Terra Goldfishius, or the curious case of the Windsor Hotel

May 6, 2010

When it comes to the development of our built environment, why are we so pessimistic, bureaucratic and litigious? David Neustein examines the increasingly absurd heritage dispute unfurling over Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel.

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Australia is often cast as a nation of optimists. But the truth is that we are collectively a nation of amnesiacs, unable to remember how young our country is and incapable of recalling just how much has changed in that short time. From Terra Nullius, we have evolved to Terra Goldfishius. We cling to what we have and fret over every modification to our hastily erected, contingent, ex-colonial cities.

A decade ago, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks intervened at the eleventh-hour to stunt construction of Federation Square’s north-western shard. Shortening the shard from crystal to stump, Bracks acted on concerns that the shard would impede views of neighbouring St Paul’s Cathedral. However, as Dr Philip Goad noted dryly at the time, Bracks seemed to have forgotten that the apparently sacrosanct ‘heritage vista’ of St Paul’s was itself a new creation. The Cathedral had been hidden behind a succession of buildings over its century-long life. Only when the infamous Gas and Fuel Corporation Towers (which had stood for 30 years) were demolished to make way for Federation Square, was the ‘heritage vista’ revealed to Bracks and Melbourne.

A few years before the Fed Square debacle, Sydney locals awoke one day to discover a ‘heritage vista’ of their own; unobstructed views of the Opera House and botanical gardens from Circular Quay. Had a row of buildings on Macquarie Street previously obscured this view? Were these buildings demolished to make way for new development? Nobody could quite recall. But what everyone seemed to agree on was that the new ‘Toaster’ complex should never be allowed to block this view. The completion of the Toaster brought an abrupt end to debate – Sydneysiders seemingly unable to remember what they were missing.

The mysterious case of collective amnesia resurfaced once more with the design competition for East Darling Harbour. Philip Thalis (with Paul Berkmeier and Jane Irwin) won the competition. However the omniscient Paul Keating did not favour Thalis’ proposal, finding its harbour edge too hard and artificial. Keating preferred a soft, natural approach that returned the site to its pristine, pre-European state. Ironically, the site had never been harbour bushland, but was in fact industrial-era landfill. Thalis’ hard edge remained true to the historic boundaries, and Keating’s soft edge as the fabrication. But never mind; Thalis has been deposed, Keating will get his bushland, and the site has been renamed Barangaroo, completing the Disney-fied picture of a timeless, indigenous landscape.

Charged with reinvigorating Melbourne’s historic Windsor Hotel, a beloved and ornate establishment built in 1893 1883, architect Denton Corker Marshall has recently come up against a historically unprecedented mass of our amnesiacs, a zombie horde of the un-remembering. The backdrop for this epic struggle is the Melbourne city grid, itself an extruded diagram of forgetfulness. Indifferent to topography (and hence the land’s embodied memory) and un-hierarchical in arrangement, the grid retains few traces of its rapid transformation from wilderness to metropolis. The city has evolved in piecemeal fashion, which has set the scene for some unlikely adjacencies between buildings of different periods and styles. Impressions of the city are intimate and localised, the grid a chessboard waiting for a chance move. Perfectly embodying the grid’s eclectic spirit, DCM’s design is divided into three distinct parts: historic hotel, new corner block, and tower rising behind.

While much contention has focused on the addition of the 91-metre tall, 26-storey tower, the most important changes designed by DCM will occur at pavement level. The hotel’s original colonnade is to be restored and opened to the street. Creating a lively and continuous street frontage, the ground floor of the new corner building will be set back to align with the colonnade.

Between the historic building and the new, a glass lobby will expose the Windsor’s remnant northern façade, hidden for nearly 50 years by an unremarkable brownbrick addition. The lobby will flow into and activate the hotel’s central lightcourt, which is currently an unoccupied service space. Celebrating the qualities of the original building and clearly defining newer additions, these changes are very much in line with the principles of the Burra Charter, the 1979 document which provides guidelines for the restoration and alteration of Australia’s historic places. Contained within a slender footprint and positioned as far as possible from Spring Street’s historic streetscape, the tower provides an elegant counterpoint to the historic building and ties the hotel to the skyline. Enabled by the demolition of the hotel’s original rear half, the vertical addition is a necessary consequence of the undersized Windsor’s gradual slump into neglect. In accordance with the Burra Charter, usage must be protected at all costs and the enlarged facilities should ensure the longevity and upkeep of the Windsor.

