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Designing for heritage

Geoffrey London

London, Geoffrey 2005, 'Designing for heritage', Fremantle Studies, 4: 85-94.

Let me start with a disclaimer - while I have an all-consuming interest in architecture, past, present and future, I can claim no particular expertise in the area of architectural heritage. So I will deal with heritage from a position of breadth - and will focus on an attitude to heritage that affects Fremantle.

Since its settlement by the British as the far-flung Swan River Colony in 1829, Perth architecture has been characterised by attempts to transplant building forms from elsewhere and their adaptation to local conditions.

Perth has had two major spurts of building growth, both linked to significant mineral discoveries. The first was the Western Australian gold rush of the 1890s with its associated rush of architects migrating to Perth from Britain and the eastem cities of Australia, correctly anticipating a building boom. This resulted in the extensive rebuilding of Perth and Fremantle, and in a fine collection of ebullient new buildings confidently displaying a wide range of stylistic sources. Emerging from the mix of Arts and Crafts, Classical revivalism, Gothic revivalism, and their eclectic variants, was an interest in applying these styles to the particular conditions of Perth.

The second mining boom occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. The boom, this time in iron ore and nickel, resulted in large tracts of the city of Perth being substantially rebuilt as a way of proclaiming the new-found wealth, and the subsequent loss of a number of buildings spanning a rich variety of architectural styles.

St George’s Terrace, in particular, was a street of very fine buildings, with a typology that resulted in a very urban outcome. Buildings were lined up on their front boundaries, offices were entered via a half flight of steps up into handsome, well-detailed foyers, while, in many instances, half a flight of steps down, there were the coffee shops, the tobacconists, the tailor, the newsagent, the restaurant, the jazz club.

These buildings were replaced, in the main, by undistinguished intemationalist buildings with little regard for local factors, with setbacks from the footpaths which reduced the urban qualities of the street and with little mix of functions that would maintain a vitality of use. But, the example of St Georges Tce, and numerous other contemporaneous examples of disregard for our built heritage, is not likely to be repeated now. In addition to a broad and popular awareness of the cultural value of this form of heritage, we have put in place a number of strategies that allow a degree of protection.

We have legislation and a Heritage Council that should prevent what happened in St George’s Terrace from recurring.

It is interesting to reflect on how values and attitudes to heritage do change - and also how elusive they can be. Despite all the legislation, the problems surrounding the protection of our heritage have not gone away — they are just different now. And this is what I would like to focus on in this paper.

I would like to focus on a view of heritage that is not one of protection, not one of restoration or of salvage or replication, but one of adaptation and creation. And, I’d like to suggest that in Fremantle, this is a particularly important issue - the need, the responsibility, to create successful new architecture - buildings that embody the cultural and architectural preoccupations of our time - architecture that will become the heritage of the future.

Too often, I believe, we characterise heritage as something that is prior to a certain date - some privileged but undeclared date. This can result in us undervaluing our more recent past and not paying sufficient attention to what we produce for the future.

councilhouse

Council House, Perth, Howlett & Bailey, Architects, 1963 Courtesy Geoffrey London, 2004.

I would like to offer a case study of a local instance of this - Perth’s Council House.

... this handsome tower will be read as a proud symbol of the economic, civic and cultural bustle of a city that is currently one of the key growth-points of the Australian way of life ... 1

So reported the highly respected English joumal, The Architectural Review, in recognition of a significant architectural achievement in a distant part of the Empire. Council House in Perth was the result of a national architectural competition. Despite the Royal Australian Institute of Architects protesting against its location, Perth’s newest example of civic architecture was, at the time, acknowledged as a very fine, optimistic, and modern building, representative of the aspirations of the city. Its completion coincided with the Empire Games, when Perth hit intemational centre-stage for the first time. It was a building of which the city was proud, so proud that the Queen was asked to open it fonnally.

In the Australian Heritage Commission’s study into ‘Post-World War II Multi-storeyed Office Buildings in Australia (1945-1967)’, architectural historian Jennifer Taylor lists twenty-four ’milestone’ buildings constructed during this period of which Council House is one. Architectural firm, Howlett and Bailey’s Council House is described as one of Perth’s two most important early modern buildings (the other being Bates, Smart and McCutcheon’s MLC building).

To help determine the future of the building the Perth City Council commissioned Schwager Brooks and Partners Pty Ltd, the Sydney-based conservation and heritage consultants, to evaluate Council House and advise on its future.

Schwager Brooks recognised that the building survives in a relatively intact form, both extemally and internally, that it was designed to utilise the most modern technological building systems of the time, and that it was a landmark building in this respect in Perth and Australia. They point out that many of the fittings and fixtures designed purposefully for this building were subsequently absorbed into the product ranges of architectural hardware and furniture suppliers, such was the quality of their original design.

The National Trust of Australia (WA) recognised that Council House survives as a fine example of office design which featured the most progressive ideas of the time, reflecting influences of the major contemporary examples constructed in Europe and America. The building is recognised by them as having national significance in this regard. Every element of the building was designed and detailed by the architects: from the overall appearance and structure to the intemal finishes and fixtures, with a number of local artists and craftspeople designing and producing fumishings and fittings for the building. The National Tnlst conservation recommendation is strong in asserting that Council House should be conserved in accordance with the recommendations of the conservation plan prepared by Schwager Brooks.

