In Architecture more than any other discipline the visionaries are unconventional. When in the 1950s and 1960s builders and developers were having a field day ‘modernising’ Melbourne, there were voices calling for a more moderate approach. There were those who knew and respected the grand heritage of old Melbourne and did what they could to protect it. Of these David Yencken was one of the most foremost and most effective.
For more than 50 years, Professor David Yencken has been a champion for the Australian environment, the nation’s heritage and excellence in design. Working in industry, politics and academia, especially through his association with the University of Melbourne, he has been a staunch advocate and activist, promoting better outcomes for strategic policy, innovation in implementation, design and practice across our cities and landscapes.
David George Druce Yencken was born in Berlin to Australian parents in 1931 and undertook his schooling in England and Australia, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cambridge. From early in his career he strove to break new ground, opening one of the earliest art galleries in Melbourne devoted to Australian painting in 1956-57 and building and running one of the first motels in Australia, the Mitchell Valley Motel in Bairnsdale (1957-60). He also commissioned noted architect Robin Boyd to design the architecturally significant Black Dolphin Motel in Merimbula, NSW (1960-65).
In 1965 he co-founded Merchant Builders Pty Ltd where, as Chairman and Joint Managing Director, he led the way in pioneering new project housing developments in Victoria that combined progressive architectural design with native landscaping. Yencken’s firm won a number of architectural awards including three Victorian Architectural Medals and the inaugural Robin Boyd Environmental Award (1972) for “changing the face of residential Melbourne”. During this period he also founded Tract Consultants, a firm of town and regional planners, resource analysts and landscape architects, in which he held the position of Chairman and Managing Director from 1971-79.
One of Yencken’s most influential roles was as Secretary (Chief Executive) of the Ministry for Planning and Environment for the Victorian Government, a position he held from 1982-87. During this time he was involved in a number of important strategic projects, including the preparation and release of a new Metropolitan Policy and State Conservation Strategy; the preparation of a comprehensive plan for the redevelopment of central Melbourne; and the consolidation and re-writing of seven different Acts, as well as a number of smaller local community projects. His work with the Ministry was recognised with several Royal Australian Institute of Architecture awards, a special Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture award for the greening of Swanston Street, and a Royal Australian Planning Institute award for its work on central Melbourne pedestrian and street planning and Yarra River bank works.
David Yencken has been active throughout his career on a significant number of international organisations, serving as the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and representing Australia twice as a joint leader of the Australian Delegation to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 1980 and 81. He has also participated in numerous government bodies, including as Chairman of the Interim Committee on the National Estate (Commonwealth Government) in 1974-75. He was an author of the seminal Report on the National Estate (1974), which led to the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission, and which he then chaired from 1975-81. In these roles, Yencken helped to realise some significant achievements including stimulating national planning, research, professional standards, training and public education across Australia, and developing a Register of 6,600 natural, Aboriginal and historic places, published in an 800 page catalogue, The Heritage of Australia, in 1981. He was a member of the Prime Minister’s Urban Design Taskforce from 1994-95, chaired the Design Committee of the Australia Council for the Arts and was President of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He is currently Patron of the Foundation.
It is during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s that Heritage values in Australia became a recognised asset of our nation. David Yencken played no small part in this.
A recent article aptly and accurately describes his influence.
The man who helped re-imagine Melbourne
In the 1950s, iron lace on Victorian-era buildings was considered so outmoded in Australia that magazines such as Women’s Weekly were full of articles illustrating how to spruce up old buildings to remove it.
But cultural tastes change, which is why David Yencken – one of the architects of heritage protection in Australia – believes heritage listings are so important.
“Later, following the establishment of the National Trusts, along with spirited defence of iron lace by writers such as Graeme Robertson, Victoriana gradually came fully back into fashion again,” Professor Yencken writes in his new book, Valuing Australia’s National Heritage.
In 1975, Professor Yencken, who is critically ill and too frail to interview for this story, was appointed the inaugural chairman of the Australian Heritage Commission.
The prime task of the commission was to develop the Register of the National Estate, which had more than 13,000 listings when the commission was abolished by the Howard government in 2003.
“We collectively reached the view that the only way to avoid bias in listing caused by temporarily prevailing architectural likes and dislikes, was to seek to list the best examples of each style period,” Professor Yencken writes.
He says whether or not they enjoyed architectural popularity at the time, the likelihood was that the heritage significance of each would almost certainly be better appreciated at some time in the future.
Urban historian Graeme Davison says Professor Yencken is a “national treasure”. “I can’t think of anybody who has contributed more to our understanding about the Australian environment than he has.”
