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.
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.