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Carl Payne is a retired architect (of Donovan Payne Architects) and a former vice-president of the Fremantle Society.
The Fremantle Herald, 23 July 2022, ran a number of stories in reaction to the announcement of the plans of an Andrew Forrest company to build a six-storey hotel on the corner of Henderson and William Streets. The article which follows by Carl Payne was one of them.
Change is inevitable. Nothing ever stays the same. Cities are a prime example of this. But cities can control the nature of this change.
Cities are populated by those who hold differing views on why they live in a particular locality. Those who were born there may be imbedded inside their habit of location. These persons may have no special emotional tie to the built environment of their home town. For them, it just IS.
Others have come to a city for special and varying reasons. Within our city of Fremantle, there are many who have decided to make it their home because of its unique built qualities. These relate to the scale of the city - the buildings, the streets, the spaces created. They relate to the texture of the city - the special nature of the 19th century buildings and the number of them lining our streets. Some of these may be viewed as being relatively unremarkable but taken as a unified streetscape, the buildings coalesce into a built environment of such impressive form that the Fremantle West End was designated as a State Heritage Precinct in 2017.
Within all cities, the buildings, streetscapes and urban spaces evolve and change according to identified needs. The very best of these cities retain and maintain their important links to the past when these identified needs are in tune with the views of the majority of the inhabitants. Cities begin to lose their unified character when change is not generated by local preferences or understandings but by a perceived commercial advantage to the owners of the buildings or land holdings.
At this point, many will thump the table and cry, "a building or landowner should be free to develop whatever and however they want, within the established rules!" Very true. It's the rules we are talking about.
The behaviour of the authorities who both dictate and judge how these rules are structured and enforced is critical. It is crucial for us to understand the role of good contemporary architecture in contributing to change. This contribution can be positive, or negative. When it is appropriate and respectful, when it understands its effects on the existing townscape, it conserves and celebrates the special character and quality of our historic environments.
When we recognise the importance of clever and sensitive design in contributing to the Fremantle we wish to continue to live in and to conserve for future generations, it’s clear that the decisions we make in assessing how change is managed are critical.
Regarding Fremantle, one aspect of appropriate building design that garners much attention is the vexed issue of the maximum height of new buildings.
It’s clear that the historic buildings which contribute mostly to the urban character of Fremantle, are two to three stories, predominantly just two. Over the past few decades, development pressure has seen approvals for new buildings which are much higher than this. Some of this pressure has come from development approval assessors taking height cues for new buildings from our old wool stores buildings. In turn, this has established new height precedents which are creating six storey buildings in places where a six storey building may be inappropriate in townscape terms.
It's in these cases that we need our regulators; our Council and others, to act appropriately and with a firm view on preserving the special nature of Fremantle. This is their solemn responsibility.
A new streetscape form can quite quickly create a new norm for all future development. Suddenly our streets become canyons. When a new norm of six stories is established, a compromise to four levels becomes somehow acceptable, when even this lessened height is still detrimental to the streetscape when viewed as a whole.
The proposed new building on the corner of Henderson Street and William Street is an example of this. It takes its cues from recent high commercial approvals within Fremantle, as well as from the excessively high modern carpark building across William Street. It proposes five levels on Henderson Street and six levels on William Street. This is despite it directly facing the old Warders Cottages in Henderson Street, which are two storey and domestic in scale, form and texture. And despite these cottages being the only residences in WA rare enough to be on the National Heritage list.
During planning for Fremantle’s hosting of the America’s Cup in the mid-eighties, Council’s then Director of Planning Jeremy Dawkins, in considering this corner redevelopment site as part of Fremantle Council policy, wrote the following:
“Three or four stories would be appropriate provided that the approved height on Henderson Street is kept to two stories”.
The proposal ignores this advice and seeks to impose a new building that will be over twice the height of the warders cottages.
I have yet to make a comment on the actual architecture of the proposed hotel. The plans I have seen on the Council webpage indicate huge exposed round columns, perhaps a metre or so in diameter. If this is the case, I would ask the building designers to reflect on the monumental nature of this proposed design solution. There are no appreciable built precedents in Fremantle.
By way of contrast, the new Fremantle library and civic core is a good example of successful modern design. It creates contemporary architecture that respects our heritage forms, scale and texture. It sits directly beside our Town Hall, but doesn’t compete with it, nor try to replicate it. It is a well-mannered new kid on the block.
The external metal cladding is a protective filigree to large glazing areas and creates sympathetic texture and colour. On a smaller scale, 11 Cliff Street also presents contemporary design using sympathetic scale and materiality. Both are successful examples of modest, appropriate and new modern architecture.
Incremental destruction of Fremantle’s built environment continues. Boiling frogs are we. Our Council needs to take a stand which reflects the crucial importance of why we love our city.
Garry Gillard | New: 25 July, 2022 | Now: 30 July, 2022