In the face of that evidence, the Western Australian Government of the day and the City of Perth determined that Council House should be demolished. While they did acknowledge that the building had architectural merit, they argued that Council House should go because it does not ‘fit’ within a ‘heritage precinct’.

This judgement raised a number of serious questions about our concept of heritage. Is heritage to be dated only prior to some privileged year? This view suggests that heritage is something that we salvage rather than create. It implicitly suggests that the saved past is more worthy than the present. Inevitably when such a past is reflected upon it is idealised and, more often than not, in the words of the British critic, Patrick Wright, is ‘the historicised image of the establishment’. 2

The built heritage in Western Australia is impoverished and distorted if it is limited to the buildings of our colonial past. A rich built heritage will demonstrate an evolving view of how we choose to represent our cultural achievements: it will not judge one period as superior to another, but will value the evidence of the ideas and aspirations of each period. If we are to value the achievements of our contemporary society, they must be given a place alongside those of the past.

Therefore, a ‘heritage precinct’, ideally, should represent all periods of development. The reality of the precinct in question is that it is an amalgam of buildings and spaces dating back to the beginning of the settlement of the Swan River Colony. It contains the city’s oldest building and, next to it, on the site of Council House, was the second oldest when it was demolished - the original Public Offices. All the other buildings so revered now as part of a heritage precinct replaced the older ones which we would likely treasure if they still remained. When studied, there is significant stylistic variation across the buildings of the precinct. With the perspective of time, Council House will be recognised as a significant part of the civic area and no more out of ‘fit’ with the other buildings than the Gothic Revival St George’s Cathedral.

Council House forms part of the continuous development associated with state and local government in Perth and reflects the growth in the city and the corresponding council administration. It occupies a site on which the Public Offices were built from 1836. The site has therefore been occupied continuously for a period of nearly 160 years by public offices and should be interpreted as an historic site. Council House is closely linked with the civic identity of Perth. The Perth City Council has been associated with the conception, design and construction, and continuous occupation of the building for the last thirty years.

As the seat of local government in the city, it is, in this context, associated with and reinforced by the immediate presence of Government House, St George’s Cathedral, Perth Town Hall and the former Central Government Buildings. Council House is a key element in the historical architectural development of Perth. It has a legitimate place in the growth and change of the city.

Dynamic cities are not those that are preserved in a museum-like state in which buildings that do not fit within an idealised architectural past are weeded out. Rather, they are cities where the buildings of the past exist cheek-by-jowl with more recent buildings, where the sense of a city has accumulated over time and is represented by differences in values and ideas. Architectural differences, conflict, and contradiction are inherent characteristics of development in an urban context, and the very factors which offer vitality and establish a real sense of location.

In the Perth Central Area Policies Review of the mid 1990s there was clearly a desire to create a vibrant and diversified centre which reflects the aspirations of a modern international city. In light of this, it is incongruous that Council House should have been considered for demolition. As one of the most optimistic and completely resolved modern buildings of Perth, it could be seen as emblematic of these aspirations.

Fortunately, Council House was retained, has been refurbished, and is once again, the seat of city govemance.

At the time of its completion, there was a wide-spread almost natural assumption that the new would triumph over the old, that the modern city would take precedence over the colonial city. This view held such currency as to allow open discussion over the relocation of the adjacent Government House to Kings Park, or at least the demolition of the Government House ballroom which nuzzled closely to the base of Council House. In its review of the recently completed Council House, Architecture in Australia reported that this demolition would ‘... give the Council House more elbow room ...’ 3

And it was not only the architectural joumals that were expressing such irreverent views. The West Australian newspaper published letters advocating similar solutions without raising any objections to the suggestions either through editorial comment or letters from others. A letter from FE McCaw of Perth suggested that ‘the “antiquated” Government House be bulldozed for the purpose of creating the best possible site for the Town Hall.’ 4 A] Hepburn, in speaking of the Council House site, stated,

Its one drawback is that it will become cramped in time, because no encroachment on to Stirling Gardens should be tolerated. But the answer to this is to get the State Government to agree that Government House can some day be demolished.’ 5

The proposal to demolish the remains of the colonial past extended at one point to the imposing neo-classical Supreme Court building to the south-west of Council House, forming the southern edge to the Stirling Gardens. This emblem of state authority was to make way for a ceremonial drive, a continuation of the Esplanade, the completion of which would have allowed the area to ‘... gain full stature as a piece of Civic design.' 6

Council House as it has stood since 1963 is an incomplete version of a much grander vision of a modern civic centre for the City of Perth. It was conceived with its concert halls, the Public Suite, to the south, accessible from the proposed ceremonial drive and was, in the minds of many to stand proudly as an ensemble in modern isolation in the Stirling Gardens which was to be cleared of its colonial remnants. Only Council House was built, with the Concert Hall relocated to the other side of Government House.

port

Port Authority Building, Fremantle, Hobbs, Winning & Leighton, Architects, 1964. Courtesy Geoffrey London, 2004.

