This piece expands on an opinion piece published in 'The Age' on 19 April 2019.
The April 2019 decision by Heritage Victoria to reject plans for the demolition of the Yarra building at Federation Square to make way for a flagship Apple store will be remembered as one of the great victories of heritage conservation in Victoria.
When the National Trust nominated Federation Square to the Victorian Heritage Register, many questioned how a place that’s only 16 years old could be considered “heritage”. While it is unusual for a place so “young” to be considered for its heritage values, it is not unprecedented. The National Gallery of Victoria, another monumental government project, completed in 1968, took only 14 years to be included in the Government Buildings Register (a precursor to the Victorian Heritage Register).
Federation Square is culturally and socially significant as Victoria’s premier civic and cultural space, representing the culmination of Melbourne’s century-long search for a public square. It is our greatest monument to Federation. It is also aesthetically and architecturally significant, with a high degree of technical achievement demonstrated in its construction.
Heritage Victoria’s decision has highlighted the importance of our heritage legislation in providing a process for places of significance to be assessed. However, this legislation is only effective when governments allow due process to take its course. The NSW government, for example, failed to accept the state’s independent Heritage Council recommendation to extend protection to the brutalist Sirius building, despite an international campaign to save the it. Such actions make a mockery of processes in place to protect heritage. In Victoria, the National Trust and heritage advocates, spearheaded by community group Beaumaris Modern, continue to oppose Bayside Council’s decade-long failure to protect its unique collection of modernist houses.
The Andrews Government and Fed Square Pty Ltd are therefore to be commended for accepting Heritage Victoria’s decision, and announcing a review into Federation Square’s governance and funding, which will include a process of community consultation. Such a review is overdue. Unlike many other public places and institutions, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Federation Square does not receive recurrent government funding, and is expected to pay its own way. However, the Apple store was never going to be a panacea for its long-term viability, and we now have an opportunity to address the underlying issues at play.
Governments at all levels should take heed of this decision. Dismissing the value and importance of community input can only be a perilous exercise. The National Trust raised heritage concerns about Federation Square as early as 2016, when planning for the Melbourne Metro Rail Project was underway. Despite our concerns, no further investigation of the Square’s heritage values was undertaken and nor was the community consulted.
This motivated the National Trust to research and consult industry experts and stakeholders, which was ramped up in 2017 when the proposed demolition of the Yarra Building and construction of an Apple Global Flagship Store was announced. In nominating Federation Square to the Victorian Heritage Register, the National Trust’s objective was to initiate a close examination of its heritage values, and for those values to inform management and change.
Following the National Trust’s nomination of Federation Square to the Victorian Heritage Register in July 2018, the heritage registration and permit processes have provided opportunities for people to have a say about the future of the Square. Record numbers of submissions made in support of the registration, encouraged by a strong grassroots campaign by activist group Citizens for Melbourne, have spoken loudly about the social and cultural significance of this unique place to the Victorian community.
While heritage protection is seen by some as an obstacle to change, good practice in heritage is not about preventing change, but about managing it appropriately. The principles of good heritage planning apply beyond the heritage context: at its core, heritage protection involves managing a place in a way which is informed by its purpose and values, and in consultation with relevant stakeholders.
The National Trust does not want to set Federation Square in aspic. We expect that it will continue to evolve. The current redevelopment of ACMI is an example of how change can occur in a way respectful of the architectural and cultural values that define Fed Square.
While the battle for the Yarra building has been won, the permanent inclusion of Federation Square on the Victorian Heritage Register is yet to be finalised, though it is being considered following a hearing conducted by the state’s independent body, the Heritage Council of Victoria. A decision is expected in the coming months. Over time, the heritage significance of Federation Square will continue to be reassessed, as its community value deepens, and its broader significance becomes clearer with the benefit of hindsight.
The National Trust has been fighting for our heritage since 1956, and the battle will continue in the face of development pressures and as our conception of heritage broadens to encompass more recent architecture. The call to join the National Trust movement has never been more urgent.