Peter Lovell and Kai Chen

Architects and heritage consultants

Describe the principal work that Lovell Chen engages in.

Peter Lovell: As a practice, we work as architects and heritage consultants. While there are many practitioners who work in the heritage area the combining of the two disciplines is a pivotal reason for Kai Chen and I to be together as partners.

At the core of our work and key to the structure of the practice, is the focus on the interaction between design and conservation. For both of us, as Directors and professionals, that is the thing that we enjoy most and is the greatest challenge.

The nature of the projects we do, as you’d expect, is diverse and revolves around heritage places, small or large. We can be involved in designing a town hall carpet and at the same time undertaking a municipal heritage study or designing additions to a major heritage building.

In this regard our primary interest is in the future of heritage and heritage places and in maintaining their relevance and ability to contribute meaningfully in the longer term. To achieve this the practice brings to projects conventional architectural skills, in design and documentation, as well as skills in research, history and cultural heritage management, all of which are pivotal in resolving lasting heritage outcomes.

While your practice focuses on the assessment and conservation of heritage places, you also have a keen interest in the interface between heritage and contemporary design. Can you talk a little about this?

PL: As an architectural practice operating in the cultural heritage arena our starting point is subtly different from practices where the core discipline is say archaeological or history. Our primary interest is in architecture, design, and built form. From my perspective, design is a continuum; it’s about both respecting those elements of the past which are valued, while also recognising the potentials that exist. In a design sense, it is about achieving this balance. You find some things that are very precious, but equally those that are not. There is ability to introduce, to insert, to adapt in a way that recognises the qualities of a place but also adds and enhances.

This idea of heritage and contemporary design is fundamental to our practice and we are very focused on delivering successful design outcomes, as well as good conservation. Each project is different – it’s about an exploration of each to establish if, where and how a contemporary design response might be appropriate.

There’s no question that good quality contemporary design is about producing the heritage of the future. My interest in all contemporary design is that it will be, in the longer term, celebrated, recognised and awarded and becomes the body of work that we heritage consultants pick up 100 years later. I enjoy that prospect.

One of Lovell Chen’s unifying principals is a contemporary response to place, anchored in a fundamental awareness that places derive importance from the past, while continuing to grow and change. How is this reflected in one or two of your recent projects? PL:

The one that immediately comes to mind is the RMIT Graduate School of Law and Business. It was an exciting project in that it involved a process of deconstructing an existing building – the Emily McPherson School of Domestic Sciences – and, in the process, losing some of that heritage to reveal the earlier form of the Old Melbourne Gaol and then to construct an entirely contemporary new addition at the back of the School. It was a project that was very much about making judgements – making the judgement that not everything old is of heritage value. The context of this response was one where in recent years we have moved from a heritage process where we tended to be more selective, to one that is more about ‘if it is old it warrants keeping’. We are very much of the view that ‘no, you can make a judgement’ and that you can decide what is worth keeping and what is less significant and able to be changed.

Another project that reflects the changing views of heritage is the Myer Melbourne project. We were involved in the conservation works to the Bourke Street façade. In a single project, it sums up a fundamental shift in the last 30 years, from notions of heritage being concerned with a three dimensional content to a notion that the significance may exist in a façade, an object, that has an entirely new existence behind it. The debate on façadism has gone on for a long time. In the 1980s/90s people said ‘no, you cannot do that’ and now it is being embraced as an acceptable position for heritage places… But, I suspect that this is not the end of the debate – both the professional community and perhaps the community at large will react again. Is a picturesque stage set all that 21st century heritage is about?

What are the key challenges faced in conserving or re-defining heritage buildings or sites?

PL: For me the challenge of contemporary heritage is the sense that at a planning level we are moving to a model which ascribes heritage value to almost anything that is old. We have become less discriminating in our approach or at least less willing to make judgements about relative worth. The result in my view is that in some contexts we have too much heritage. We designate too many places as ‘heritage’. There should perhaps be fewer places recognised as heritage and places recognised for their amenity, character, or other reasons, but not heritage in the traditional use of the term – that which we inherit and which should be conserved. I’m not advocating that heritage be strictly elitist, but if you look at Melbourne and Victoria we have a hugely comprehensive heritage planning framework which is effective but, on occasion, is not always discerning. I think that it is time for review and rethinking.

Going back to the origins of the office, there are also occasions where we approach heritage from a relatively clinical perspective – we focus on the objective analysis of values and the subtleties and nuances that come out of the community’s views of heritage are lost. I think that sometimes there is a gap – as an architectural office we tend to look at the architectural object and, on occasion, there is a lack of awareness in thinking about the community or social viewpoints.

Is there scope, in your view, to re-use more of our industrial heritage in Australia? PL: Adaptive reuse has been around forever. The current challenge is that it has become a lot harder because of environmental performance requirements, access and code compliance requirements, hazardous materials, liability and risk, and particularly for commercial development, the certifying and guaranteeing of a heritage place that has been adapted. There is no question that there is interest, but the challenges have not reduced, they have increased. There is also, from a commercial construction perspective, a view that it is a lot easier to reproduce something than it is to restore or conserve it. The building industry is less interested and equipped to undertake the adaptive reuse that consciously keeps the fabric of the past. Also, the cost of adaptation is typically greater than the cost of a new build, so there is a fundamental penalty in doing this; it remains challenging commercially.

What is the most exciting heritage project you have ever worked on? PL: The standout project is the Gothic Bank at 380 Collins Street. It was an extraordinary project at a time when seemingly money was no object. It is such a beautiful building and an extraordinary example of 19th century commercial architecture. And the forensic aspect of the project was such a pleasurable one, from looking at archival letters between the architect and the client to going to the UK and looking at the original drawings of the light fittings by Hardman & Co held in the Birmingham Archives. It was a project that contained all the challenges of restoration and reconstruction work and untilised the skills of a hugely diverse and specialist workforce. It remains a huge credit to all involved.

At the other end of the scale, is the Woodlands Homestead project out at Tullamarine. It is a 1842 pre-fabricated timber building brought out to Australia by William Pomeroy Green. It is the most extraordinary building of its type in that it captures that early phase of settlement in the colony: this man brought his house with him from the UK to establish his new life. It’s a simple elegant house that is designed around a courtyard, which provides a space sheltered and protected from the surrounds. And the lovely thing about this project – I worked on it over 30 years ago – was the discovery of the original wall and ceiling decoration that was painted in a beautifully restrained Regency-style. As we stripped back later plaster and paint coatings it revealed this, subtle and sophisticated decorative scheme which would not have been out of place in a London townhouse. It is a place well worth visiting.

You are a generous supporter of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and our new building project. What motivates your philanthropic activities?

PL: Chen and I are both graduates of the Faculty. As an office and as individuals we believe that supporting education and training is fundamental in supporting the broader industry and being able to give back. We enjoy doing it, particularly where there is a tangible outcome – such as the new building project or the Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture.

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