Total car park, Melbourne. The offices above are variously described by advocates as looking like a “1980s Apple Mac”, “something out of The Thunderbirds” and an “old-fashioned TV set”. (Source: The Age)

The Age told its readers yesterday that new battles are looming in Melbourne over a proposal by the Heritage Council to add two controversial “modernist” properties built in the 1960s to the state heritage register.

One of those properties, Total car park, is under threat of demolition, with a proposal to build a 70-level hotel and apartment complex, taller than the Rialto Towers, on the Russell Street site…(It) is one of the most significant examples of Brutalism in the Japanese manner where off-form concrete was employed in emphatic structural and functional expressions.

The former Hoyts Cinema Centre, was built in 1969 as the first multi-cinema complex in Australia…(It) displays the architect’s  interest in architectural forms inspired directly by an interest in structural engineering.

I’ve looked in-depth at the arguments for protecting these buildings before. They are two of 13 post-war buildings the paper says the National Trust “believes are ripe for protection, including some of the city’s first concrete high-rise offices”.

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, extended heritage protection to a further 87 CBD buildings last year but, according to The Age, “delayed a decision on a further nine properties from the postwar period, including the Hoyts centre”.

Some key issues

Here are some issues to think about when deciding if post-war buildings in general and these two buildings in particular should be given heritage protection.

First, protection invariably involves a social cost. Even with “adaptive reuse”, the site could be used more intensively for another purpose. If the alternative use is apartments (say), foregoing that opportunity has a knock-on effect on housing affordability. It’s also a lost chance to provide small, sustainable dwellings in the most walkable location in the metropolitan area.

Second, heritage organisations focus on the historical significance of buildings and consciously disregard how they currently function in their immediate context. But a building isn’t a painting in a gallery or a diorama in a museum; irrespective of its age it has an impact on how the street and the city work. That effect can’t be wished away; if something as large and public as a building is proposed to be retained in perpetuity, its real-world impact must be taken into account.

Third, unlike many lost and lamented nineteenth century buildings, these two examples have limited popular appeal. It’s fallacious to assume the community regards buildings of one era (e.g. the 1960s) as being as valuable as the buildings of another era (e.g. the nineteenth century). It isn’t inevitable that the wider population will in due course supposedly come to value the Total car park with as much affection as they feel for the Windsor Hotel.

Fourth, most of the claims to historical significance are arcane; they’re only significant to a tiny section of the population. Most of them aren’t compelling either; in fact they verge on the inconsequential when compared to the cost of protection and the community’s preparedness to pay to mark far more important events. When we look at the sweep of history in our cities from the time of first settlement, the reasons put forward for protecting these buildings are at best minor.

Fifth, the legitimacy of the claimed contribution of the Total car park to architectural history is in any event questionable. It’s an unoriginal and uninspired building that captures little of the vision of the Japanese Brutalist movement (see Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?).

Some buildings are worth protecting

Compared to how most history is recorded – in books, on film, on a plaque, or in a museum – protecting buildings is an extraordinarily expensive exercise. If a building is going to be preserved rather than documented on ephemeral media like most everything else, it needs to have very strong claims.

Some buildings really are worth protecting but progressives should be wary of buying into the idea that preserving buildings like the Total car park is good social policy. They should look at who would benefit from protection and how it would impact on the real incomes of ordinary punters via housing costs and employment opportunities.

The “cost” of heritage protection is a concern in other high-cost cities too. Various ideas have been proposed for making the consequences of protection transparent; for example, Edward Glaeser proposes cities like Manhattan should have a fixed annual “preservation budget” so they’re compelled to think harder about priorities.

Politicians need to go further than considering the recommendations of heritage bodies. They need to start thinking about the social and economic costs of the current system and whether it’s working to further the interests of most citizens. They should also think about the value of a National Architecture Gallery/Museum.

Should this car park be given heritage listing? Vote at Town Hall.