DEVELOPERS vs ARCHITECTURE

After years of demolitions, mainly of office blocks not tall enough to be "economic" and cavernous cinemas for which which no new use can be found - there's a limit to the demand for antiques markets and bowling alleys - Melbourne is no longer so rich in 1930s buildings that it can afford to lose many more. Bethesda Hospital in Richmond, an excellent example of the streamlined Moderne style, was recently torn down. Now planners have signed a death warrant for the columned facade of the former Capitol Bakeries in South Yarra, designed in 1937 by the eminent and then fashionable architect Harry Norris. This handsome piece of streetscape with its elegant lightly curved corner sweep is not to be preserved when a meretricious 38-storey tower rises on the site. Why is it that when the greed of property developers - or speculative builders as they used to be called - clashes with good architecture the former usually wins, our extensive "heritage" bureaucracy notwithstanding? I am grateful that the Age published a letter from me on this subject last Saturday (14 January 2012). Even when a cause is lost one might as well make a squeak of protest.

Leading modernist architect Nando Pollarrosto writes: "The above post shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between new buildings and old. While you at least recognise that the new South Yarra tower block is meretricious, which I take to be a misprint for meritorious, the "building" it replaces is merely a piece of pastiche from an anglo-imperialist era in which pillars and columns symbolise the rigidity of exploitative society. Modern architecture must engage with this society by tearing down its oppressive structures metaphorically and literally. The replacement building in its aspirational height goes some way towards representing a new paradigm but not far enough, begging the question of what I would have designed for this site. To start with I would have created a structure entirely separate from the ground, suspended above the street from a cable attached to a permanently on-site crane to symbolise the ongoing nature of the process of constructing a new society and also to enable the land beneath, free of built structures, to be reclaimed by its traditional owners the Tomanjeri people. Access for stakeholders of European descent would be by ladder or helicopter. This being a multicultural country I would have made free use of faux-brick cladding and louvred windows to celebrate the vernacular architectural tradition of my Greek grandparents when they modernised their nineteenth-century cottage in inner Melbourne in 1951. My design would not have had doors and windows of rectangular form because I believe that horizontals and verticals symbolise, respectably, the extended mass of oppressed minorities such as LGBTI people and racial minorities and the racist downward pressure on them by the one per cent at the top as represented by Coalitionism. All lines and surfaces would have been curved and slanted to make us question our inherited notions of proportion. I expect that some enlightened property developer will soon commission this design of mine to be built, but meanwhile it is really great to see that quite a few of the Australian architectural community must have been inspired by seeing the sketches on my website to apply the latter characteristics I mention to their own work."

13 January 2012

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