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Melbourne celebrates a most contentious architectural movement

Assemble's 122 Roseneath St headquarters. Image: Tom Ross

Domain recently called the Sirius public housing development “Sydney’s most hated building”.

The Millers Point apartments are at the centre of a heated debate over public housing and architecture more generally. On one side is the Heritage Council of NSW, which says the building has significant heritage value for its aesthetics and rarity. On the other is the Department of Family and Community Services, which wants to knock it down to make way for luxury apartments. On the sidelines debate rages over whether it’s an eyesore or an icon (and also on the value of and need for well-located affordable housing).

While Harry Seidler’s Blues Point Tower does come to mind in defence of Sirius and its title of most hated building, the newspaper’s attack points to the divisive nature of Brutalism, an architectural style that seems to split people into either impassioned advocates or disparagers.

The Sirius building. Image: Martin Pueschel

The Sirius building. Image: Martin Pueschel

But while the fight rages in Sydney, the mood in Melbourne is quite different. The city is in last preparations for the launch of a festival celebrating the movement.

Open House Melbourne, a community organisation created to connect people with architecture and design, is launching a “What’s the Beef with Brutalism?” program in conjunction with the Heritage Council of Victoria and Assemble Papers, paying homage to what Open House calls “one of the most challenging architectural styles”, and exploring its social significance.

As part of the program, Assemble Papers – the magazine offshoot of architecture and development practice Assemble Projects – is holding a “Brutalist Block Party” bringing to the fore Brutalism’s connections with community through talks, workshops, lunches, dinners, social functions and a weekly produce market.

A weekly produce market will be held as part of the Brutalist Block Party. Image: Tom Ross

A weekly produce market will be held as part of the Brutalist Block Party. Image: Tom Ross

So why all the hate for Brutalism?

“Not everyone seems to appreciate the raw materiality, the raw sculptural forms,” Assemble Papers creative producer Rachel Elliot-Jones told The Fifth Estate.

When Brutalism arose as a style, it was an antithesis and response to what was seen as growing frivolity and whimsy in architecture. Brutalism’s bold, raw (the French translation for brut) form won favour with architects for its “truth” in materials, though associations with public housing did little to win over the public.

Rachel Elliot-Jones. Image:  Antuong Nguyen

Rachel Elliot-Jones. Image: Antuong Nguyen

“I would argue the form is quite beautiful,” Elliot-Jones says, “but there is also a social undercurrent from the 1950s to 1970s, which is something we can learn from in today’s rapidly urbanising landscape.”

Indeed Sirius has become a monument to the Green Bans movement, credited for saving significant swathes of Sydney – including The Rocks – from overdevelopment.

The idea for “block party” was chosen because it tied in with notions associated with Brutalist architecture – community, social interaction and neighbourhood, Elliot-Jones says.

One of the program’s talks will be about the “new, new Brutalism”, where contemporary examples that embody some of these social elements of Brutalism will be discussed – “buildings that promote a positive social agenda”.

Key amongst these will be Breathe Architects’ The Commons and its sister Nightingale project, where social outcomes have been key.

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The Commons will be explored as part of an event exploring "the new, new Brutalism". Image: Thach Tran

The Commons will be explored as part of an event exploring “the new, new Brutalism”. Image: Thach Tran

Assemble’s current headquarters at 122 Roseneath St, Clifton Hill – where the Brutalist Block Party events will be held – is itself an example of Brutalist architecture. The building is currently slated for redevelopment by Assemble, Wulff Projects and Icon Co into a medium-density residential development. Elliot-Jones says that elements of the Brutalist architecture will be retained and incorporated into the development, which will express Assemble’s “small footprint living” philosophy and have a focus on community.

Artist's impression of the proposed redevelopment of 122 Roseneath St.

Artist’s impression of the proposed redevelopment of 122 Roseneath St.

To Elliot-Jones, what is most important is the preservation of the diversity of Australian cities, and all architectural styles that comprise the built form.

“It would be a huge shame to have a city full of glittering skyscrapers.”

For her, a successful city is about “seeing patches of history” and “seeing the social circumstances at play”.

“There’s a risk of losing so much of our heritage,” she says, in the purely economic rationalist, demolish-and-rebuild approach to buildings.

The program hopes to provide an appreciation for Brutalism through education and awareness raising.

“Over time and understanding more about Brutalism, I’ve definitely grown fonder,” Elliot-Jones says.

“If there are more opportunities to connect with architecture and design, that can only serve to put it back on the agenda.”

The festival makes one wonder whether in 50 years time we’ll be throwing a block party to celebrate the buildings going up in cities across Australia today.

“It might be difficult to celebrate ideas of community through poorly built high rises,” Elliot-Jones says.

In fact, community seems to have been the last thing in mind for many developers of the new glut of Melbourne CBD high-rises. One thing is for sure, though. The concrete facades of Brutalist buildings aren’t at risk of bursting into flames any time soon.

What’s the Beef with Brutalism and the Brutalist Block Party kick off in Melbourne on Friday 6 May and continue until 29 May. See Open House Melbourne for more details.

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