Award for Public Space and Cultural Heritage Advocacy At Fed Square

In early 2018, I co-founded Citizens for Melbourne and we launched the ‘Our City, Our Square – for Fed Square, not Apple Square’ campaign. Our team has been awarded The Bates Smart Award for Architecture in Media (Advocacy Award), Victorian Architecture Awards, Australian Institute of Architects, 2020.

The ambition for the Our City, Our Square campaign was to prevent the blatant corporatisation of Fed Square and to safeguard Fed Square as Melbourne’s leading public space. Citizens for Melbourne continues to advocate for quality public spaces across Melbourne.

In addition to contributing to the advocacy material produced during the campaign, I wrote a number of pieces based on my skills in heritage conservation and urban history:

Reflecting the broader sentiment among Melburnians that Fed Square is a valued public space, the campaign gained sizeable traction. More than 100,000 people signed petitions, made public submissions, donated funds, sent off emails, shared social media posts, and generally engaged. It was an exhilarating two years of talking with many people who value public space.

Our organisation and campaign always saw ourselves as networking organisations and people to create a unified voice for Fed Square and public space. We also believed it was important to utilise innovative and creative advocacy techniques which would cut through the spin and noise.

The issue generated widespread international, national, metropolitan and local media coverage. This often revolved around ‘mini-actions’, including plastering broadsheets around the city and launching a satiric $30m buy-back Fed Square crowdfunding opportunity. Some people thought the crowdfunding was serious – and fair enough too!

Led by the National Trust, a state heritage listing for Fed Square happened in 2019, the first major international example of a designation for twenty-first-century architecture. A listing was contested at various points, especially by Fed Square management. I was initially rebuffed by some prominent heritage people that Fed Square wasn’t directly a cultural heritage issue!

But Fed Square had clearly become a historic place for Melbourne over the last two decades. The case against the state criteria was strong and clearly articulated by the National Trust, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria and the hundreds of members of the community who made submissions. The campaign consistently facilitated record numbers of submissions to authorities.

The community campaign was ultimately successful. Apple pulled its plan in 2019. The government ministers responsible have been demoted or left politics. There is new leadership of Fed Square. A (delayed) state government review is exploring options around the future of Fed Square – mindful of the strong public interest in ensuring our public space remains so. Citizens for Melbourne will be watching these developments closely.

Meanwhile, I maintain an interest in Fed Square. I contributed to the Conservation Management Plan (CMP) prepared by Lovell Chen. I’m also actively researching Fed Square, with a forthcoming article on its creation between 1994 and 2002 (details to come), and ongoing international collaborations around the future relationship between public space and cultural heritage.

Recognition of everyone’s efforts is rewarding. However, my highlight of the campaign has been observing the strong engagement by the community in Fed Square as public space and cultural heritage. That is ultimately what made the Our City, Our Square campaign successful and makes me optimistic about the the future of our city and its public realm.

James Broadbent, ‘ICOMOS Australia’, 1982.

Urban History summer seminar series – ‘Questioning the Consensus? Urban Conservation in 1990s Sydney and Melbourne’

Over the next few months, this UK urban history virtual summer seminar series will showcase leading edge research in the field of urban history.

Register on EventBrite

About this Event

Our second speaker, Dr James Lesh from the University of Melbourne, will be talking about his work on heritage conservation in 1990s Melbourne and Sydney. In 1990, veteran Australian heritage planner Helen Proudfoot (1930–2012) was honoured with the prestigious Sidney Luker Award by the Royal Australian Planning Institute in Sydney. Upon receiving the award, Proudfoot delivered an unconventional acceptance speech. She did not praise the advances in urban heritage practice which had occurred during her career. There was no mention of the popular embrace of urban heritage, the growth of the heritage profession, or the creation of new governance regimes; the hallmarks of the late-twentieth-century conservation consensus (Pendlebury 2009). Instead, Proudfoot criticised the heritage consultants, those ‘environmental fundamentalists’ who were focussed on ‘telling us what we must not do’. On the one hand, Proudfoot’s appraisal of heritage practice might be dismissed as a spectacular provocation or even the harangue of a notable figure at the twilight of their career. Yet her stance was soon endorsed by leading Melbourne architectural conservationist Miles Lewis. Proudfoot had raised a fundamental issue at the heart of the question of urban conservation: how do we prevent heritage from ‘overtaking us’ (Koolhaas 2004)? This paper draws on archival research in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne to question the 1990s conservation consensus and examine the ways urban heritage practice was seemingly making cities, places and people worse off.

This talk will be held on Google Meet, the link to which will be made available 48 hours before the talk. This seminar will be recorded and made available online at

This seminar series is jointly organised by Urban History and the Urban History Group. We are grateful to the journal’s New Initiatives Fund for initial funding support.

Los Angeles: 3AM, Friday, July 13, 2020
New York: 6AM, Friday, July 13, 2020
London: 11AM, Friday, July 13, 2020
Singapore: 6PM, Friday, July 13, 2020
Melbourne: 8PM, Friday, July 13, 2020

Register on EventBrite

Image: James Broadbent, ICOMOS Australia Newsletter, 1982.

Why heritage protection is about how people use places, not just their architecture and history

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 9 July 2020. Read the original article. Republished in Domain’s Commercial Real Estate.

James Lesh, University of Melbourne

The roar of the crowd at the stadium. Jostling to see the New Year fireworks in the public square. Captivated by the band at the pub. Meeting mates outside the train station. These experiences conjure sites of importance for each of us.

As a Melburnian, places that come to mind for me are the MCG, Federation Square, Flinders Street Station and Festival Hall. Sydneysiders could be thinking about the Opera House, Central Station, the Enmore Theatre and Homebush Stadium.

It’s people that make these places important. Without crowds, an idling Gabba in Brisbane or an empty Cottesloe Beach in Perth is a less exciting place.

Read more: How can a 17-year-old place gain heritage status? What this means for Melbourne’s Fed Square

Each of the above places possesses outstanding social value. It’s why state heritage laws and local planning schemes can protect places of community importance.

