I posted earlier ("Developers vs. Architecture") about the loss of good 1930s buildings. One would like to think more people care about this than probably do. Surely not everyone is thrilled to see the glitzy replacements that rise on demolition sites - usually apartment towers with diminutive windswept balconies that give one vertigo from below. Residents' groups usually complain about these intrusive structures on the grounds of "loss of amenity" (too many cars competing for parking spaces) but when such groups represent only a minority of residents, as they generally do, they don't carry much weight with councils and planners. The heritage bureaucracy has power to intervene when older buildings are threatened but is not always able to prevent total demolition, though it is quite good at having facades preserved, with varying degrees of incongruity between old and new. Not every endangered building qualifies for the attention of the National Trusts. The Art Deco and Modernism Society (the Victorian branch of which is based in Camberwell) keeps an eye on interesting buildings of that era and participates "in the political process of building preservation" but has no statutory power. Would it be worthwhile starting a list of buildings at risk to cover all periods, with "at risk" meaning not just risk of demolition but of unsuitable alteration inside or out? Perhaps heritage departments already have one but if they do it is not widely known about.
Alteration is more insidious than demolition because less evident, especially if it takes place inside a building. Churches are especially vulnerable in this regard, partly because many people never see inside them. In Australia the officially sanctioned vandalisation of church interiors has been almost exclusively a Roman Catholic specialty, to accommodate changes to the liturgy supposedly mandated by the Second Vatican Council. There have been some shockers - St Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane and St Francis's, Melbourne's busiest church, spring to mind - but the worst is probably over and there are even the first faint signs of a turn of the tide, something of which more in a later post. Nevertheless, church abuse (as we might define it in a word much heard in our age) is not a spent force. The prolific early twentieth-century architect A. A. Fritsch's Carmelite church in the inner Melbourne suburb of Middle Park, an idiosyncratic mixture of Romanesque and Baroque in red brick, has recently had some expensive but discordant and unnecessary new fittings installed in the modish font-ambo-altar sequence running down the middle of the nave. The design is by a Melbourne architectural studio with an inflated reputation but dear to "progressive" clergy. (Part of the attraction of this liturgical configuration, I suspect, is that it takes up space where pews used to be and thus helps disguise the fact that fewer people come to church.) Would objections have secured an improvement? Perhaps not, but at least they would have added a dissenting voice to the chorus of praise the Carmelites have received for their "restoration" of the church, much of it from themselves.
There are non-Catholic horror stories too.
Louis R. Williams (1890-1980) was a distinguished ecclesiastical architect who did most of his work for the Anglican Church. During his long career a stream of designs in a refined and highly personal neo-Perpendicular style, typically executed in red, brown or cream brick, issued from his studio in Brighton, Victoria. His work can be found in most Australian states but the suburbs of Melbourne in particular are full of his churches, of which among the more notable are those at Albert Park (never properly completed), Box Hill, Brighton (two and a half churches, one turned into a house), Camberwell, Glen Iris, Northcote (now non-Anglican) and Malvern-Caulfield. Some years ago this last, St Paul's, which Williams is said to have regarded as his best design, was disfigured by a dreary modernist addition that obscures much of its facade. All quadrants, curves and plate glass (through which the passer-by can admire the sight of the congregational coffee bar and marvel at how cool and unchurchy this church must be), it already looks dated and clashes with Williams's chaste and sensitively massed forms. This is one of the more egregious cases of church mutilation in Victoria and is compounded by the virtual gutting of the interior of St Paul's (now on the notice board outside renamed "Southern Cross Ministries") to adapt it for what is described on the church website as "passionate and anointed" worship, whatever that might be. No, I shouldn't be unkind. I'm sure the Ministries and its congregation are good and sincere people evangelising in the way they believe they should. But why can't they respect the building they have inherited, the pride of past generations of St Paul's parishioners?
20 January 2012