But all of these productive, historically attuned measures have escaped the amnesiacs, who last month protested in their hundreds against the development. Leaked documents from the Planning Minister’s department revealed that Ministerial minions had cynically predicted the backlash. Their plan was to first approve the redevelopment and then cancel it, once sufficient negative public feedback had been gathered. It was taken for granted that everyone would overlook the undignified, 1960s addition that currently cramps the Windsor’s style and which DCM’s design will replace. No one seemed able to recollect that the building’s most recent tenant had been the Hard Rock Cafe. Marvellous Melbourne, hardly. But actor Geoffrey Rush took the theatrics to another level with an audacious feat of historical inaccuracy, likening the Windsor redevelopment to the bombing of Dresden. In fact, the DCM design has more in common with the lauded 1999 renovation of Berlin’s Reichstag – where old spaces were strategically erased to allow room for the new, the building’s historic grandeur retained, and a new celebratory crown added above.

DCM knows its city. The Melbourne practice has already given us several city landmarks, including the Melbourne Museum, Jeff’s Shed, the Cheese Sticks, and Webb Bridge. Director John Denton served as the inaugural Victorian Government Architect. DCM has also played a vital role in establishing laneway culture. As designers, developers and initiating operators of the Adelphi, Australia’s first boutique hotel, DCM introduced elements of mystery and delight into the Flinders Lane streetscape. The Adelphi approach has been much emulated and has played a part in establishing the laneways’ integral role in Melbourne’s heritage strategy.

However the National Trust wants you to forget all of DCM’s past achievements. The Trust has hired non-architects to create their own image of the planned Windsor tower. Whereas DCM’s tower design is a translucent, finely detailed screen, the National Trust image depicts an opaque, cheap-looking block, which undermines the architects’ record as celebrated designers. Erstwhile guardians of our cultural artefacts, the Trust – like Keating and Bracks – prefers history constructed, to history observed.

  • Simon Knott May 6th, 2010 4:43 am

    David, this article fails to mention that one of the main heritage concerns is that there are planning regulations limiting the heights of buildings along this important view corridor to the parliament building.Surely this is worth preserving? Also, all discussion is largely focused on the tower rather that the poorly designed corner building that abuts the Windsor and addresses the Parliament.

  • Barbara Cullen May 6th, 2010 6:29 am

    Mr Knott, I am curious about this often referred to importan view of the Parliament precinct and its height restriction. The apartment building adjacent to the Windsor Hotel was constructed in 1973 and stands at roughly the same height (give or take a floor) as the proposed hotel tower.

  • Simon Knott May 6th, 2010 6:39 am

    Yes, It’s built to the height limit.The proposed 91m tower is not.

  • Rohan Storey May 8th, 2010 9:09 am

    The 60s apartment building is outside the height limit area, which runs between little Collins and little Bourke. So the new tower is within the limited area. I wonder what exactly Mr Neustein thinks the the Trust etc are forgetting – certainly not that the height limit has preserved the low scale context of the parliament precinct for 30 years. Nor that the hotel was saved from demolition in the 1970s, and the precinct saved from a tower rising up behind in 1989 (set back further then the one proposed). Sounds more like we tend to repeat mistakes avoided in the past, especially when some great design is involved.

  • Anonymous May 10th, 2010 3:21 am

    Yes, let’s use the tower next door and the Burra Charter as points of reference shall we. Afterall, we’re talking about the 21st century – and not simply regurgitating the planning policies of the 1970s …. On the subject of amnesia, one forgets that Denton Corker Marshall rose to award winning prominence as postmodernists. Yet they seem to have since managed to morphed their talents into unashamed brutalism. It is no wonder that the Trust hire non-architects when DCM have gone to great efforts to scale of this development and its terrible blank concrete wall on the other side with misleading renders shown from great distances.

    Perhaps in your analysis of National Trust vicissitudes you could point to the positives that have come out of saving many of our great landmarks – for example the Royal Exhibition Building having become a World Heritage icon rather than a carpark. It is obvious that the Trust cannot and will not stop this development going ahead, yet the true legacy of this development will no doubt be felt in decades to come.

  • Convenient Untruths May 10th, 2010 4:29 am

    In trying to prove a point about how “historically attuned” Mr Neustein is, he has instead succeeded to show either how thoroughly ignorant or deliberately misleading he is to our history. The Windsor was NOT built in 1893. St Paul’s has NOT had a “century-long” life. It dates to near Melbourne’s birth and is 162 years old ! And the present building is 120 years old. Goad should not be taken out of context. You clearly have no idea as the Gas and Fuel Towers was the only building to have obstructed the vista – the whole reason the church was built in such a prominent position and the towers later demolished.

