March 13 2014

Tearing it Down: Melbourne at Odds with British Architectural History

Melbourne has an iconic history, which is only 200 somewhat years old. Having a British lineage means that most of the buildings created in the gold rush days resemble European ideals that today may seem a little dated for the modern Australian. That being said, the city of Melbourne takes heritage preservation very seriously and has strict laws that prevent any unfortunate loss of history, especially with the current tide of developers flooding the Melbourne architectural market. This is a new frontier for urban planners and architects. They’re asking, when does history become unimportant in the light of creating a new and thriving Australia?

Melbourne City Baths - another historical site soon to be demolished

Melbourne City Baths – Another historical site soon to be demolished

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “Architecture is the mother art. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our civilisation.”

It came to my attention that Australia has an identity crisis. What makes an Australian city unique on the global scene in terms of the cityscape? With the mix of old and new buildings that have European history attached to them, does the average Australian city not resemble something you would see somewhere in England?

Recently, there has been a lot of development occurring in the city of Melbourne. This comes mostly in the form of high-end residential buildings that are creating a Manhattan-style visual on the cityscape. Some of the developers responsible have even started to target older buildings that they claim are not financially feasible to run in the current market. They want to tear them down and replace them with newer and flashier buildings.

In line with what Frank said, maybe they are right. Does Australia not need to develop its own style and sensibility in architecture? If not, then how does this city differ from any other European city? Some would oppose this suggestion as some believe architecture must follow a path, and the path of Australian architecture stems from British lineage. Tearing down these old buildings would be a loss for Australian history.

Interior of Melbourne Central Station - History preserved

Interior of Melbourne Central Station – History preserved

Of the above beliefs, I tend to agree with the latter justification. Regardless of what is financially beneficial, keeping the heritage of a culture alive is always important. Economy cannot and must not always be allowed to trump culture. Unfortunately though, reality is a different animal. The 100 year old Palace Theatre in Melbourne’s Central Business District will be demolished in 2014 to make way for a $180 million dollar mixed-use hotel and apartment development. This can be seen as a response to the population influx that Melbourne is experiencing and thus cannot be avoided.

So in this case, it looks like heritage is being forced to take a step back to allow for functional development to counter problems the city faces imminently. In light of the requirements that the city is placing on development, no one can be blamed, as this is merely a case of the city reproducing itself into something that could arguably be authentically Australian. The loss of heritage in the Australian city may just be a positive for an Australian identity.

Can we accept this evolution without degrading our history?

Credits: Images by Kunal Matikiti. Data linked to sources.

Kunal Matikiti

Originally from Zimbabwe, Kunal ventured to Australia to study architecture. After completing his Masters in 2012 at Deakin University, Kunal started working in Melbourne as a graduate architect at a small residential firm and has since moved to a bigger, and more commercially focused firm. With a keen interest in African Architecture, Kunal manages a small blog, www.afritect.com, where topics range from art and culture to architecture and fashion in Africa. Kunal is looking forward to earning valuable experience in Australia’s booming architectural sector and develop the skills and thought processes required to resolve some of the issues facing the unestablished creative sector in parts of Africa. Understanding of culture is an important element of Kunal's work and this forms a major element in his endeavours. Writing for The Grid is an exciting challenge and Kunal hopes to give a different and interesting perspective to an already established city.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 13th, 2014 at 9:23 am and is filed under Architecture, Infrastructure, Kunal Matikiti, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “Tearing it Down: Melbourne at Odds with British Architectural History”

  1. Raghu Krishnan Says:

    Thanks for this article. It definitely addresses how a lot of cities around the world are trying to be at the forefront of architecture and urban planning to attract more people whether it’s tourists or the next wave of residents. However…it should not be at the expense of historical buildings such as the baths or palace theatre. Yes, Britain colonized a good part of the world and integrated their ideals into a lot of what we see on a daily basis. They might be antiquated buildings going into disuse due to lack of funding and the inability to transform for different uses than originally intended. But…part of being at the forefront of architecture includes being able to thoughtfully execute transforming old buildings for modern purposes. Destroying them is the easy way out and washes away a century or more of history. It’s like the rings of a grand old tree trunk. We use the rings to determine what sort of life the tree endured and how it still thrives. If Melbourne decides to keep doing this then future generations won’t understand the city’s beginnings as well. It’s erasing history for potential economic benefit that may or may not materialize. So in the end I do feel Melbourne is trying to remove British influence from their culture. But by doing it this way, I feel Australians are showing their local culture is not strong enough to pervade the local community to shine above their English past and this isn’t how a city should grow. Thanks for the write up, it brings about interesting questions.

  2. Susana Arisso Says:

    Rather than erasing part of the timeline, let the #architecture express the point in time at which it is was built.

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