However, this does not happen enough. Of more than 2,300 items on the Victorian Heritage Register, for instance, about 10% are listed for their social value.

Although data are scarce, the numbers are likely similar for heritage lists across Australia. This leaves treasured meeting places – neighbourhood pubs are a prime example – at risk.

Interactions between people and places over time give places their cultural heritage significance. Joel Carrett/AAP

With restrictions on public gatherings, urban heritage places of social significance have more allure than ever. Just as we are distanced from each other, we are separated from these places. Their temporary absence in our lives, and the sense of community and comforting memories we associate with them, only add to their cultural significance.

Read more: We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone – we must reclaim public space lost to the coronavirus crisis

However, heritage typically gives more priority to the historic and aesthetic integrity of older fabric, buildings and structures than to ongoing social and cultural relationships between people and built places.

A lack of participatory methods to involve the public in heritage decisions is another problem with how authorities and the private sector manage the cultural values of historic places.

Two landmark cases

For more than a century, authorities typically safeguarded monumental architecture and places embodying the apparent progress of the Australian nation, such as public buildings and memorials.

Since the 1970s, additional cultural values – social, scientific and spiritual – have been inscribed in heritage practice. Yet, as I explore in my research, traditional ideas of aesthetic and historic value have been privileged in conservation. Other significant cultural values have not been treated as equally important.

Read more: How the internet is reshaping World Heritage and our experience of it

The introduction of social value saved Flinders Street Station when it was threatened with demolition in 1972 for high-rise development.

Model of Flinders Gate Project, 1974. Wolfgang Sievers/State Library of Victoria (reproduced with SLV permission)

The National Trust wanted to preserve the train station. But its committee of architects perceived it as an “architectural monstrosity” because its Edwardian Baroque style was out of favour.

After long deliberations, the National Trust deemed the station a

landmark […] a major focal point of Melbourne’s city life [with] the Clocks! section [sic] inextricably bound to the social fabric of Melbourne and Victoria.

The famous clocks overlook the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, pictured here in the early 1970s. Rennie Ellis/State Library of Victoria (reproduced with SLV permission)

So Flinders Street Station was protected for its lasting importance to Melburnians. Only later would it be recognised for its architecture.

Despite its social value, when the station was repainted in original colours in 2017, there was little public engagement in this decision. Research on people’s perceptions of historic places has shown they often prefer agedness and wornness over traditional conservation works that make places look new again: the patina of age has value. Public participation could have resulted in a different conservation decision based on Melburnians’ preferred colours and textures.

Another landmark case involves the MCG. Authorities rejected a comprehensive heritage listing for the stadium in the 1980s, when the Great Southern Stand was developed, because a listing might have prevented redevelopment.

The MCG designation was reconsidered, however, in the lead-up to the 2006 Commonwealth Games. It then met revised thresholds to be fully state-listed. It was “the matches and public not the buildings” that created the heritage importance.

And to retain the cultural importance of the MCG in the future lives of Melburnians, flexibility on the stands was required. With the support of club members and heritage authorities, the 1928 Members’ Pavilion made way for the new Northern Stand.

Ian Harrison Hill, ‘Demolition of Members’ Stand [Melbourne Cricket Ground]’, photograph, 2004. State Library of Victoria, Pictures Collection, H2004.24/4 (reproduced with the permission of the State Library of Victoria and Ian Harrison Hill)

Read more: Heritage value is in the eye of the beholder: why Fed Square deserves protection

Social value in the past, present and future

At the MCG, social value was projected into the future, allowing for flexibility during redevelopment.

At Flinders Street Station, social value was perceived as developing in the past. The recent station works demonstrated that, even when public places are heritage-listed, their management often does not include participatory methods.

Neighbourhood pubs, which are being rapidly redeveloped, are another form of at-risk public place with great social value. Pubs become important to people for their longevity as gathering places, often more so than for their architecture, facades and interiors.

The now-demolished historic Greyhound Hotel in St Kilda had potential to inspire the public realm in future development works. National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

Read more: Once a building is destroyed, can the loss of a place like the Corkman be undone?

The National Trust is seeking to conserve some pubs. However, authorities have far more power to mandate the continuity of historic places’ built fabric rather than ensuring redevelopments retain community spaces.

Even when this does happen, opportunities can be missed to use historic elements of the demolished buildings. Participatory and social approaches to heritage have unrealised potential to guide the design and use of the future public realm.

A major step towards placing people at the heart of heritage would be to mandate and fund a diversity of participatory methods in state and local heritage governance. It’s important, too, to embed community participation across private sector heritage practice. Only by working towards more holistically conserving the broader cultural values of historic places can heritage achieve cultural stewardship for people.

James Lesh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One of Melbourne’s worst planning mistakes at risk of being repeated

This article was originally published in The Age on 25 June 2020.

A development proposal for the Jolimont railyards has the potential to be one of the biggest planning mistakes in Melbourne in a generation.

The proposed $2 billion Treasury Square at the end of Spring Street has slipped under the radar. It is facilitated by the Victorian government and VicTrack, and if built would compromise the south-eastern edge of the CBD.

Renders for Treasury Square showing proposed building location and envelope. Prepared for property sale.

It is disconcerting that Melbourne’s planners are again making the error of encouraging speculative development over public interests in this significant civic corridor. The last mistake here, the Gas and Fuel Towers, created a blight that lasted a generation, and was only fixed with Federation Square in 2002.

In 1929, Melbourne engineer Jas Alex Smith warned against the “danger of speculator control” of the Jolimont railyards: an area equivalent in land of that between Collins, Spencer, Flinders and Spring streets.

In a letter to The Age, he cautioned Parliament not to rush ahead with a proposal that would “farm out … control of Crown Lands or ‘air rights’ for long periods of time at nominal concessional rates”. This would create “complex financial and civic problems” with benefits accruing to speculators rather than Melburnians.

