In another challenge to the integrity of the World and National Heritage Listed Royal Exhibition Building (REB) site, a proposal is with Yarra City Council to redevelop 1-9 Gertrude Street Fitzroy, near the corner of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets. Taken as a whole, the importance of this site, incorporating the REB, the Carlton Gardens and their surrounds, cannot be overstated. In the words of the eminent UK historian Professor David Cannadine ‘The expositional ensemble . . . is a unique, magnificent and outstanding survivor from this great age of great exhibitions. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world today’.  This significance was recognised in its nomination as a World Heritage site.
Once an impressive row of mid-19th century three storey terraces known as Granite Terrace, 1-9 Gertrude Street is currently occupied by a two-story chocolate brick 1974 office and warehouse which, at best, could be described as functional. Redevelopment of site therefore could be positive, but the building proposed has some major drawbacks.
More is Less
As is often the case in redevelopments, the design for the site involves a significantly larger building than the one it replaces. What is being proposed is a five storey mixed use – shops, art gallery and one residence – building. The brick structure is monolithic bordering on brutalist and at odds with largely intact Victorian buildings beside and opposite it.
Accentuating its imposing bulk is the lack of offset on the Gertrude Street frontage. As the impression supplied with the planning application shows, it is literally in your face.
Some other problems
Assessing the impact of the proposed building needs to also consider its effect on the surrounding area. Recognising that the importance of a historical building is also influenced by its physical surrounds, the area adjacent to the REB and Carlton Gardens has been designated a World Heritage Environs Area. This area includes the significantly intact 19th century Nicholson Street streetscape opposite the Carlton Gardens, and the cable tram engine house on south west corner of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets. As the Yarra City Council’s Heritage Advisor stated, ‘the east side of Nicholson Street … is a highly intact Victorian and Edwardian streetscape … free from visual intrusion caused by non-original elements … It is one of the epicentres of architectural heritage significance in Fitzroy’. Importantly, the Advisor emphasised that there is currently nothing that extends above the current Victorian skyline.
The proposed building will change that significantly. At a height of 22.5 metres it will be substantially higher than any buildings in the immediate area other than St. Vincent’s hospital and one other narrow structure. Only by reducing it to three stories could the proposed building be prevented from looming above the Royal Terraces fronting Nicholson Street. Further, in its current form, the building would dominate protected views towards the REB along Gertrude Street and Marion Lane.
The proposed five-storey building would also protrude into views from the REB’s 360-degree Dome Promenade, which was renovated so visitors could experience an unparalleled view of streetscapes not unlike those seen by visitors to the 1880 and 1888 Exhibitions. If the proposed new building goes ahead, the view toward Fitzroy, now intact, would be spoiled.
In short, it is very hard to consider the proposed development of the 1-9 Gertrude Street sight as being sympathetic to its immediate surrounds or the historic buildings nearby.
Where are we at?
The proposal went to Yarra Council, which refused a permit. The developer has gone to VCAT. Heritage Planner Ian Wight of the RHSV Heritage Committee will represent the RHSV at VCAT.