Professor Davison met Professor Yencken at a party when he was secretary of the Victorian Planning Ministry from 1982 to 1987. They talked all night. “I thought this is a most remarkable person – he had a breadth of vision, a capacity to think imaginatively and creatively.”
Professor Yencken contributed to the re-imagination of Melbourne.
In 1985 Swanston Street was a gloomy, car-clogged thoroughfare. As part of Victoria’s 150th celebrations, Professor Yencken had the radical idea of turning it into a giant green pop-up park.
For the weekend of 9 and 10 February, 13,250 square metres of fresh grass was rolled out along four blocks of Swanston Street.
The price tag for the party – $550,000 – was not cheap. Professor Yencken’s wife – Dr Helen Sykes – recalls a friend sniping “this is my taxes at work”.
Premier John Cain wobbled after a sustained attack from then opposition leader Jeff Kennett.
He rang and asked Professor Yencken to pull the pin on the turf. Dr Sykes recalls him saying no.
For one weekend tens of thousands of families picnicked on a gritty strip transformed into a green oasis. “The garden party to end all garden parties,” was the headline in The Age. Journalist John Lahey wrote: “the cheerfulness is the one thing that will stick in most people’s minds”.
Professor Davison said Professor Yencken had an agenda. “This illustrated how clever he was. This one event was a dramatic way of sowing the seed that Swanston Street could become a pedestrian street.”
Professor Yencken was also responsible for the redevelopment of Southbank. At the time the precinct was made up of derelict factories and the city turned its back on the Yarra River.
“A lot of our work in the initial instance focused on the central area of Melbourne because there was such a sense of neglect and lack of policy direction,” Professor Yencken told Planning News in 2017.
“This lack of effective action was being expressed in papers like The Age on a very regular basis. We had a big program and that included Southbank.”
Professor Yencken’s introduction to architecture and building was a road trip through Canada in his early 20s, where he wrote he was introduced to “several wonders of the new world: hamburgers, three-minute car washes and motels”.
He built one of the first motels in Australia in Bairnsdale in 1957 and later asked architect Robin Boyd to design a second – The Black Dolphin – in Merimbula.
In 1965, Professor Yencken co-founded Merchant Builders, which built homes that emphasised the Australian character of the landscape.
The firm pioneered cluster housing at Winter Park in Doncaster and Vermont Park, where groups of homes share communal space such as a park or swimming pool.
Melbourne University architecture professor Alan Pert says Merchant Builders was ahead of its time. He says its model of suburbia is relevant to Melbourne’s current debates about housing affordability and population growth.
“A lot of the things Nightingale is trying to do with apartment building – the attitude of shared space and community – were all things Merchant Builders was doing 40 to 50 years ago in a suburban context.”
Valuing Australia’s National Heritage, which Professor Yencken wanted to see published while he is still alive, is part memoir, part history of the development of Australia’s national heritage consciousness.
The book is full of interesting tidbits.
Professor Yencken describes his initial battle to persuade a sceptical media that the National Estate was not a middle class conceit. (Curiously, after Malcolm Fraser came to power, he was never asked this question again.)
He details the “fierce and unexpected opposition” of Liberal Billy Snedden, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Parliament House in Canberra being on the register.
But it is also a lament for what Professor Yencken sees as the current neglect of national heritage and the “apparent unwillingness” to add places to the national lists.
Dr James Lesh from the School of Architecture at the University of Sydney says Mr Yencken has been a life-long advocate for the conservation of things and places.
“As businessman, as developer, as conservationist, as policymaker, as urban planner, as educator, his overriding ambition has always been to make Australian society a better place.”
Valuing Australia’s National Heritage is published by Future Leaders, a not-for-profit initiative. For a free copy email email@example.com
The Heritage Council of Victoria and the bodies active in other states as well as the Commonwealth are seriously under-financed and under-staffed. A heritage assessment can take anything from 8 months to 2 years. Where municipal councils remain active in presenting Heritage buildings and sites for assessment, the relevant body in Victoria, the Heritage Council, simply does not have sufficient staff to keep up with the demand from such bodies.
As we have stated previously, it’s time to acknowledge the challenge Heritage Architecture faces in modern Australia and develop a uniform platform that is pragmatic and practical ensuring our precious heritage resources are preserved and protected for future generations. It was the visionaries of the late 20th century that established the parameters of Heritage protection in Australia. It’s now time for a new generation to step up to the plate. Our heritage is precious and it is most definitely worth preserving, now even more than ever.