Why do we love old buildings so much?

Demolished! - Melbourne Town Hall Chambers, 1968, cnr Swanston and Little Collins (picture by K.J. Halla, State Library). H/T Melbourne Curious

In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.

There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.

Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.

I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.

One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.

People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.

Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images. Read the rest of this entry »


– When is a building worth protecting?

Growth of Costco, 1976 - 2010 (animation)

The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.

I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?

It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.

If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.

Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying. Read the rest of this entry »

Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?

Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge, Parkville (formerly AMPOL)

The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.

The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:

Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.

So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.

Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.

In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.

Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.

Read the rest of this entry »