‘The Proposed Civic Square’ at the current site of Federation Square.
John Mannaduke Ashworth, ‘The Suburban Railway System of Melbourne’,
Journal of the Institution of Engineers, September 1940.

Engineering challenges meant that any plans to develop land above the railways between Flinders Street Station and the Melbourne Cricket Ground were delayed until the postwar period.

In 1963, the Bolte government with the Victorian Railways – a precursor to VicTrack – sold the air rights over a parcel of the railyards opposite Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral. Lend Lease, with architects Leslie M. Perrot and Partners, built Princes Gate Towers.

The development comprised two modernist structures at 70 metres, or 18 storeys, and was completed in 1967 at a cost of about $200 million in 2020 figures. The anchor tenant of Princes Gate was the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria.

Princes Bridge and the Gas and Fuel buildings, ca. 1980. Photograph by Rennie Ellis. SLV Collection.

The promised public benefits of what became known as the Gas and Fuel Towers did not fully materialise. Melburnians could go shopping at the retail arcade underneath the towers. Or they could walk up the stairways from Flinders Street to the new Princes Plaza: a raised civic square for a citizenry desiring public space.

There was much excitement for its opening, an “event which Melbourne citizens waited 65 years to see”, but it was soon recognised that the towers were awful. The companion high-rise project, Flinders Gate, over Flinders Street Station was abandoned in the early 1970s.

The public benefit of the Gas and Fuel Towers had been miscalculated. The buildings were monoliths finished in brown brick. They blocked sight lines across Princes Bridge and the Yarra River into the Melbourne CBD – a view line incorporating St Paul’s Cathedral. The towers overshadowed the Yarra River and walled off the southern gateway into the city. The dark and confined arcade was unattractive for strollers and shoppers. The plaza was a harsh, windswept, hostile podium.

Princes Bridge and the Gas and Fuel buildings, 1967. Photograph by Wolfgang Sievers. SLV Collection.

Demands to dismantle the Gas and Fuel Towers reached a peak in the 1980s. The director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Patrick McCaughey, offered to do Melburnians a favour by taking these “pits in the sky … down brick by brick”. Planner David Yencken, the architect Les Perrot and premier John Cain called time on them. In 1994, premier Jeff Kennett announced the demolition of these loathed buildings for a public space — Federation Square.

Yet the Gas and Fuel Towers are being reborn. The renders of Treasury Square have three monolithic towers, just clad in glass rather than brick. The development will overshadow Birrarung Marr towards the Yarra River. From Spring Street and Treasury Gardens, the downward sloping vantage towards the Yarra River will be forever gone. It will block views from across the Yarra River into the CBD, comprising heritage-listed Shell House, and wall off the south-eastern edge of the city grid.

Treasury Square compromises the eastern gateway into the CBD. These are public lands and Smith’s warning in 1929 about creating “complex financial and civic problems” for this precinct is again being ignored.

Treasury Square may have some divergences from the Gas and Fuel Towers, but the key issue with them was neither their dismal architecture, nor their lack of success at street level.

The key issue of the Gas and Fuel Towers, and again Treasury Square, is a failure to respect Melbourne’s most significant civic corridor. Both tower complexes certainly resemble each other in uninspiring architecture, in blocking of sightlines, in overshading of riverbanks, in being compromised city gateways, and in opaque planning processes. However, it is ultimately the favouring of speculative high-rise interests along this strip that is especially distressing. The physical and symbolic space between Flinders Street and the Yarra River frames the southern edge of the city and must be respected in quality design and public purpose.

Birrarung Marr towards Spring Street and Shell House (far right skyscraper), c. 2011.
Photograph by Graham Denholm. Timeout Melbourne.

Treasury Square is a step towards privatising and corporatising the public railway corridor towards Federation Square. As with the doomed Apple store, it is a test of the public’s appetite for speculative high-rises for Federation Square East. It establishes a precedent for a string of monolithic towers between Flinders Street and the Yarra River running the length of the southern edge of the CBD. Rather than building on the success of Federation Square, Treasury Square builds on the failure of the Gas and Fuel Towers.

A public spine should be designated from Federation Square to the Melbourne Cricket Ground over the railyards. The spine could even be extended to Docklands. A series of public and cultural institutions set among parklands and reserves, accessed by walking paths and cycleways, would create a public realm of which Melburnians could be proud.

Even if it takes a century to complete, establishing the Jolimont Public Corridor is a transformative, sustainable, civic project for 21st-century Melbourne. It could start immediately by abandoning the reincarnated Gas and Fuel Towers at Treasury Square.

The Melbourne High Line for southern edge of CBD proposed by Mayor Sally Capp, 2018.
Render from The Age.

Our cities owe much of their surviving heritage to Jack Mundey

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 11 May 2020. Read the original article. Republished in Foreground, 12 May 2020.

Jack Mundey, who has died at the age of 90, was a pioneer of the Australian heritage movement. As well as contributing to labor and environmental politics, Mundey reconceived of the ways that Australians related to their cities and heritage places.

As the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) secretary, Mundey created the “green ban” (a term first used in 1973). No union member would work on a site subject to a green ban.

Read more:
Bondi Pavilion ‘green ban’: why revive an old union heritage protection tactic?

These bans were placed to give communities a say in development and to protect heritage and the environment. At a time of historically high union membership in the construction industry, a green ban effectively prevented development from proceeding.

By painting the traditional union “black ban” in a new colour, Mundey and the BLF created a new conception of urban and labor politics which highlighted community heritage concerns. As Mundey explained:

The adjective “green” was more apt than “black”. It also explained our wish to extend our help to other citizens, not to unionists alone.

Applying the first ban

The first green ban was applied in Sydney at Hunter’s Hill in 1971. A group of women founded “Battlers for Kelly’s Bush” to campaign against a proposed housing development by Melbourne firm A.V. Jennings. The housing estate was to be built on the Parramatta River at Kelly’s Bush, the last undeveloped open space in the area.

