Righting past wrongs
In May 1969 at the awards presentation for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Southland Shopping Centre beat a monumental new city gallery for Victoria’s top architecture award. Though an unexpected result at the time, the reaction within the profession was nothing like the indignation that has grown over the years. In June 2012, the National Gallery of Victoria was recognised with an Enduring Architecture Award in a gesture that Age columnist Simon Johanson described as “righting past wrongs”.
It seems that the prevailing attitude amongst architects today is that a gallery is inherently more virtuous then a shopping centre. The decision of 1969 offends our intellectual sensibilities and exposes a preference for the artistic over the utilitarian. Yes, there is a valid environmental concern about the impact of a building type that is reliant on car usage. And yes, you could argue that shopping centres are bastions for capitalist exploitation, designed to draw us in and drain our credit cards. But even at a gallery you pay through the nose to spend an hour in a visiting exhibition and can’t exit the building without first being dragged through the Gallery Shop.
Going back in time
For reasons both personal and professional I’m intrigued by the architectural landscape of the late 1960s and the underlying factors behind the RAIA’s decision. I’m not one to sing the praises of suburban ‘big box’ retail, or to suggest that the Gallery was unworthy to receive industry recognition. My purpose in writing this is to understand the 1969 Awards result in the context of its time instead of viewing it through the lens of today.
‘The spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period.’
It’s the Americans who lay claim to pioneering the suburban shopping mall – a natural reaction to the increasing rate of individual car ownership and the rise of suburban living. Internalised shopping complexes sprung-up around middle America in the mid-1950s, presenting a desirable alternative to shopping ‘downtown’ for those who had bought into new greenfield developments on the urban fringe. Australia was to follow suit shortly thereafter with Brisbane’s Chermside Shopping Centre opening in 1957.
But what was game-changing about this new retail offering was that it revolutionised the experience of the 1950s housewife. Until then, a major shopping excursion meant boarding a train or the tram and traipsing into the city in high-heeled shoes – often with young children in tow – and of course only when the weather permitted. “It was a whole day’s outing, and mum would come home with blisters and aching calves” recalls my own mother. Fast forward a few years and the shopping list that once meant a day’s worth of hunting on foot can now be ticked-off in half the time thanks to a retail model that catered for cars.
At the Architecture Awards, the selection of Southland by Tomkins Shaw & Evans ahead of Sir Roy Grounds’ highly favoured Cultural Centre (as the Gallery was then known) was a shock win. To add insult to injury, the 1969 ceremony was conducted in the Gallery’s spectacular Great Hall. The Victorian Architecture Medal was presented to Mr Stanley Evans who – in addition to being the responsible architect – also happens to be my late grandfather.
I was ten years old when Grandpa passed away. I remember having a vague idea that he ‘did drawing’ for work… but through my child eyes he was just cheeky old Grandpa – jovial and very social. My interest in Stan Evans the Architect has bloomed since I myself am following in his footsteps in the profession. I would love to have heard first-hand his experience with Southland, and in part my purpose in writing this is to understand what might have been his approach to this building type and his aspirations for the design.
The morning after the Awards presentation, The Age ran the headline “Shopping Centre beats Gallery for Top Award” on the front page. A jury comprising notable architects Peter McIntrye, Neil Clerehan and Reg Grouse were tasked with selecting a winner and recounted their decision as follows…
“We opted for the retail jewel: an elegant building representing a new way of suburban living. In its original form it represented the culmination of a decade’s attempt to perfect an entirely new building type.”
The Retail Jewel
Elegant? Jewel like?? If you’ve been anywhere near Cheltenham in the past decade it’s unlikely you’d connect these adjectives with the sprawling expanse that is Southland today. But an image search online helps rewind the clock. In 1968 German émigré photographer Wolfgang Sievers captured the newly opened centre in a series of moody, barren, black and white images. One particular photograph shows Monstera deliciosa – the ‘fruit salad plant’ – trailing over interior balustrades in an image that could easily have been nabbed from The Cool Hunter’s Instagram. Shrouded escalators and surface-mounted can lights foreshadow another 20-teens trend.
The Sievers archive provides a legacy of the original Southland and reveals a minimalist, streamlined form – bold but restrained. The architect’s response was unashamedly introspective with little attempt made to engage with the surrounding expanse of car park. Clearly this building was intended to celebrate the move indoors of the retail ‘High Street’ and the climate-controlled comfort that this afforded customers. Glass roofs begat light filled atriums, and openings in the upper level floorplate provided visual connectivity between levels. The distinctive geometry of the escalators clearly provided a focal point for Sievers in his work. If nothing else, this was a building about easy access.
