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The Modernist Heritage conundrum

It’s well accepted in the heritage profession that time and style are not much of a barrier to deciding whether a place has sufficient importance, or in heritage language, ‘significance’, that it should be protected. There is in fact no cut-off date in any legislation, and Heritage Victoria has even listed Postmodern places, as have local councils (the ‘youngest’ I know of is Katsalidis’s 1994 Melbourne Terrace in Queen Street).

 

But some sections of the community, and some decision makers, can’t get their head around the idea that something that was ‘modern’ in its day can now be considered ‘heritage.  Modern conjures images of severe gridded office blocks, while heritage means charming Victorian ornateness. Most famously in recent years former Planning Minister Mathew Guy described the Total Carpark as ‘ugly’ and took the 8 postwar city buildings out of a list of 96 city buildings ‘for further study’ despite a planning panel recommending that all 90 be listed. Even the current planning Minister Richard Wynne has only granted them ‘interim’’ protection, folding them into the just-started comprehensive CBD heritage review, despite the fact the city north review included the 1965 gold tiled TAA tower (Norris, Marcus & Allison) on Franklin Street without much opposition.

 

Similar biases apply at the local Council level, where Councilors (or staff) may simply not see protection of modernist places as a priority (or any heritage listing at all – I’m looking at you Bayside), or even actively oppose the whole idea. A former Mayor of Monash famously described the 1957 Oakleigh Motel as ugly, and wanted to allow it to be demolished, despite it having local heritage protection. The City of Glen Eira has not listed a single place built after 1940, Stonnington only a handful of the most famous, and Boroondara regularly rejects amendments that include ‘too many’ postwar houses (though local resident action thankfully saw most of the Studley Park area of modernist houses become the Kew Modern heritage precinct). Other Councils have listed some obvious and not so obvious, while not listing others. To be fair it’s a difficult task, given there’s so many interesting houses, sometimes many by the same architects (how many Patrick & Chancellor houses are there ?), many by lesser or little known architects, and some by owner/builders.

 

Heritage Victoria to its credit has not baulked at listing modernist offices, houses and factories, having started with Australia’s first heritage listed high-rise, the ICI building in 1990, and gone on to add many other places (Theodore Berman’s brightly coloured 1963 Chef Factory in Brunswick is one of my favorites). But they have not attempted any kind of comprehensive approach to listing modernist places, mostly because they lack the resources to do any kind of sweeping study or bulk listing, a costly exercise since each owner who doesn’t like the idea of being listed can ask for a hearing, with all the time and paperwork that would require.

 

So all in all, it’s a bit of a mess.

 

But I am glad to say that one of the less celebrated modernist building types has not been forgotten in all this. The late 50s to the late 60s saw an explosion of Church building, and huge experimentation. Wedge shaped, circular or square plans, projecting gables, soaring roofs, abstract art and wild coloured glass windows abounded in new Churches across the suburbs, and some of these have been heritage listed.

 

The gentle circular stone and brick, conical roofed St Faiths, Burwood, by Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell, and Ray Berg’s expressed steel portal frame Christchurch, Mitcham (both 1958) are on the Heritage Register. The upturned-boat roofed St Bernadettes in Ivanhoe (Robert Ellis, 1962), the minimalist, square planned, space-frame roofed St Georges Reservoir (Mockridge Stahle & Mitchell, 1964) and the jaunty off-centre gabled St Aidens, Strathmore (Philip Garside, 1960) all have local heritage overlays, as do many others. But there are plenty more also worthy of protection that don’t have it. In fact, there are plans afoot right now to demolish the spectacular 1963 Mary Immaculate on Upper Heidelberg Road Ivanhoe (also by Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell); the loss of its landmark pointed copper spire and soaring portal famed, trapezoidal planned interior, not to mention the extensive coloured glass windows and integral art works, would be a great one. A concerted effort to protect the best of our modernist places is long overdue.

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