‘The Battlers for Kelly’s Bush’: Kath Lehany, Betty James, Miriam Hamilton and Monica Sheehan.
Hunter’s Hill Trust

It was a typical housing project in this era of suburban expansion. But the rise of resident and civic groups fighting for heritage across Australia shifted the development terrain.

The Hunter’s Hill residents heard Mundey’s claim that workers “had a right to express an opinion on social questions relating to the building industry”. After a meeting between Mundey and the Battlers, a green ban was applied, eventually foiling the development. Kelly’s Bush was saved.

It did not matter that Hunter’s Hill was a solidly middle-class suburb. The green bans would be instituted on behalf of a range of communities.

Read more:
Preserving cities: how ‘trendies’ shaped Australia’s urban heritage

Residents protest in Brisbane. 1970.
Brisbane City Council

A time of public revolt

Australian cities underwent dramatic change in the postwar period. Funded by a long economic boom, it was the era of modernist architecture and planning. Many parts of cities would be redeveloped following wholesale demolition.

Although goals of postwar urban planning for the welfare state included housing for all, full employment and exciting new environments, sizeable cracks in the vision were appearing in the 1960s. Planners and architects were increasingly criticised for being technocratic and adopting overly scientific and rationalised modes for urban design and development.

Their efforts were too often disconnected from communities and needlessly destroyed historic and natural environments. Widespread demolitions of commercial and public buildings in Australian CBDs and of terrace and free-standing homes in the inner suburbs were increasingly seen as unacceptable by the community.

Whelan the Wrecker was a favoured demolition firm in postwar Melbourne. Pictured here is Clarendon House, East Melbourne, in July 1961.
John T. Collins/State Library of Victoria

More broadly, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a dramatic time for Australian social movements. Second-wave feminists, anti-Vietnam war protesters and historic and environmental conservationists rubbed shoulders during street marches. The federal Liberal Party had been in power for two decades and there was a great deal of energy among progressives for change.

An expanding movement

The Australian heritage movement was gaining momentum. National Trusts had been active in designating heritage places from the late 1940s. By the late 1960s, thousands of historic places were identified by National Trust classifications, metropolitan planning schemes and sympathetic governments and property owners.

However, a new generation of heritage activists had come to see the Australian National Trusts as narrow in their architectural interests, tame in their advocacy methods, and led by a coterie of elites. Green bans were seen as a more effective means of safeguarding heritage and were swiftly expanded from Hunter’s Hill.

Mundey and his fellow unionists Joe Owens and Bob Pringle, as part of the broader green ban movement, engaged with the ten inner-suburban Melbourne resident groups that comprised the Committee for Urban Action, established in 1970, and the 40 such groups that in 1971 had formed the Coalition of Resident Action Groups in Sydney. From Woolloomooloo and Pott’s Point to Fitzroy and Collingwood, residents took to the streets to protest comprehensive urban renewal and freeway construction plans.

Residents protest at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, ca. 1973.
City of Sydney Archives

Unions backed these citizen movements by placing green bans on these neighbourhoods. The green bans extended across Australia’s historic suburbs into the CBDs.

Perth’s Palace Hotel and The Mansions in Brisbane were subject to these efforts. In Sydney, Mundey was arrested during protests at The Rocks. In Melbourne, the City Baths, Mac’s Hotel, Victoria Market, Gothic Bank, Regent Theatre, Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Collins Street and the Rialto precinct, and Tasma Terrace all received the attention of the union movement. (The Victorian National Trust would find a new home at Tasma Terrace despite the Australian National Trust movement’s reticence about supporting the radical green bans.)

The Victorian Housing Commission’s high-rise housing program was brought to a sudden halt. Corrupt Melbourne unionist Norman Gallagher, who notoriously clashed with Mundey, took part in applying green bans in his city.

Aerial views of Carlton, Melbourne, before and after Housing Commission of Victoria high-rise flats.

Read more:
Saving Sirius: why heritage protection should include social housing

Heritage laws come into being

The election of the Whitlam Government in 1973, a soon-to-be-declining economy and expanded heritage laws marked the beginning of the end for the green bans. Whitlam had been elected on a platform of protecting the national estate, incorporating built and natural heritage. These policies included curtailing urban development impacts on historic areas as well as maintaining green belts.

Whitlam’s minister for cities, Sydneysider Tom Uren, supported the green bans. He wanted Mundey to join the Inquiry into the National Estate, but the NSW Askin government refused to support the inquiry if Mundey was involved. The federal government’s National Estate Report (1974) nevertheless recorded:

Is it any wonder that ‘green bans’ and other forms of direct action are not being resorted to more and more frequently? Governments must act to meet these demands, and act decisively, for they have delayed too long already.

The green bans were part of a decisive shift in Australian urbanism. Conservation became a mainstream planning, architectural and policy concern. The federal government passed heritage legislation in 1975, followed by every state over the next 16 years or so. Victoria was first in 1974.

The green bans remained in place as the urban development pipeline collapsed amid the economic shocks of the mid-1970s oil crisis. By the time construction picked up in the 1980s, tens of thousands of heritage places had potential statutory protections. A new specialist industry of conservation architects, planners and policymakers had emerged from the ranks of heritage activists.

Mundey’s legacies live on

Mundey’s tenure as BLF secretary ended in 1974. He continued to shape urban environmental politics as a City of Sydney councillor in the 1980s and by advocating for conservation at sites such as the Sydney Opera House, the Sirius Building and the Bondi Pavilion. He also inspired German Greens founder Petra Kelly.

Read more:
Speaking with: Nicole Cook on union ‘green bans’, housing affordability and the Sirius building

Green bans symbolised the democratic spirit of the 1970s Australian heritage movement. Countless places survived the closing moments of modernist urbanism because of them. The Australian heritage industry was built on the foundations of radical union activism.