There is no question that the Gallery was equally as functional and even more eye-catching. Consideration for spatial quality was finely executed, and the iconic water wall to St Kilda Road and Leonard French’s stained-glass ceiling to the Great Hall were novel components that are still a drawcard for Instagrammers today. But it was significant cost overruns and complications within the design team that were cited as reasons for the Gallery falling out of favour within the industry. The commission to design the new gallery had been awarded a decade earlier in 1959 to the firm Grounds Romberg Boyd. By 1962, relationships within the creative team had deteriorated and Sir Roy Grounds split from partners Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd – but retained the commission. The Gallery was finally complete and officially opened in August 1968. Unlike Southland, this building had high expectations to live up to.
In a retrospective article published in 2003, Neil Clerehan revisited the 1969 result…
“Was the decision worth the bitterness it caused in the profession? The original form of Southland went on to be obliterated by a series of gross extensions culminating in its spreading across the public highway… in those years, the Gallery remained virtually intact.”
Increasing demand placed unforeseen pressures on Southland that necessitated expansion and ultimately the complete replacement of the original building. One could say that the typology was a victim of its own success. Whilst two of the Gallery’s original courtyards were later enclosed, the building itself retains its original form to this day. In 1999 Italian architect Mario Bellini undertook a refurbishment that sought to modernise the interior. $168 million dollars later, and the Gallery was looking like the prized bull that it is. With that sort of price tag – there’s no excuse not to.
Typological evolution – from Market Place to Main Street to Mall
It’s hardly surprising that design for retail has great propensity for change. After all, the acquisition of goods is intrinsic to human survival. Our ‘need to feed’ has traced mankind’s move from self- sourcing hunter-gatherers, to outsourcing with the emergence of merchants and traders and the rise of market towns. And from Market Place to Main Street to Mall… in the blink of a millennium! However, no period has seen as rapid a shift in the market model as the past decade with online shopping the new default. For better or for worse, our phones have replaced our cars as the primary conduit to an infinite supply of goods and services that would stupefy the housewife of 1969.
On the other hand, activities associated with art appreciation have evolved comparatively little. Since the original National Gallery of Victoria opened, subsequent adaptations have responded to the need to cater for touring collections, as well as for the exhibition of audio-visual and installation art. Planning and design for the experience of children at galleries has also come a long way since the 1960s. But fundamentally, a gallery is an attraction you visit if and when you feel like it. Rich and rewarding as the experience may be, a visit to the gallery is – and has always been – a leisure activity, a weekend pastime, a date night plan, or something for tourists to do when on holiday abroad. There is simply not the social pressure on a gallery that would demand holistic reform and challenge the architect accordingly.
I wonder if this was a contributing factor at the 1969 Awards. Perhaps it was considered that Southland Shopping Centre had a social outreach that would warrant recognition over and above design for the visual arts. Roy Grounds’ Gallery is a magnificent building, but it did little to influence social behaviours or challenge public discourse outside the arts milieu.
Apples and oranges – consideration for varying complexity
I recently attended the presentations to juries for the 2019 Victorian Chapter Architecture Awards. A mix of projects including train stations, sports pavilions, and a regional arts centre were in contention in the Public Architecture category. Self-deprecating jokes abounded amongst the rail architects in the room that hinted at a belief that a train station could never beat an arts centre. After all, a train station is far too utilitarian… right?
In 2011 the Eastern Precinct of the Australian War Memorial pipped the iconic Melbourne Rectangular Stadium (now AAMI Park) for the major gong at the National Awards. In 2014 history repeated when the redeveloped Adelaide Oval came runner-up to the Shrine of Remembrance. There was resignation amongst the stadium design team that a venue for sport couldn’t take precedence over a war memorial. For the record, AAMI Park wove together the requirements of a complex brief and complex geometries with an aspiration to set a new benchmark for sustainable design by ‘doing more with less’. It used less structural steel per seat than any other comparable stadium in the world and earned recognition for being the lightest of its type. Since opening, AAMI Park’s curvilinear profile has redefined the Melbourne city skyline, and over 5.7 million people have passed through her gates.
Perhaps it’s time to get over our sector snobbery and give credit where credit is due to those buildings with real complexity and capacity to shape the human experience.
Judging Architecture: issues, divisions, triumphs : Victorian Architecture Awards 1929-2003 / edited by Philip Goad, 2003