Stephens, David: Architects dig in against Australian War Memorial extensions; mixed messages from the Memorial; odd perspective from the ABC

David Stephens*

‘Architects dig in against Australian War Memorial extensions; mixed messages from the Memorial; odd perspective from the ABC’, Honest History, 12 April 2019 updated

Philip Leeson, ACT Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), told ABC Radio Canberra yesterday that some firms of architects will not consider entering the design competition for the Australian War Memorial’s proposed extensions because the design brief assumes the demolition of the existing Anzac Hall. Anzac Hall, designed in 2001 and built in 2005, won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture.

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Mr Leeson pointed out that the Memorial’s expression of interest documentation ‘is predicated on the demolition of the building’. The new Anzac Hall, as projected, ‘competes with the form and bulk of the original building’. He fears the winning architects will only have flexibility regarding the interior and perhaps the facade of the new building. Architects considering involvement in the project ‘recognise and honour the skill of Denton Corker Marshall [architects of Anzac Hall] and the building that they delivered’ and very many of them have decided ‘that it is not a project they would want to be involved in’.

Mr Leeson’s remarks echoed those of seven leading Australian architects, reported earlier in the week. President of the AIA, Clare Cousins, said ‘many of the institute’s roughly 11,000 members would not participate in the redevelopment due to the demolition [of Anzac Hall]. “The institute has received overwhelming feedback from members expressing their outrage and opposition to the demolition plans”, she said. “I’ve received numerous calls from architectural colleagues advising that they would not be responding to the Australian War Memorial’s expression of interest on this basis.”‘ The AIA has a petition against the extensions.

A later statement from the AIA took strong exception to hints from the Memorial that it might be possible to retain Anzac Hall. The statement underlined what seems to be the Memorial’s growing confusion about what exactly it has in mind.

Clare Cousins said these claims [by a Memorial spokesperson about possibly retaining Anzac Hall] contradicted the tender documents issued by the Australian War Memorial via AusTender on 13 February 2019 … “The EOI does not allow any other design other than in accordance with the reference design which is tied to a new structure and glass atrium – so it severely limits the options …

“The Institute has received overwhelming feedback from members expressing their outrage and opposition to the demolition plans, which lack transparency and any genuine consultation”, Ms Cousins said. “I’ve received numerous calls from architectural colleagues advising that they would not be responding to the Australian War Memorial’s EOI on this basis. The Australian War Memorial’s single-minded determination to demolish the award-winning Anzac Hall, without engaging with industry, seriously undermines the immense value of our public architecture.”

Mr Leeson provided a Canberra angle:

The response to the demolition plans locally has been incredibly strong and impassioned, both from Institute members and the wider community … We have an ever-growing pool of people, including a number of high-profile Australians, coming to us unprompted to offer their support. People are quite simply at a loss as to why options that allow for the preservation of the existing structure as part of the expansion don’t appear to have been given due consideration.

And there was this … Thursday’s ABC discussion between Mr Leeson and presenter Adam Shirley ran for less than half the time devoted to the previous day’s discussion between Adam Shirley and War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson, and three minutes of Mr Leeson’s eight minutes was taken up with a recording of Dr Nelson from the previous day, where he again seemed to allow for a final design which would retain Anzac Hall.

There was also this interesting question from Mr Shirley to Mr Leeson. ‘If the overall response of veterans and current service men and women is that this plan incorporating the demolition of Anzac Hall is the right one, what right do you think the Australian Institute of Architects has to stand in the way of that?’ Mr Leeson firmly pointed out that it was not just the architects who were, so to speak, up in arms. We can point, for a start, to 83 distinguished Australians who signed the Heritage Guardians open letter and 1236 people who signed the Heritage Guardians petition.

The War Memorial belongs to all Australians, not just ‘veterans and current service men and women’, yet its future seems to have been hijacked after minimal public consultation – just 134 individuals provided feedback to the Memorial’s consultation process last year – and on the basis of confused and inconsistent arguments. As Mr Leeson said in the AIA statement, ‘If the Australian War Memorial’s management thought our and the community’s opposition to their destructive plans would simply fade away, they have grossly miscalculated’.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website, co-editor of The Honest History Book (NewSouth 2017) and a member of Heritage Guardians.

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