Total Car Park, Russell Street, Melbourne

The Age reported yesterday that a “youth activist group”, Melbourne Heritage Action, has nominated the Total Car Park (see exhibit) for possible listing on the State Heritage Register.

The President of the organisation, 27 year old Rupert Mann, is quoted in the story:

This incredible whacky design is an extremely significant piece of Melbourne’s built heritage as one of the country’s only pieces of architecture inspired by Japanese brutalism……Melbourne’s architectural heritage is an essential part of its essence as a literary and cultural city. For many young people in Melbourne that identity is important.

It’s interesting the way the term ‘brutalism’ has evolved. When I was a pimply-faced architecture student, the mere use of exposed off-form concrete was nowhere near sufficient to qualify a building for the epithet ‘brutalist’.

It was a term strictly reserved for the likes of bulky, imposing, impenetrable brutes like Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture building, the High Court in Canberra, the National Gallery in Canberra, or Sydney’s thuggish Freemasons building (before it was prudishly tamed by the later addition of that street-level glass apron).

It’s a matter of opinion of course, but it seems to me that whatever claims this carpark has to architectural significance, brutalism isn’t up there at the top. The Age’s reporter, Marika Dobbin, seems to know this intuitively.

She deftly extends and elaborates the case for preservation. As well as its claimed brutalist stature and wackiness, it’s also a “Chinatown landmark”.

It’s not just any old carpark either; she says it looks like “a stack of seven floating concrete decks crowned by an old-fashioned television set.”

The offices on top “have a history of housing some of the city’s coolest architecture firms”. Current tenants include a number of architects and “bag manufacturer Crumpler.”

On top of all that, the site’s in danger from “a mooted skyscraper development”, apparently proposed by a developer who last year “donated $20,000 towards the re-election of Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle.”

It seems to have touched some sort of chord with readers.  Of the 2,555 who voted in The Age’s online poll, 58% answered ‘yes’ to the question: “should Russell Streets Total Car Park be saved?”

There are some interesting comments on The Age’s story from those who favour protecting the building:

Modernist Brutalist architecture needs to be saved. There are plenty of other sites they could demolish.

This is a great example of mid 20th century architecture.

One thing for sure,it’s a lot more interesting than the 5000 dog-box eyesore that’s sure to follow it.

It is one of the iconic examples of the style in this country.

Like we need another tower of boring apartments and another plaza of shops.

It’s almost seems like it’s one’s patriotic duty to “save” Total Car Park! After all, it’s evidently tied to Melbourne’s “essence as a literary and cultural city.”

Yet when I look at this building I see……yet another drab carpark, albeit one with a few floors of office space on top.

It relates poorly at street level; it’s contribution to the streetscape is questionable (after all, it’s a car park!); and is of little functional relevance in a place with the best transit access in the entire State.

Whatever tenants it currently has (there’s a nightclub in the basement, too), they don’t come with formal heritage protection. They can leave any time. It’s a specious argument.

Sure, it could continue to provide economical accommodation for businesses that can’t afford top rents, but it’s in a prime location and could provide a diversity of new uses – residential and/or commercial – to help enliven the northern part of the CBD and Chinatown.

There’s an argument to be had about the appropriate scale and type of development that should take place on the site in the event the carpark were demolished (not for 7-10 years according to the owner because of existing leases).

That however is separate from the issue of whether the existing structure has so much intrinsic heritage merit it ought to be permanently protected.

Melbourne knows better than most cities the importance of protecting its heritage. The city suffered appalling losses in the 1960s and 70s (which makes me wonder: what was previously on this site?).

But protecting marginally interesting buildings (less charitable souls would say ‘dross’) could make it harder to protect the stuff that really has value and wide community support.

Protecting the run-of-the-mill also runs the risk of limiting the supply of housing and thereby possibly increasing housing prices in the centre and across the broader metro area.

By limiting the supply of development opportunities it could increase pressure to over-develop other sites.

Making claims for protection that don’t seem “legitimate” to the wider public may devalue future actions where the stakes are higher. Maintaining credibility is important.

I don’t reject outright the idea that a carpark could have important heritage value. This one on Brisbane’s Wickham Terrace has a strong case for preservation in my opinion.

But it has historical interest, real architectural merit, and is part of the legacy of an important and talented regional architect. The Total Car Park isn’t in the same class.

I suspect some of the popular support for preservation comes from the office levels looking (very vaguely) like an “old-fashioned television set”. It’s a bit different.

I don’t think mere cuteness and novelty – as distinct from genuine historical and architectural merit – provides a sound basis for preventing a site from maximising its contribution to the life of the city. It’s not enough.

Nor is it enough to say “but I like it!” Protecting buildings imposes costs on the wider community (it’s surprising how often that’s not appreciated). We want to be sure it’s worth it.

Update: More on the Total car park, Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?