For these reasons, there are often calls to re-apply green bans today. But the changed structure of cities, the economy and unionism make this unlikely. At a remarkable historic moment, Mundey’s green bans empowered people to claim their right to the heritage of their city.The Conversation

James Lesh, , University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teaching Summary: Principles of Heritage and Conservation Intensive wraps for 2020

This post originally appeared on the University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage (ACAHUCH) blog.

Following the transition of the University’s teaching and learning to online platforms in light of COVID-19, our newest member Dr James Lesh, under the auspices of ACAHUCH, has recently wrapped up an intensive subject in the Masters of Urban and Cultural Heritage (M-UCH) program.

Over the last fortnight, teaching has been in full swing within ACAHUCH. Principles of Heritage and Conservation, a core subject within the M-UCH program, has been delivered to a passionate cohort of students. Every day for two weeks, M-UCH students as well as other ABP / MSD students utilised new approaches to teaching and learning on Zoom for morning lectures and small-group tutorials. With the switch to online teaching, we sought to give our students plenty of face-to-face time with each other and with academic staff. The M-UCH program prides itself on providing an intimate learning experience for all students enrolled. Bringing together students from a range of built environment disciplines in our classrooms provides a rich learning experience, exposes students to a variety of perspectives, and resembles the real-world interdisciplinary practice of urban and cultural heritage.

Dr James Lesh taught the subject in 2020. He joined MSD and ACAHUCH recently and brings his expertise in Australian heritage conservation and urban history to the subject. Students’ learning commences with studies on key 19th century figures such as John Ruskin, William Morris, and other precursors to modern conversation movements, before progressing forward to the last century and now, learning of the intricacies of the Burra Charter from its 1979 inception through to its 2020 usage. Students unpack ideas such as conservation and restoration, authenticity and integrity, and the relationship between old and new, in living urban and cultural heritage environments.

The second half of the intensive course explores pressing ideas in heritage and conservation theory and practice, such as how environmental impacts like climate change are reshaping our approach. Architect Jefa Greenaway inspired students to re-think the practice of heritage through the Australian Indigenous Design Charter. This part of the course also incorporates the emerging field of people-centred built environment conservation where students are encouraged to re-think the kinds of evidence used to make conservation decisions.

Economist Marcus Spiller unpacked the ideas which govern the economic and financial value of heritage places. Anne-Marie Treweeke and Milica Tumbas from Lovell Chen detailed recent conservation efforts at the University of Melbourne’s Old Quadrangle. It is the first application of the energy-efficient Passivhaus model on a heritage site in Australia, and students are looking forward to visiting this site when the campus reopens. Other guests in 2020 included conservation architects Fraser Brown and Ruth Redden, Geoff Austin and Emily McLean from Heritage Victoria, Felicity Watson from the National Trust, the Public Record Office of Victoria, and our own Professor Hannah Lewi talking about the conservation of modernism.

Visit the University of Melbourne website for further information about the Masters of Urban and Cultural Heritage.

Road to nowhere? (on the Eastern Freeway heritage listing)

This article was originally published in The Sunday Age / Opinion on 29 December 2019.

Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway is likely to be state heritage listed next year. Heritage Victoria has identified it as aesthetically and historically important. But should freeways be managed within the heritage system? Or is a freeway the kind of 20th century relic which we should be prepared to let go of?

As a historian, I find much to praise in the Heritage Victoria recommendation. The nominated sections of the 1972–77 Eastern Freeway are incredible examples of 20th century transport infrastructure. As Matt Holden eloquently wrote in The Age: “Freeways, like them or not, have made Melbourne what it is.” The freeway redefined the experience of our city. It allowed for the outward expansion of Melbourne and the creation of suburbs and industries. Driving along state-of-the-art freeways was thrilling and liberating, particularly for the first generation of Melburnians to experience mass car ownership.

The Eastern Freeway is also recognised for its role in the anti-freeway movement. Residents in Fitzroy and Collingwood blockaded its construction, and so it abruptly ends on Alexandra Parade. Anti-freeway protests would not, however, prevent the 1969 Melbourne freeway plan guiding transport infrastructure into the 21st century. Marking its 50th anniversary, Crystal Legacy explained in The Age that the 1969 plan has fed long-term car dependency and associated environmental impacts including carbon emissions.

Our heritage laws owe much to the anti-freeway movement, resident action groups and other conservation activists of the 1960s and ’70s. The 1974 Australian government inquiry into the National Estate said: “Freeways are a further and serious threat to inner-city areas. State road construction authorities [should] pay proper respect to our cultural heritage.”

Given heritage laws were created to protect cities from freeways, listing them within the heritage system is not only ironic, it also raises important questions about the role of heritage in our cities and the symbolism of listings.

A freeway is not the same as other state-listed roadways such as the Great Ocean Road, St Kilda Road or Royal Parade. These tree-lined boulevards with tramways enhance our cities and urban life. Freeways, on the other hand, are borne of functional necessity, despite their certain aesthetic and technological brilliance.

No doubt the Eastern Freeway embodies an important moment in Melbourne’s history. Its engineering was spectacular, and its landscaping was innovative. Coming within the heritage system would, however, place caveats on how this transport corridor works moving forward.

Heritage should recognise diversity, but it cannot be the overriding goal of heritage listings to mirror the multifariousness of the past. Heritage listings are always selective and guided by regulations and best practice as well as external social and political factors. The overriding outcome of the urban and built heritage system is cultural stewardship.

The places that are selected for listings are those that are to be carried forward with us into the future. That the listing of a freeway has proven controversial is a sign of a healthy public debate around urban heritage.

Unlike the MCG or Federation Square, Heritage Victoria has not identified social value for the Eastern Freeway. Still, communities should play a leading role in defining and valuing heritage. Otherwise, the heritage system becomes irrelevant. The lack of universal support for the Eastern Freeway listing does not necessarily preclude its listing but suggests some caution is necessary.

Neither the politics of heritage nor the politics of freeways are relics of the past. It is likely that the state government has made this heritage nomination to prevent unexpected delays in the approval of the massive North-East Link. After Fed Square, where the Apple store was derailed by a heritage nomination, the government will not be caught off-guard again.

