Richard Falkinger AO

Meet the ecclesiastical architect guiding design students through one of Melbourne’s most historic buildings.

Richard Falkinger AO

Richard Falkinger AO wanders the halls of Saint Paul’s Cathedral as if he is browsing details in an encyclopaedia. The prominent cathedral, built on the site of Melbourne’s first Christian services in 1836 (and home church for Anglicans in Victoria), holds decades of knowledge of heritage, style, preservation, and local history within its walls.

Thanks to Falkinger, the lessons behind the creation and restoration of the church are being utilised for a Masters Studio subject – simply titled ‘Beauty’ – at Melbourne School of Design.

His passion for the lessons it teaches is not just about architecture, but about Melbourne’s history.

“This church is so much a part of our history, the moment you step outside the west door you’re looking across the river. It reminds me every day that’s where our history started because that’s where the Aboriginals lived, and when we came here we had to say hello to each other. We had the first mass here under a tent,” he says, stopping to admire the glass work on the recently installed doors which face Federation Square in the exact spot the first settlers gathered to worship almost 200 years ago.

“The two major cathedrals in this city – Saint Patrick’s, and Saint Paul’s – were built during the Colonial period at similar times and with architects from England.

So you had two cathedrals, one with an Anglican bishop who had just arrived from England and one with a Catholic bishop who had come from Ireland. We can imagine a rivalry between them to produce the best possible outcomes! I’m extraordinarily fortunate that I’ve been able to work on both”, he says.

The MSD Masters studio for 2015 was asked to envision a new space for an underground library utilising the cathedral close next to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The first studio was initiated in 2010 by MSD tutor Ammon Beyerle, who approached Falkinger. A fund was established to promote the students’ best ideas through prizes or publications. The studio teaches students the unique aspects of the architecture of Melbourne’s cathedrals.

Falkinger Andronas Architects have worked together for nearly 50 years, on our most prominent cathedrals – architects for Saint Patrick’s for nearly 28 years, and the architect for Saint Paul’s for the last 15 – leaving Falkinger well-placed as a tutor.

Falkinger works closely with the current Dean of Saint Paul’s, Andreas Loewe, who is keen to be part of the student’s design concepts for the cathedral precinct.

“Students came up with fresh ideas,” says Falkinger. “They understood the concept to utilise the underground space of the close. We were blown away by how beautiful some of their designs were.”

With plans to build a connection to Flinders Street Station under the cathedral much like the underground metro in Paris and New York, there is every possibility that one of the students’ designs will come to fruition.

The firm of Falkinger Andronas Architects has overseen the restoration, renewal and conservation work of more than 50 Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, in a career spanning nearly 50 years.

“I’m very passionate about my work, and I’d like my students to be involved in that passion. Young people might wish to consider branching out into church architecture and conservation, which offers similar design challenges in a less commercial environment. If this path resonates with young architects, they too could become the ‘Keeper of the Fabric’. A very ancient tradition!”

MSD students are certainly collaborating with one of the best. In 2012 Falkinger received an Order of Australia for distinguished service to heritage architecture.

In the past fifteen years, working closely with then Dean David Richardson, and now with Dean Loewe, Falkinger Andronas have overseen the major restoration of the exterior and interior of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Although our churches do not compare in age to those in England, Falkinger is adamant that the buildings we have should be given a similar level of respect.

“In England every heritage listed church must undergo a five-yearly survey and then carry out the necessary work within the next five years. Restoration is a very different system in Australia – we are often inclined to wait until something falls off.”

One of the most significant parts of the restoration process for Saint Paul’s was the opening of the west door to Flinders Street, which was previously closed. Falkinger refers to them as the ‘west end’ doors, explaining that in church architecture the west end is where you enter the Cathedral. Technically, the west door at Saint Paul’s is facing the south of the city.

“There were steps, but there was no space to gather. When you came out from the church you were standing at the cliff, with the footpath staring at you below! But now the cathedral has the new Perron and this stunning ‘Dalle de Verre‘ glass door, made by Janus and Magda Kuszbicki”, says Falkinger.

Perhaps the most labour-intensive part of the cathedral’s restoration was the cleaning of the interior walls from a scaffold suspended from the ceiling of the roof. The interior cleaning included the original 1888 stained glass windows, and the mosaics behind the high altar. All works were done by hand with water, special soap, bristles and plenty of elbow grease. James Charlwood, Master Mason and his team spent hundreds of painstaking hours, one tile, one inch at a time, to get it right. “The walls, which were previously blackened by years of dust, have come up beautifully. We didn’t lose one single tile”, says Falkinger.

The conservation works were completed in 2009, and were recognised by the RAIA with the national Lachlan Macquarie Award.

“Helping students to become aware of restoration practices has opened up a whole different perspective in their lives,” says Falkinger.

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