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Saving our Suburban Modernism

For many Melbournians, the word “heritage” evokes Marvellous Melbourne—the grand and ornate architecture of the gold rush, but the story of our city did not end there.

From Marvellous Melbourne to Melbourne’s Marvellous Modernism

The post-war period in Melbourne was a period of transformation of a scale not seen since the gold rush. The post-war boom saw the city’s population doubled, with the 1956 Olympics a key moment in the modernisation of the city.

Despite the historical importance of this period, progress towards recognising our post-war heritage has been slow. In 2008, the Heritage Council of Victoria commissioned experts Heritage Alliance to prepare a comprehensive study of state-significant post-war heritage in Victoria, however many of the places identified in the report remain unprotected at either state or local level.

Following extensive campaigning by the National Trust and other advocates including Melbourne Heritage Action, progress has been made towards recognising post-war heritage places in the CBD. However significant residential, commercial, and religious architecture in Melbourne’s suburbs remains vulnerable, particularly in the middle and outer suburbs which experienced significant growth during the post-war period. The preparation of planning amendments to provide local heritage protection remains dependent on resourcing and political will, and few municipalities have comprehensively tackled post-war heritage to date. Even when Councils have been proactive in the recognition of post-war heritage, such as in Bayside and Whitehorse, the process has often been frustrated by opposition from vocal residents who reject the idea that post-war architecture can have heritage value.

Unloved Modern

The challenges of advocating for the protection of post-war heritage were recently highlighted in Manningham Council’s decision to reject unequivocal heritage advice recommending the protection 5 Ians Grove, Templestowe Lower, a rare 1968 project home designed by architect Bernard Joyce. Despite 23 submissions supporting the heritage value of the house, the vote to apply for interim heritage protection was defeated 5-4. In a media report of the meeting, Councillor Andrew Conlon was quoted as stating “To me, I don’t find it a particularly beautiful building and I think it’s unfair to impose these sorts of restrictions on people”. This view, which speaks to personal aesthetic preferences rather than a balanced and evidence-based assessment of significance, recalled then-Planning Minister Matthew Guy’s 2014 comment “People use the term brutalist architecture to legitimise ugly buildings, but I don’t think we should be saving ugly buildings in Melbourne.”

Towards Recognition for our Post-War Heritage

Despite these prejudices, interest in post-war heritage continues to grow, alongside development pressures in Melbourne’s suburbs, and a number of grassroots community groups have formed on social media to share stories, archival material, and real estate listings, such as Victorian Modern, Beaumaris Modern, and Mid-Century Domestic Architecture Australia.

Other organisations including the Robin Boyd Foundation, Docomomo Australia, and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Design also make a significant contribution to providing education and programming around post-war heritage, and advocating for the protection of significant post-war heritage places.

Regular events held by the Robin Boyd Foundation at Walsh Street in South Yarra provide opportunities for visitors to physically experience and learn from a significant modernist residence and its associated collection, as well as preserving and interpreting Boyd’s legacy. Similarly the Melbourne School of Design’s recent event “The House Talks Back”, an exhibition and open house at the former home of émigré architect Dr Ernest Fooks, has provided an opportunity for a generation of young architects to learn from an exemplary architect and urban planner, as well as allowing visitors to enjoy the house the architect designed for himself and his wife. The project has also resulted in the cataloguing and interpretation of a significant architectural archive. These examples remind us that our built heritage is not just an aesthetic legacy, but a living archive that can educate and enlighten us.

Following a successful campaign to document and protect Melbourne’s Marvellous Modernism focused on the CBD, the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) is launching its Suburban Modern campaign, which will build on current grassroots campaigning for post-war heritage by lobbying state and local government to invest in heritage assessments specifically targeting our significant post-war places. We invite you to visit our website to find out more, and to email us at conservation@nattrust.com.au with any examples of post-war architecture that you think are worthy of protection and celebration. Join the National Trust to stay up to date with our Suburban Modern campaign, and to find out more about our other campaigns across Victoria.

 

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