In contrast, opposition planning spokesman Tim Smith said: “It’s a dirty great big freeway – how does that warrant heritage protection?” He would rather see “beautiful heritage homes in established suburbs” protected. Alternative visions about what is to be kept for the future will always circulate. Beautiful homes and big freeways can both be conserved. Still, it is the role of authorities to negotiate these competing visions and ask: on behalf of whom is the heritage system adopting freeways?

The places which are selected for heritage listings reveal the priorities of our society. The decision to list the Eastern Freeway at this time cannot be divorced from broader issues or events. As our cities choke in smoke and the bushfires crisis continues (linked to the climate crisis), the transition to sustainable urban transport is clearly necessary.

With an Eastern Freeway listing, the transition away from car dependency becomes a heritage issue. Assuming the listing goes ahead, its classification should therefore leave open the possibility of transforming it into a sustainable transport corridor.

The creators of our heritage system in the 1970s knew that freeways negatively impacted cities. Half a century after the 1969 freeway plan, nearing the third decade of the 21st century, and with climate change worsening, freeways are as controversial as ever. A heritage listing would not only venerate the Eastern Freeway but also generates future obligations to it.

We must reflect on whether the 20th century freeway is the kind of urban heritage which we want to take with us into the future.

The above photograph of the Eastern Freeway is from 1972 and © Herald and Weekly Times. It is held by the State Library of Victoria.

How can a place be heritage-listed after 17 years? What it means for Melbourne’s Fed Square

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 27 August 2019. Read the original article. It was republished in print in The Age / Opinion on 29 August 2019.

How can a 17-year-old place gain heritage status? What this means for Melbourne’s Fed Square

James Lesh, University of Sydney

Federation Square in Melbourne has been listed on the Victorian state heritage register just 17 years after its completion. The push for heritage status was provoked by the now-abandoned Apple store proposal for the city centre site. Heritage considerations will now guide this important public space, widely known as Fed Square, as it evolves now and over future generations.

The Victorian National Trust nominated the square to the Victorian Heritage Register in July 2018. This followed the Victorian government’s pre-Christmas announcement of previously secretive plans for the Apple store. The nomination led to interim heritage protections for Fed Square and Apple abandoned its proposal in April 2019.

Read more: For what shall it profit a city if it loses its civic soul? A plea to preserve Melbourne’s Fed Square

Now heritage-listed, Fed Square as seen from above in August 2007.

The register

Places and objects listed on the Victorian Heritage Register have legal protections. Fed Square joins around 2,500 other items, ranging from landscapes and gardens to buildings, memorials and artefacts.

To make a major change to a listed place, its owner and custodian must apply to Heritage Victoria for a permit.

Heritage Victoria will consider the cultural heritage impacts of any suggested changes. A public statement of significance will guide its decision-making. As long as Fed Square’s heritage significance is, on balance, retained, then the proposal can proceed.

Heritage Victoria has already considered changes to the square. While it had interim protections, works for the Melbourne Metro Tunnel and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) redevelopment were allowed.

After all, Fed Square is located above the historical Princes Bridge Station and a metro station enhances both the square and Melbourne. Similarly, ACMI must be kept up-to-date as a forward-looking, technology-orientated cultural institution.

The process

Australia has comprehensive heritage systems. That’s why it has taken over 18 months to reach the point of listing Fed Square.

The National Trust’s original nomination was extensive. It had input from National Trust expert committees and external groups, including the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Melbourne Heritage Action and the Our City, Our Square campaign.

Heritage Victoria then conducted its own assessment of Fed Square before recommending that the independent Heritage Council list this place.

The Heritage Council held a public consultation. A record 754 submissions were received. Only three were against listing. A one-week hearing presided over by three council members followed in April 2019.

The Heritage Council then deliberated for four months. On August 26 2019 it made its final determination: to list Fed Square.

Read more: Heritage value is in the eye of the beholder: why Fed Square deserves protection

The criteria

Among supporters of the heritage listing, there were disagreements about which criteria applied.

There are eight state heritage criteria, of which three were found not to apply. Fed Square was not deemed to be an uncommon or instructive aspect of Victoria’s cultural history. Nor was it said to be specifically important for its design connection to LAB Architecture Studio.

Fed Square was originally conceived in 1995-96 by LAB Architecture Studio (Fed Square Design Competition Display Board).
State Library of Victoria

That Fed Square is only 17 years old – relatively young for a heritage listing – was factored into the determination. A principle exists that, ordinarily, a generation should have passed before considering a listing.

This principle is, however, a flexible one. Other places listed soon after completion in Melbourne include the National Gallery of Victoria, Victorian Arts Centre and Shell House (1 Spring Street).

Although recognising that caution was necessary when listing youthful places, the Heritage Council sided with the Royal Historical Society, which wrote that Fed Square has within a generation become an “integral and essential part of the fabric of Melbourne life”.

Fed Square ultimately satisfied five state heritage criteria:

  1. Historically, Fed Square is the culmination of Melbourne’s search for a public square and a grand gesture to Australian Federation.
  2. It’s aesthetically valuable for its distinctive postmodern architecture.
  3. It’s a technological achievement for the engineered decking over the rail lines.
  4. It’s a living place with ongoing social importance as a meeting spot.
  5. And the square is a public space.

Fed Square is now protected for its civic, cultural, social, historical, technological and aesthetic significance.

Read more:
How the internet is reshaping World Heritage and our experience of it

Listing a public space

Whether Fed Square should be listed as a public space was particularly contentious. Many Melburnians might well think it’s primarily important as a public gathering place, but that view does not automatically lead to heritage protections.

Fed Square management sought to quash the idea that it was a public square. The argument was two-fold: the square is not really a public space because cultural exchange and commercial tenants are also central to this place; and public squares should not be heritage listed at all. Both of these arguments were rejected.

