Proposed new building will undermine the heritage values of a World Heritage site

St Vincent’s Hospital has applied to construct a new building adjacent to the Carlton Gardens and the historically important Royal Exhibition Building, which would negatively impact on that historically important site and the surrounding area of South Fitzroy.

The hospital is proposing to demolish the 11-storey 1950s-era Aikenhead Building on the corner of Victoria Parade and Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, and to partly demolish the historic Brenan Hall next to it. These will be replaced by a larger building, 15 metres taller than the Aikenhead Building and faced with reflective glass. (The black lines on the photo below indicate the height of the existing building). Because of its increased height, bulk and reflective appearance this will have a seriously negative impact on the World Heritage Site and its surrounding area, as well as on the adjacent South Fitzroy Heritage Precinct.

The new building being proposed by St Vincent’s Hospital adjacent to the Carlton Gardens and the Royal Exhibition Building.

The Royal Exhibition Building, and the Carlton Gardens in which it sits, are a UNESCO World Heritage site, the first and one of only four cultural sites in Australia currently so honoured.

The site is historically unique in two ways. First it is a magnificent and outstanding survivor from the age of the great industrial exhibitions of the late nineteenth century that were so significant in shaping world culture and the celebration of industrial advancement. The Royal Exhibition Building is the only surviving intact hall from two great international exhibitions in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888. Second, the site is also exceptional in being situated in its original surrounds, that is, the Carlton Gardens and the Victorian built fabric of Carlton and Fitzroy that have changed so little since the 1880s. The Royal Exhibition Building in its original garden setting is the most authentic remaining example of a ‘Palace of Industry’ from a significant international exhibition of the late nineteenth century.

UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines for World Heritage sites requires that there be a buffer zone around the site ‘to protect views and other areas or attributes that are functionally important as a support to the property and its protection’. In acquiring World Heritage listing for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, the Australian Government undertook to provide this buffer zone, and to ensure that it operated effectively to maintain the world heritage values of the site. Known as the World Heritage Environs Area, this buffer zone extends back one block from Nicholson Street into south Fitzroy. The Aikenhead Building and Brenan Hall are indisputably part of the World Heritage Environs Area as originally conceived.

New buildings within the World Heritage Environs Area should be respectful of their context and not aim to be visually contrasting and dominant. This building has been intentionally designed to stand out and be visually striking. Its increased height, bulk and its reflective appearance mean that it will be a visual intrusion into the heritage area.

This view from Victoria Parade shows Brenan Hall in the foreground and the existing Aikenhead Building in the background

Next to the Aikenhead Building and facing Victoria Parade is a 130 year old building, now called Brenan Hall, that is to be partly demolished, leaving only the façade and 7.5 metres behind it. Originally known as the Hall of Science, it was built the year after the 1888 Exhibition took place at the Royal Exhibition Buildings. It is a key part of the original setting as well as being important to Victoria’s history. The National Trust’s statement of significance says:

Historically, the Hall of Science is the only physical reminder of the early Freethought movement in Victoria, one of two states in Australia where the movement had a notable presence … The Hall of Science is not only a unique building in Victoria but also a rare surviving purpose-built Freethinkers’ or Humanist Hall internationally since only four other halls are known to survive in the world. One is in Sydney (1890), two in Great Britain, and one in the United States; and Melbourne’s is the second oldest.

What remains of the hall after partial demolition will not be renovated or restored. It will simply be propped up with an ugly exterior and interior steel frame that would make it safe, but which would also disfigure the façade and render the building unusable. The only justification offered for these ugly steel supports is that this will be temporary because ‘the proposal for Brenan Hall is an interim outcome and that future works to this building, including the potential for adaptation or full demolition, would be explored as part of a future proposal’. If adaption for other uses was being seriously envisaged, there is no reason why that could not be proceeded with now. The propping up with an ugly steel structure suggests that the future envisaged for this building is demolition in the not too distant future.

The RHSV strongly believes that the proposal as it stands is harmful to the World Heritage values of the site. Its location demands a design response that acknowledges its context as a key part of the World Heritage Environs Area and of the South Fitzroy Heritage Precinct. Demolition of the 1950s Aikenhead Building offers an opportunity to provide a better response to the enormously important World Heritage site than either the existing building or the current proposal.

The RHSV is therefore calling on the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment to insist that the replacement for the Aikenhead Building be re-designed, and to refuse approval for any demolition of Brenan Hall, so as to ensure that any development of this site enhances and does not undermine the World Heritage listed Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens and the South Fitzroy Heritage Precinct.