West of Eden

MURRAY SLAVIN is a Fremantle architect whose design for MSC Shipping’s new headquarters in the West End has drawn oohs and aahs from many an admirer. He says we need to take an old-school approach to architecture to ensure contemporary buildings are strong, useful and beautiful. He reckons many that are popping up in the West End don’t pay respect to the heritage around them, and says Notre Dame’s efforts on Cliff Street might need a rethink.

FOR our community, and the many who visit and love it, Fremantle is known for food, arts and multiculturalism. It is also embraced for the uniqueness of its architectural form.

In fact it’s the quality of the iconic West End Precinct, with its distinctiveness and diversity, that validated its inclusion in the State Register of Heritage Places in November last year.

From the early days, our city buildings were quirky – a proud independence thanks to the optimism, independence and rebelliousness that came with its filial connection to the booming goldfields.

Recently and in a similar vein, it was the unique – some would say almost contrarian – architecture of Brian Klopper and others that forged an exciting new approach and texture to our local architecture at a time of cultural re-awakening. Their designs addressed environment, community and place.

Railway lines

They explored recycled bricks, joinery, and even railway lines! That special era helped define and reinforce the ‘New Fremantle’ with an iconic 20th century architecture.

This exploration, along with the great architecture we’ve inherited, leads us to ask what is ‘good’ architecture and perhaps, more importantly, how can we achieve it.

These are issues have a long history of contention and debate. However a starting point may be the three Vitruvian principles of Vitruvius, a Roman architect, engineer and author.

The first principle, ‘Firmitas’ or strength, requires that a well-designed building is structurally robust and well made. Our West End and other significant city buildings have demonstrated that this is a key characteristic. By having an enduring firmness they remain relevant to the imperatives of a changing society and economy.

This leads us to the second principle, ‘Utilitas’ or utility. Good architecture should be useful and function well for the people using it – to be fit for purpose. In Fremantle’s case, this has provided us with an extraordinary variety of building fabric suitable for adaptation without demolition and replacement. This is the ultimate sustainability. And it is timeless!

The third principle, ‘Venustas’ (after Venus) or beauty, challenges architecture to be uplifting, to delight us and raise our spirits. This requires careful and skilled attention to detail, informed by the contemplation of place and inspired by the imagination it generates. The design itself may need to address symmetry and the order and placement of elements, all within the whole. Again, these are strong characteristics of the built fabric that we find endearing and precious in the West End. Unfortunately, many current building designs in Fremantle incorporate superficial, indulgent and often misunderstood elements and irrelevant appliqué that fail to meet this principle.

Some in our community feel we have lost our way. While there is no doubt that relevant controls ensure ‘firmness’, it is not so clear that ‘utility’ is as flexible and enduring as it should be, and it appears that ‘beauty’ has not travelled well in the codification intrinsic to bureaucratic and political decision making.

Many buildings appearing in the West End could be from any Australian city. There’s little respect for the rich building history surrounding them. They are expeditiously and commercially opportunistic and their approach to design is in the spectrum of ‘clever’ to bland.

They lack maturity in their innovation and imagining.

Vetruvian principles do not reject contemporary architecture – they inform it. In doing so they remind us about building a future that respects the past and interprets the Fremantle vernacular.

A ‘clear and present danger’ is that the West End will become characterised by lowest common denominator architecture. And what of contemporary buildings that will be our future heritage? We should insist new infill development achieve the Vitruvian third principle and not be dumbed down to a forgettable architectural form that sucks the essence out of its neighbours.

The threats and their causal factors are subtle and multifaceted. Is it the layer-on-layer of our bureaucracy? Or perhaps it is the corporate trend to reduce executive risk by avoiding or limiting public discussion and/or conflict by buck-passing decision making. Unfortunately, this produces a dangerous adherence to the contemporary, or the almost militant mimicry of heritage.

Recently constructed and proposed West End development suggest this process is failing.

What is urgently needed is a thorough examination of the current system of evaluation and approval. Does it actually prevent successful outcomes due to a process of limitation over aspiration?

Moving into the 21st century, it’s time to revive and preserve that spirit of our heritage but with a future-focused, contemporary interpretation rather than a slavish simulation of the past. It’s time to live up to community expectations by restoring, adapting and repurposing our precious built environment with a clear understanding of the city’s social and physical context. This requires respect and understanding of the past and a keen eye for the future through modern, skillful interpretation and application of the foundations of architecture.

Cresendo and scale

Given the crescendo and scale of development applications passing across the city’s desk these days, and the growing sense that we’re failing to achieve acceptable results – for example, the latest Notre Dame proposal – it would be useful to have a forum through which expectation could be defined and prepared as an simple, explicit set of guidelines. The enduring success of the Vitruvian principles was that they provided a yardstick accessible to all. Open community discussion could build on these principles and provide a very simple checklist of what we, the people, expect of those who wish to develop within our City.

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