The Heritage Council found Fed Square is a pre-eminent public space. Perhaps the cinemas and galleries and even the cafes and restaurants enhance it. Establishing an important precedent, Fed Square was specifically identified as a “notable example” of a public square for its size, civic prominence and cultural activities.

Read more: New minister for public spaces is welcome – now here are ten priorities for action

As visitors enter Fed Square by walking up the steps from the Yarra River or Flinders Street Station, in front of the digital screen, the civic square itself – intact, legible and enclosed – has been explicitly protected.

The civic square at Fed Square during Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 2008.
Virginia Murdoch/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The future

Over the last two decades, Fed Square has become the civic heart of Melbourne. It was only a question of time before it would be recognised as a listed heritage place.

The misconceived Apple store simply created a sense of urgency. The Apple proposal was based on the incongruous idea that Fed Square should be a commercial hub, a notion that must be dismissed in favour of community, civic and cultural objectives for this place.

At the moment, the custodians of Fed Square – its management and the Victorian government – have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the next stage of this place.

A conservation management plan will be prepared based on the heritage listing. Heritage thinking should also inform the current Fed Square review. You can have your say on Victoria Engage until the end of September.

The heritage system has worked at Fed Square by recognising the breadth of associations between people and this place. As the square continues to evolve, its role as Melbourne’s foremost public space will hopefully be assured.

James Lesh, , University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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BOOK REVIEW: City Life: The New Urban Australia By Seamus O’Hanlon. (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2018.)

Here is my book review of City Life: The New Urban Australia by Seamus O’Hanlon. This review was published in Australian Historical Studies in 2019.

City Life: The New Urban Australia investigates the restructuring of Australian urban economy, society and culture since the 1970s amid the intensification of globalisation and neoliberalism. Its strength lies in its examination of the ways 1970s–1980s de-industrialisation and the subsequent rise of 1990s–2010s service and knowledge economies have reorganised social life and recreated existing built environments.

This Australian urban history book is divided into three equal sections of three chapters for a total of nine chapters. The three sections respectively consider economic, social and cultural processes. The main geographic focus is Melbourne and Sydney: ‘where the impacts of globalisation have been most profound’ (5). A secondary focus of the book is Adelaide, where O’Hanlon grew up, and which has dropped from Australia’s third to its fifth largest city since the 1970s.

The backdrop for City Life is a post-1970s mode of urbanism dominated by economic and political neoliberalism. The book begins in 1973 with Queen Elizabeth II dedicating the Sydney Opera House, an urban icon that Australia would immediately project onto the world stage. A significant moment in global urban history, the early 1970s marked the definitive end of the modernist consensus that had shaped the physical and ideological design of cities over the previous three or so decades. The opening of the Australian economy to the world (through free trade in capital, services and goods) and the diminished role for federal, state and municipal government (through privatisation and light-touch regulation) are the guises that neoliberalism takes in this account. Simultaneously, population growth due to increased immigration, predominantly from Asia (both permanent migrants and temporary workers and students), has meant Australia’s cities have, in parts, become larger, richer, denser, and more diverse and multicultural.

O’Hanlon is interested in areas where de-industrialisation has been most keenly felt. Places surveyed include Fitzroy, Collingwood, Broadmeadows and Clayton in Melbourne; Ultimo, King’s Cross, Cabramatta and Lakemba in Sydney; and Elizabeth in Adelaide. Former industrial outer suburbs have often been left behind, while inner suburbs have been re-invented. These inner suburbs have become more desirable and built up, spaces for refreshed forms of living (mid-rise apartments), working (creative industries and hospitality) and learning (since the Dawkins university reforms); symbols for O’Hanlon of both gentrification and new Australian ways of life. The extended historical discussions of ethnoburbs and place branding are both lively. From city to city and suburb to suburb, O’Hanlon shows there have been winners and losers from the economic booms and busts and from the waves of internal and international migration.

City Life builds on O’Hanlon’s earlier research into de-industrialisation and gentrification and household living types and patterns. The book draws on demographic and census data (up to 2016), which is brought to life through O’Hanlon’s firsthand observations (since the 1990s). Although necessarily selective as a survey text, the emphasis on Melbourne and Sydney means key sites such as St George’s Terrace in Perth (re-built for skyscrapers for service and knowledge work) or South Bank in Brisbane (renewed for Expo 88), and once-industrial cities such as Fremantle, Newcastle and Geelong, are omitted. The book does not engage with the twentieth-century Indigenous history of the inner suburbs. The final section on urban culture is strongest in its study of international students. On music, film, and literature, the text is generally autobiographical. O’Hanlon writes of what ‘those of us of a certain age fondly recall as the best years of our lives’ (198).

City Life exhibits the strengths of the history trade book. The text is readable and will be familiar for Australian urban dwellers, especially for those generations who experienced the transformations described. O’Hanlon also takes on the challenge, relished by generations of Australian urban historians, to make passionate interventions into pressing urban debates. He makes the progressive case for measures to address growing inequality and inadequate urban infrastructure. A future fully-funded research project on the post-1970s Australian city might explore these and other issues in greater detail, drawing on oral histories with city and community leaders to further enrich, enliven and embody the dominant urban processes of this era.

City Life contributes to the historiography as the first urban history monograph on the 1970s–2010s post-industrial Australian city. O’Hanlon also vividly illustrates the critical point that Australia came of age as an urban nation during this period. More contentious is O’Hanlon’s claim that the Australian city had to overcome decay and decline on its path towards the post-industrial and multicultural present. After all, given the morphology and dominance of Australia’s capital cities, the phenomenon of urban declinism – sustained population, financial and infrastructure deterioration and racial and working-class unrest – was less apparent here than in Europe or North America. As urban historians in Australia and internationally increasingly turn their attention to late twentieth-century cities, a sizeable challenge will be to strike the appropriate balance between narratives of decline and loss, and those of opportunity and diversity.

Lesh, James. “City Life: The New Urban Australia.” Australian Historical Studies 50, no. 3 (2019): 402–3.

