Regenerating heritage at Melbourne’s Rialto

Wraparound building
New Rialto wraparound building

The Rialto precinct in Melbourne is undergoing another facelift in the coming months. The Age reported last week that at the corner of Collins and King streets a new wraparound 5-story glass and steel office block would soon be built, adjoining the Rialto Towers. As this part of the Melbourne CBD has been a research interest of mine for a while, I’ve been following this development with interest. The commentary was accepting of the proposal. Fronting more of the Rialto Towers onto King Street is part of the renewal of the area. 

As a Melburnian born in the 1980s, I grew up with the Rialto Towers as a sign of permanence on the city landscape. I remember visiting the Rialto on school trips and with my family. It was the tallest building in Melbourne. A vantage from which to see ‘this city of suburbs’.

My researching into this area unsettled the permanence that the tower had always held for me. I found much that saddened me in the decade-long dispute over the precinct, especially in how the heritage process failed the site. Until the early 1980s, this was one of the most beautiful parts of the CBD. A series of “Marvellous Melbourne” buildings lined Collins Street to produce a gorgeous streetscape.

Postcard of "Rialto", Collins Street, Melbourne, 1907 (State Library of Victoria(
Postcard of “Rialto”, Collins Street, Melbourne, 1907 (State Library of Victoria)

Most of the original buildings were demolished for the Rialto Towers. Although now this precinct is called a ‘heritage success story’, this is, arguably, simply because some of the buildings remain in place and were beautifully restored. This was not the desire of the developer, which sought to demolish all the old buildings to build the tower directly onto Collins Street. Rather, it was a forced compromise after 10 years of dispute and various proposals (including for a casino). The Victorian Planning Minister of the time approved the Rialto Towers without taking the final plan to the independent Historic Buildings Preservation Council (now Heritage Council of Victoria) as mandated. And so approval was given before a financial instrument over the site expired.

Rialto under construction, ca. 1982-83. (McConville, MHJ, 1983)
Rialto under construction, ca. 1982-83. (McConville, MHJ, 1983)

Thousands of Melburnians protested their disenfranchisement in the heritage process. Professor of Architecture F.W. Ledger surmised, ‘future generations will conclude that lip-service only was paid by this generation to historic building preservation’. Professor Norman Day thought the development, ‘another case of rape’. Another architect implied the destruction to the city caused by this development paralleled that inflicted by the Nazis on European cities.

Yet a couple of years later the new tower sung ‘Hello Melbourne’. The politics of the heritage conflict had been seemingly extinguished. There was no heritage in sight. The Rialto Towers had become a naturalised part of the city. The Melbourne that I remember from growing up.

The 1970s-80s conflict over the Rialto has been largely forgotten. When new development proposals emerge, it simply provides an opportunity to share sepia tinted nostalgic photographs of ‘buildings lost’.

Robb's Buildings, south east corner of Collins and King Street, Melbourne *** MUST CREDIT: State Library of Victoria *** Date(s): ca. 1890 Description: photograph : albumen silver ; 14.3 x 20.0 cm., on mount. Copyright status: This work is out of copyright Terms of use: No copyright restrictions apply. Identifier(s): Accession no(s) H11741 Subjects: Melbourne (Vic.) -- Offices -- 482 Collins Street -- Robbs' Building
Robb’s Buildings, south east corner of Collins and King Street, Melbourne (State Library of Victoria)

At these moments, I think it is useful to revisit the politics of heritage too. The loss of the Robb’s Building for the Rialto Towers was unnecessary. A tower that preserved Robb’s in some form could have been built. The forecourt that replaced Robb’s, which is now being built upon with a new wraparound, was part of the compromise to provide the city with an open space to offset the (heritage) impacts of the tower. Now this open space will be built upon as well. These aspects are worth reflecting upon as a reminder of issues that too often emerge in the heritage planning process.

Either way, we can watch a video flyover of the proposed wraparound development. Might I say, a building fitting to the Rialto Towers.

[Flyover video has been removed from Youtube]

UPDATE: 1 October 2015

The Grollo Group demolished the Robb’s annexe a few days ago, the only surviving part of the original Robb’s building. The annexe was not heritage listed. Much of the heritage conversation around this demolishment has been a mix of disappointment and questions around what ‘might have been’. In the coming weeks I’ll post a few of the development proposals that emerged for the site during the 1970s and early 1980s, some better than others.

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3 comments

  1. I feel what is a tragedy about the loss of Robbs Building is that not only was its demolition unnecessary in the first place, but thirty years on a new building of a similar scale is to now to occupy most of is former footprint. This new proposal works against the original argument put forward for its removal in the 1970s/80s, which made the case for its removal on the basis that the Rialto Tower needed a presence at the corner. Robbs, as many argued at the time, could have formed a wrap-around as now being proposed. It was also noted at that time that Robbs Buildings was an important element in the Rialto/Olderfleet group of buildings, as it provided a good transition from the larger/grander commercial buildings of Collins Street to the more modest warehouse and mercantile buildings in King Street. Something the current proposal is not going to address.

    This proposed building is pretty bland, and the site is certainly deserving of something more dignified. Short of saying re-building Robbs, a process generally discouraged in the heritage field, some reference to the Robbs Building in this proposed building would be appropriate – in what is a design that seriously needs re-working. However, it would be unlikely that the developer will want to reference Robbs, as by doing so it will bring attention to their own short-sightedness.

    Thanks for the blog, James. It’s great this work that you are doing.

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