Concerns grow over heritage-listed building, but Planning Minister says there’s “no plan” for destruction

Brendan Rees

A fight to save a city icon from destruction is underway after Minister for Planning Richard Wynne called in an application that proposes to redevelop the site of the heritage-listed Shell House. 

The 28-level building at the corner of Flinders and Spring streets was designed by the late Harry Seidler, one of Australia’s greatest modernist architects, and has received multiple state and national architecture awards. 

Formerly known as Shell House, the 1 Spring St tower, which is a mixture of government and commercial offices and well-recognised for its curved and interlocking shell-like shape, was added to the Victoria Heritage Register in 2017.

But an application which proposes to build a second 121.68-metre-high office tower within the co-location of Shell House with a bridge linking the two buildings at the 15th level has ignited concerns from the National Trust, the Australian Institute of Architects, and residents’ groups. 

Under the plans submitted in November 2020, which are understood to have since been amended, the existing Flinders Lane forecourt would be “reinterpreted, to provide an inviting accessible plaza for the public to enjoy and a welcoming new internal plaza situated between the proposed Tower 2 and the existing Tower 1”. 

Mr Wynne said he had called in the application after Heritage Victoria refused permit applications and the applicant had sought a review from the Heritage Council.

However, he affirmed, “Let me be clear – there is no plan for the destruction of Shell House.

“This building is undoubtedly one of the most significant modernist buildings in Melbourne and it is rightly included in the Victorian Heritage Register for its architectural and aesthetic significance to Victoria,” he said. “Milton House – located at the rear of Shell House – and built as a private hospital in 1901 – is one of Melbourne’s most exceptional Art Nouveau buildings.” 

He said the state government had “strong credentials when it comes to protecting the heritage values communities cherish.”

“In this instance I believe it is crucial that planning and heritage matters are considered concurrently to ensure the best outcome for the site,” he said. “Calling-in both applications means an expert advisory committee will advise on both the heritage and planning components of the proposal.”

“I am particularly concerned about new buildings cantilevering over heritage places and need to ensure that heritage places are actively used so they are conserved and have a future. There are two separate decisions for the development which will be considered – one related to heritage and the other to planning.”

The Planning Minister has the power to intervene or “call in” in a planning application that has been referred to local councils or appeals being reviewed by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. 

Simon Ambrose, chief executive officer of The National Trust for Victoria, said the proposal by Phillip Nominees Pty Ltd would “destroy the aesthetic and architectural integrity” of Shell House which encompassed the building, a plaza, and a podium on Flinders Lane. 

“Shell House, which won both state and national awards following its completion in 1989, is the only example of a Seidler-designed skyscraper in Victoria,” Mr Ambrose said.

“It remains remarkably intact to its original design and is one of the most important buildings of this period in the state.”

Mr Ambrose said if approved, it would set a “concerning precedent” for future developments at heritage sites in the CBD, and “undermine the integrity” of the state heritage register. 

In its submission objecting to the redevelopment application, the Australian Institute of Architects said constructing a new tower “would result in irreversible damage to a significant heritage place that actually helps define the high-quality environment of Melbourne”.

According to the plans, the proposed tower has been “carefully considered to respond to the heritage context” of Shell House and the historic Milton House in Flinders Lane. “The organic building form sweeps in a gentle curve away from Tower 1 and is set high above the street providing breathing space to Milton House,” it said.

Melbourne University architecture academic, Rory Hyde, who is also opposed to the redevelopment, said it would be a “real detrimental outcome of the building as a whole.”

“I think that building being heritage-listed is important and we need to respect the decisions made by those bodies,” he said.

He also believed the site should not be built over, saying, “I think that we need more open space in the city”.

Professor Hyde, who also sits on the Melbourne Design Review Panel, a newly created body that provides expert design advice to the City of Melbourne on major developments, said that the minister’s decision to call in the application “does strike me as very unusual”.

 

Obviously we don’t know what the minister’s decision will be. I think in the past things get called in when they want to get overturned, or the proposal would be approved without going through those proper processes.

 

“If that is what happens I think it doesn’t really respect the processes as they are, and I think it would be a shame for the building.”

CBD residents’ group EastEnders president Dr Stan Capp said, “we should do everything we can to protect the integrity” of the building because it was “of great significance to Melbourne’s CBD”.

“To have a separate process called in by the minister just seems to me to be very unusual and unnecessary and an inappropriate lack of confidence shown in the heritage council frankly,” he said. 

Dr Capp added he hoped the City of Melbourne and Heritage Victoria would “actively advocate for the retention and non-development of this precinct”.

Residents 3000 president Rafael Camillo described the proposal as “insanity”. “They should not touch significant architecture. We already have too much influence on our buildings in the city,” he said •

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