Forty years of the Burra Charter and Australia’s heritage vision

This article was originally published in Foreground on 25 March 2019. Read the original article.

As the Burra Charter turns 40, James Lesh looks back at the global influence of its innovative approach to heritage value and asks how it may need to evolve to meet the challenges of future conservation and changing sensibilities.

The Burra Charter guides how Australian heritage practitioners conserve places. First drafted in 1979, the Burra Charter turns forty this year. It has been a remarkably influential and enduring heritage charter, both in Australia and internationally. Will the Burra Charter inspire or restrain conservation in the future?

Even though you may have never heard of the Burra Charter, you’ve visited places that have been shaped by its principles: Salamanca Place, the Sydney Opera HouseFlinders Street StationFremantle Prison and many more. The Burra Charter has been applied not just to buildings but to city landmarks, memorials, trees, gardens, parks, historic and archeological sites and countless urban, suburban and regional places across Australia.

The 1970s: time for an Australian heritage charter.

The full name for the Burra Charter is the Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance. Funded by the Federal Government through the former Australian Heritage Commission in 1979, the Burra Charter was the founding document of Australia ICOMOS. ICOMOS or the International Council on Monuments and Sites, is the international expert advisory body to UNESCO on World Heritage.

Australia prepared its own heritage charter in the 1970s amid the excitement surrounding conservation at the time. It was the era of the Australian heritage movement and the green bans. Architects and planners, politicians, unions and resident groups formed alliances to re-shape how places were designed, planned and protected.

Putting Australian community aspirations around heritage into practice required distinctive approaches to conservation. A budding generation of heritage practitioners, their ranks often drawn from the heritage movement, first looked overseas for inspiration. The European 1964 Venice Charter was the universal benchmark for the conservation of historic buildings and monuments across the world.

“Rather than ‘monuments’ as in the Venice Charter, the Burra Charter adopted the term ‘places’ to refer to this broader range of heritage things”

Arriving at the Burra Charter

The Burra Charter was an Australian ‘re-invention’ of the Venice Charter. An author of the Burra Charter, architectural historian Miles Lewis argued that the Venice Charter ‘takes it for granted that we know what our historic monuments are, what makes them historic, and how we want to preserve them’. It worked for the great monuments of stone like the temples, cathedrals and palaces of Europe but was less applicable to Australian heritage concerns.

The Burra Charter’s authors developed their fresh approach to safeguard the kinds of places that interested both them and the Australian community. The heritage focus included urban precincts, industrial and vernacular buildings, regional towns, Indigenous heritage, colonial-era construction technologies, and objects such as shipwrecks. Rather than ‘monuments’ as in the Venice Charter, the Burra Charter adopted the term ‘places’ to refer to this broader range of heritage things.

Similar debates about the nature of heritage were being had across the world in the 1970s–80s. The Australians were, however, inspired by the excitement at home, where Whitlam’s new nationalism and his national estate had taken hold. They embraced an expanded appreciation of historic environments, sometimes even playfully: Burra in South Australia, an Antipodean pastoral town with a gruff name, was deliberately chosen to ratify the charter because it was seen as everything that the genteel European renaissance city of Venice was not.

What is the Burra Charter?

The analytical conservation model contained within the Burra Charter was original. It proposed a systematic approach to heritage management, providing the flexibility to identify, assess and safeguard a range of heritage things and places. Before any decisions about the future of a place were to be made, it needed to be understood along five specific lines of cultural heritage significance (the values-based approach): aesthetic, historical, social, scientific and, later, spiritual.

The analytical conservation model contained within the Burra Charter was original. It proposed a systematic approach to heritage management, providing the flexibility to identify, assess and safeguard a range of heritage things and places. Before any decisions about the future of a place were to be made, it needed to be understood along five specific lines of cultural heritage significance (the values-based approach): aesthetic, historical, social, scientific and, later, spiritual.

The Burra Charter has had a longer shelf life than most heritage declarations and recommendations. From the outset, it had an army of motivated Australia ICOMOS advocates within the rapidly growing heritage profession to advocate for its use. They wanted and now had an agreed set of appropriate and robust Australian heritage standards. Unlike the Venice Charter – which itself has been termed a ‘doctrinal monument’ – the Burra Charter has been revised four times in response to shifting conceptions for conservation.

“The original Burra Charter authors were trailblazers for their time”

Batting for a half-century

Burra Charter principles have been adopted across the world. Because it worked for a variety of places, historians have characterised the Burra Charter as a significant postmodern challenge to the dominant conception of conservation values. Although an interpretation of the Venice Charter, it has been perceived by traditionalists as an attack on authoritative European conservation principles. Internationally, the Burra Charter is now accepted as Australia’s major contribution to twentieth-century conservation history.

The Burra Charter is a product of the 1970s and 1980s. It addresses the conservation priorities and community expectations of that time. Although the Burra Charter has been reviewed – for instance, to more appropriately address Indigenous heritage and explicate heritage significance as something that changes over time – its origins will always be in European conservation thought. It assumes heritage can be adequately registered along five lines of significance and, although recognising social and aesthetic values, still gives precedence to tangible and physical forms over meanings and associations. Whether its analytical model and associated mode of expertise is suitable for the future is increasingly being brought into question.

At forty, the Burra Charter has to operate as part of a broader suite of conservation approaches, particularly in cities. This will include having to consider the impacts of climate change, for monuments and built structure as well as living places such as gardens. The original Burra Charter authors were trailblazers for their time. Similarly, today’s leading heritage thinkers and practitioners recognise that conservation evolves. To be responsive to the future, heritage practice must continue to address our changing sensibilities and shifting cultural values.

Australia ICOMOS is holding a series of events around Australia to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Burra Charter. This article is based on remarks Dr James Lesh made as a member of the panel at the event held at University of Melbourne School of Design on 27 June 2019. The next Burra Charter panel discussion will be held at the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning on 13 July 2019 as part of SAHANZ 2019.