McKay, Judith & Don Watson: False premise, inappropriate process, unacceptable impact: submission to the Australian War Memorial on proposed redevelopment

Judith McKay & Don Watson*

‘False premise, inappropriate process, unacceptable impact: submission to the Australian War Memorial on proposed redevelopment’, Honest History, 4 August 2020

(Note: This article was originally a submission to the Australian War Memorial on its ‘final preliminary documentation’ for its redevelopment project. There is a requirement that the redevelopment be assessed against the heritage provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. HH thanks the authors for permission to reproduce the article.)

In response to your call for public comment on this project, we wish to question the premise on which it is based, the planning process and elements of its proposed realisation.

Misrepresentation of national history

The project aims to address ‘a lack of capacity to provide equitable coverage of conflicts and operations’. This is misguided given the losses suffered in these various operations differ greatly, as does their impact on Australian society. Attempting to record recent operations in a way commensurate with the coverage of World War I – the reason for the Memorial’s creation – is absurd.

Likewise, the aim to address ‘a lack of capacity to describe a broader description of war’ is questionable given the Memorial has never given much attention to the Home Front and continues to exclude any coverage of Australia’s Frontier Wars.

4022024Canberra, ACT, 16 January 1940: Drawing by architect John Crust and Mr Parramore of the proposed layout of the lawns and gardens surrounding the Australian War Memorial (AWM)

Inappropriate planning process

The development concept was determined before the design competition was held, precluding an outcome more compatible with the exceptional clarity of the original design. The result is a collage of barely related components competing with the original and each other (Fig. 4.5). The term ‘campus’ is apt for an outcome (four design packages coordinated by an ‘integration architect’) that is inappropriate for a national shrine.

Insufficient demonstration of the preferred option

The Australian War Memorial Development Project Preliminary Documentation Submission (June 2020) is confused by discussion of rejected options.

  • No site plan is provided for the development of the preferred option, although aspects can be inferred from renderings (Fig 5.1a).
  • The new subterranean entrance will suit only a minority of visitors approaching from the south. Other visitors will either descend ramps in sunken courtyards to both sides or simply use the existing front door. Illustrations of the ramps (Fig 5.2) are not reassuring about the visitor experience of this, a circuitous route (one being mislabelled). The formerly clear entry to the building will be confused.
  • Having been deprived of a view of the facade, the visitor experience of the subterranean entrance is not saved by the oculus. Without sections through the building, there is insufficient information to know whether the dome will be visible through the oculus, but this seems unlikely. Its low height will be fine until someone falls into it. If orientation is needed at the new front door, there are real problems.
  • It is not clear how new subterranean spaces to the south and north are connected, nor if there is yet another entrance into the Glazed Link.
  • The mention of life spans for new components presupposes their continual replacement, which is inappropriate for such an important building.
  • The Glazed Link and the rebuilt Anzac Hall are largely unrelated to the original building in their form, details and materials. Why is the new Anzac Gallery clad with rusted steel? What is the raking soffit (Fig 4.5)?
  • The use of ETFE [Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a fluorine-based plastic] for the roof of the Glazed Link is inappropriate; the visual connotations of the material are sports stadiums or shopping centres. Being only partly transparent, the visual link with the dome will not be obvious. If there is any failure of the membrane the consequences would be catastrophic for a museum.
  • Where is the proposed service access? Roads to Treloar Crescent seem obstructed. What appear to be external service access points in Figs 7.3 and 5.8 (lower right) will be internal within the new Glazed Link.
  • More before and after images would have been useful. In the only instance (Fig 7.2) the existing is preferable.

Unacceptable impact on heritage values

The proposed additional components compete as rival expressions which, piece by piece, diminish the unity and gravity of the original War Memorial (Figs 4.5, 5.7 and 5.8). The new southern entrance, redeveloped Parade Ground, replacement Anzac Hall, and infill Glazed Link all compete visually with the original.

The building’s external shell is outstandingly significant and should remain without accretions. The considerable extension of the CEW Bean Building clutters the view from the east, while the enlarged Anzac Hall and Glazed Link obscure the view from the north.

There is an unfortunate willingness to forgo the formal and material simplicity of the original in favour of current architectural elaboration.

The redeveloped campus-like complex underrates the symbolic importance of the original Memorial.

As professionals with considerable experience of heritage protection in Queensland, we believe that the proposed additions would not be permitted to a comparable building here; and that, if approved, would indicate a serious deficiency in heritage controls at a national level.

Unacceptable environmental impact

The demolition of Anzac Hall, an award-winning building erected relatively recently and designed to complement the main building, is beyond belief.

Waste of public funds

220px-Emil_SoderstenEmil Sodersten (1899-1961), original architect of the Memorial (Wikipedia)

The project does not represent wise expenditure of public funds, being over-scaled and largely unnecessary. In these days of complex display technology, such as virtual reality, the Memorial could find smarter ways of extending its coverage than by expanding its buildings. It could also present more temporary and changing exhibits and make its collections accessible to more Australians through travelling exhibitions.

The Memorial has long benefitted from generous public funding by comparison with Australia’s state and regional museums. Extravagant expansion in the present situation of unprecedented national debt is both irrational and unsupportable.

We urge that this misguided scheme be deferred immediately and, if revived in the future, it should be more broadly considered.

* Dr Judith McKay was Art Curator, Australian War Memorial 1977–79, Queensland consultant for Ken Inglis’s national war memorials study (resulting in the book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape), member of the Queensland Heritage Council 2011-16, assessor for Queensland Anzac Centenary and Veterans’ Memorial Grants programs, 2016 – .

Dr Don Watson is Life Fellow, Australian Institute of Architects; Life Fellow, Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand; Adjunct Professor, University of Queensland.




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