand. That’s where the original Grandstand stood and the delightful ornate Grandstand that replaced it in the 1920s also stood. It’s gone, like last week’s pay, as probably will be your selection as they cross the line. But be comforted in the fact. Flemington Racecourse is Heritage Listed.

Back next week after a short break. Good luck on Tuesday.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

One thought on “Heritage Listing, an interesting case

  1. Yes, State and especially National heritage listings, and especially of later 20thC places are a bit random – this is because neither Heritage Victoria nor the Australian Heritage Commission has done comprehensive studies – they only list things nominated to them, and these are often places under threat. HV actually has already listed 5 of the most important brutalist places, but the National List only adds a few places each year. It’s goung to take a long time for the lists to be comprehensive.


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