In the Fremantle Port Authority building, we have a building of a vintage similar to Council House with some strong claims on heritage status.

Fremantle, in contrast to Perth, is a city that largely escaped the demolition of fine building stock, as the result of a number of historical circumstances. However, there were some very close calls, and plans from the 1950s and 60s indicate what could have been.

Fremantle retains the evidence of a city that has accrued over time. And, over that time, the city has evolved with clear differences in the buildings that occupy it. In Phillimore Street for example, there is a sense of coherence, largely through scale, texture, and materials. But there are significant differences in the buildings. And the buildings we cherish today are not the original buildings of Fremantle - they are either replacements or those buildings with new gold rush facades grafted on.

I accept the view that we create heritage all the time - and that heritage does not precede some privileged date. For buildings, the term ‘heritage’ is too often used to advocate or describe an historic style.

What we make or build today could be the heritage of tomorrow.

highst

High Street, Fremantle, Panorama from the Round House, 1870.
Courtesy Battye Library.

New buildings in a sensitive heritage precinct like the town of Fremantle, should, in my view, be responses both to the place and to the time. Attempts to reproduce or mimic existing buildings result in pastiche and, worse, demean the existing buildings. And, they do not endure.

In addition to the responsibility of valuing and protecting the heritage of the past, we need, I believe, to value and produce the heritage of the future.

Although in Fremantle we have a local council that is committed to such outcomes, we nevertheless should value guidance from elsewhere, to see how the process may be assisted. In England, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) was created by the Blair Government and is charged, among other things, with promoting good design in public sector building projects and also with ‘inspiring people to demand more from their buildings and spaces.’ 7 I think it is a really interesting model for us to look at.

CABE have produced, together with English Heritage, a publication titled Building in context: New development in historic areas. The document demonstrates that intelligent, imaginative and high quality architecture enhances the character of the places we value. And that, far from being an impediment to change, the historic context has actually inspired the design process and has resulted in responsive new buildings.

In Building in context, CABE observes:

Thoughtless haste on the one hand and ill-considered imitation on the other have both over the years damaged the fabric of our historic towns and cities. But there is another way, in the form of buildings that are recognisably of our age while understanding and respecting history and context. 8

It goes on to say:

Some of the schemes shown here came about only because the planning authority had the courage and conviction to reject inferior schemes and demand something better. Sometimes this brought delay and difficulty; but producing solutions that are lastingly satisfying does mean investing in time, effort and imagination. One of the heartening lessons of this book is that such an investment is, in the end, almost always thought to be worthwhile, even by those who started off as critics. 9

The primary purpose of the publication is to stimulate a high standard of design when development takes place in historically sensitive contexts. What lay behind the decision to undertake the publication is the belief that conservation areas and other sensitive sites are not being well served by the development which is taking place within them and that there is a widespread misunderstanding about how to determine what is appropriate for such sites.

It is not just in England that contemporary design values are encouraged in sensitive historic centres. For example, in Italy, there is a tradition of this approach with one of the most celebrated practitioners, the architect Carlo Scarpa.

These lessons suggest that there should not be polarisation between the old and the new but that the future of our city lies in the thoughtful integration of both. And, when it comes to new architecture, there needs to be emphasis on the pursuit of high quality.

A place like Fremantle could actively promote high quality contemporary architecture - offer awards for it, require competitions for buildings over a certain value to ensure the best possible design outcome, be proud of it, and become known for a living city that truly values the new with the old.

court

Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, British Museum, London, Foster and Partners, 2000.
Downloaded from a website. Left hand image captioned ‘Aerial computer simulation of the completed Great Court showing the drum of the Reading Room as its centre. Image : Foster and Partners.’ Right hand image by Nigel Young of Foster and Partners.

The new would acknowledge the scale of the existing and the building lines. The new buildings would be, as our old buildings once were, the cutting edge buildings of their day, the state of the art. This, I believe is real heritage, a responsible heritage to be left to future generations.

Notes

1 The Architectural Review (UK), v 135, January 1964, p 2

2 G Davison & C McConville (eds), A heritage handbook, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991, p 8

3 Architecture in Australia, v 52 n4, Dec 1963, pp 84-89, p 85

4 The West Australian, 24 March 1959

5 The West Australian, 22 May 1959

6 Architecture in Australia, v 52 n4, Dec 1963, pp 84-89, p 85

7 CABE homepage: http://www.cabe.org.uk

8 English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, Building in context: new development in historic areas, Westerian Press, London, 2001, p 4

9 Ibid.

Geoffrey London

Geoffrey London is the Professor of Architecture at The University of Western Australia Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts, a position he has held since 1992. At the end of 1996 he completed a nine year period as, first, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and then Head of the School. He also holds the position of Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and is a past Chair of the Committee of Heads of Architecture Schools of Australasia. At the beginning of 2004 he was appointed to the position of Western Australian Government Architect.

He is a past President of the Western Australian Chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and a Fellow of the RAIA. His research and writing activity is focused on aspects of twentieth century architecture with a special emphasis on the decades of 1950 and 1960.


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