    The city did NOT evolve in “piecemeal fashion”, it was planned city from the outset and the strict 40 metre height limits created what was a grand pre-war centre. Since the 1950s architects were taught to ignore history and the result was the present mish mash which you now uneducatedly attribute to our founding forefathers. It appears that after a brief renaissance our architects continue to draw inspiration from the spirit of that destructive era.

    But to top it off you attempt to upstage Geoffrey Rush by declaring DCM’s design the next Reichstag … Oh please ! Yes, the Reichstag was bombed and reconstructed and NOT as you claim “strategically erased”.

    How can you possibly say that people are forgetting the past when you obviously have no clue. A little historical research wouldn’t go astray – but relax worry I won’t tell your modernist lecturer …

  • May 10th, 2010 5:29 am

    Thank you all for your comments on this and other stories that appear on ADR. We’re pleased to see readers responding to the features and engaging in discussion, and we are happy to look into inaccuracies raised by our readers. However, please try to avoid leaving personal comments and keep your observations constructive and on topic. Any comments that the online editor deems to be offensive may be edited and/or removed.

  • Pierre Mendonca May 10th, 2010 8:46 am

    Mr Neustein,
    The Windsor Tower has it’s broad side to Spring Street. Effectively it forms a wall (only 91 metres high) between the City and the Parliamentary precinct. Imagine the huge shaow this will cast int the morning from east to west and then in the evening west to east. Secondly, you sound like and apologist for DCM. They have done some good work and some debatable work. Creating landmarks does not necessarily mean good architecture…. it just means you got the job in a landmark position. This is not to bag DCM by any means but to put paid the fallacy that because you’ve done good work previously it is taken for granted that this current project will be good too. And yes, it may be good, but do we really need a 90 metre high wall adding to the less than inspiring buildings around with the exception of 1 Spring Street?

  • hairdresser May 10th, 2010 11:35 pm

    Its true the “heritage vista” to St. Pauls never existed, but its not true that the Dr. disagreed openly with the National Trust. He kept his mouth shut at the time. He was on the National Trust. However, Fed Square and the bogus processes used against the shard at the start of Labors time in power and the processes involved in the Windsor scheme at the end would have been the basis of a good article. *

    *text has been edited by the administrator.

  • luke May 11th, 2010 12:05 am

    What if the Windsor bonus development envelope had been decorated by DCM twenty years ago. It coulda been Michael Graves Po Mo or Zaha.ahah depending on whether they put it in before her lecture in melbourne or after.

  • David Neustein May 11th, 2010 4:59 am

    It is of course a privilege to write an article and receive so much spirited comment in reply.

    I would like to address some justified criticism of the article and rectify some errors of fact. As has been pointed out, the Windsor was of course completed in 1883, not 1893. I apologise for the error. When I wrote of the current St Pauls (not its current incarnation) being a century old, I specifically did not write 100 years, as the exact length of time (1891 – present) was not relevant to my comment.

    Anyone who remains unclear as to what Dr Philip Goad wrote at the time of the Shard controversy should read this article from Architecture Australia: http://www.architecturemedia.com/aa/aaissue.php?issueid=200005&article=1&typeon=1

    That Melbourne developed in piecemeal fashion is a subject for which much historical evidence exists, dating from well before the 1950s. I suggest a reading of Tim Flannery’s The Birth of Melbourne.

    Finally, the “strategic erasure” I described in reference to the Reichstag was that carried out by the architect of its restoration, Lord Norman Foster, and obviously not the bombing of the building more than 50 years prior to that.

    Apart from the above, I take particular exception to the personal comments in this forum, made about me by Convenient Untruths. My name is on this article, and I stand by it. If someone wishes to make personal remarks about me, then that person should have the courage to put his or her name to them.

  • hairdresser May 11th, 2010 11:14 am

    Dr. wrote that after. not at the time. your reference shows that.
    i did hear a peter brew say all that AT the time. he resigned from the trust over the “fake” vista. i think u might find his remarks in a dusty archive of the Age. the Dr. stayed in the trust and stayed zipped until the dust had cleared and it was all safely over. Another notably silent figure was the RAIA Vic pres. the NSW RAIA chapter pres seemed compelled to step in and say something strong. like i say – coulda been an interesting article if you want to examine planning under labor from beginning to end.

  • Neville Kenyon May 11th, 2010 12:53 pm

    Very good article: well reasoned.

  • cabbie May 11th, 2010 1:27 pm

    well done, when can the cab ranks become bigger ?

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