November 2023

Arts & Letters

A house provided: Preserving public housing

By David Neustein

Public housing in the Melbourne suburb of Ascot Vale: 42 Ascot Street sat empty due to superficial fire damage that was never repaired. Two months after releasing OFFICE’s Retain, Repair, Reinvest study refurbishment, works began. Photo by Ben Hosking

The architectural practice proving that refurbishing public housing can be less expensive and disruptive than demolition for new projects

Writing in 1977, the architectural historian Charles Jencks ecstatically pronounced modern architecture dead and issued an exact cause, date and time:

Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously it had been vandalised, mutilated and defaced by its black inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting); it was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

With its 33 near-identical, 11-storey, rectangular brick and concrete tower blocks arrayed in an evenly spaced checkerboard across a 57-acre horizontal plane, the Pruitt-Igoe housing development was the platonic image of public housing: repetitive, rational, severe. Grids of similar tower blocks were built all over the world. From the projects of the United States to the council estates of the United Kingdom and the banlieues of France, 20th century public housing developments were generally motivated and enabled by widespread slum-clearing programs. In theory, relocating the city’s poorer residents into densely packed and high-rise apartment buildings would enable both the urban renewal of the slums and the social transformation of their occupants. In practice, demolition of worker housing and the relocation of residents into newly built compounds led to racial and ethnic segregation and only served to entrench class-based stigmatisation.

On September 20, 2023, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced “Australia’s biggest ever urban renewal project”. At this announcement, Andrews, who then stood down the following week, revealed a plan to commence the demolition of all 44 of Melbourne’s surviving public housing towers, beginning with buildings in Flemington, North Melbourne and Carlton. The plan to retire and redevelop all 44 towers by 2051 could be understood as a combination of three separate concepts: the presumption that the existing buildings are irredeemably flawed; the belief that private housing providers are better equipped than the public sector to meet huge and urgent housing shortages; and the conviction that, collectively, we all wish to put Melbourne’s tower slabs out of their misery. Boom, boom, boom.

Andrews’ description of Melbourne’s concrete towers was also reminiscent of Jencks’ emphatic rhetoric. “Our 44 high-rise towers are old, they’re out of date,” Andrews said. “They are crumbling. They need to go.” But what Jencks and Andrews both overlooked is that the age, physical condition and design of public housing has very rarely been the cause of its controversies and problems. In her 1991 paper “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” (which later inspired a documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History), Katharine Bristol re-examined the demise of the St Louis housing estate and learnt that “chronically inadequate maintenance and the increasing poverty of tenants” were the two major factors in its descent into crime, decay and eventual abandonment, and that “by 1972 these crucial elements of the story had been all but forgotten in the rush to condemn the architecture”. While Pruitt-Igoe was torn down (along with other notorious projects such as Chicago’s Cabrini-Green towers) similar developments in other American cities have been kept comparatively up-to-date and remain in use today.

The Victorian government has committed $5.3 billion to its Big Housing Build, promising to deliver more than 12,000 social and affordable homes across metropolitan and regional Victoria by optimising existing land holdings. “The parcels of land are much bigger than what’s currently got buildings on it,” Andrews said. “There is room there and height to do so much more. So we think this is a unique partnership opportunity with super funds, with the private sector.” But as many experts have noted, this commitment will not resolve a chronic undersupply of social housing. In June 2023, the Victorian Housing Register recorded 65,195 applications for social housing, of which 36,690 were considered priority cases. Dr David Kelly and Professor Libby Porter have noted that the government’s redevelopment plans are underscored by a 70:30 ratio of private to social housing, which “is not based in any evidence about social mix and is derived purely from a real estate value calculation for what will turn a profit for the private developer in the partnership”.

The $5.3 billion build may not reflect the total economic, social and environmental cost of this undertaking. Louisa Bassini, acting director of legal practice at Inner Melbourne Community Legal, does not agree that “the case has been made as to why the towers have not been converted”. She told The Age that, “Instead the government is treating the estates as prime land without consideration of the destruction of the communities that is going to ensue. It is the transfer of publicly owned housing stock into the hands of private developers.” Associate Professor Philip Oldfield, who heads the School of Built Environment at UNSW and is a sustainable design expert, has estimated that while retrofitting all 44 towers would require the equivalent of 144,000 tonnes in carbon emissions, which is roughly 12 times Melbourne Council’s total emissions in 2020, rebuilding the towers would demand the equivalent of a whopping 240,000 tonnes in carbon emissions.

“There were some red flags in Andrews’ announcement,” says Simon Robinson, a director of the Melbourne not-for-profit multidisciplinary design and research practice OFFICE. “Firstly, there had been no consultation with residents. Then the blanket statement that all the towers must be demolished. And then the fact that there’s a lot of anecdotal commentary around previous reports that have been done [to support the assertion that the towers cannot be retained and upgraded] but no transparency on those reports.”

In recent years, when confounded by the absence of any publicly available studies, OFFICE has been conducting its own investigations that compare the economic, social and environmental implications of refurbishing and demolishing public housing. While Robinson is an architect by trade, and his co-director, Steve Mintern, is a landscape architect, OFFICE is highly atypical of Australian design practices. The two directors, now aged in their 30s, began taking on community causes soon after graduation and eventually arrived at an operating model that would allow them to continue this commitment throughout their careers. Registered as a charity, governed by a board and bound by a constitution to make projects for the public good, OFFICE decides who and where to serve rather than responding to commercial imperatives.

In 2017, the Victorian government launched the Public Housing Renewal Program, which earmarked nine inner-city, low- to medium-rise public housing estates for demolition. These sites would essentially be privatised and redeveloped by community housing providers as a mix of community, affordable and private-market housing. “As architects, the first thing you do when you intend to demolish something is to understand if it could be retained or refurbished,” says Robinson. “There was never a public document that said these buildings couldn’t be refurbished.” Via the Save Public Housing Collective, OFFICE was connected with the public housing resident group at Ascot Vale, an estate that originally consisted of 57, three-storey walk-up double-brick housing blocks, and one of the nine inner-city sites slated for renewal.

“Simon and Steve said that their original plan was not just to save the estate, but to bring the current flats on the estate up to 2020 standards,” recalls Clare Hanson, who has lived in the estate for 13 years and is one of the leaders of the resident group. “This is important because one of the arguments that the government puts forward is that the buildings have to be torn down as they are too old, which is a stupid thing to say because on that basis half of Melbourne would need to be torn down.”

Eight of Ascot Vale’s buildings had already been demolished and replaced with new apartment blocks when a team led by OFFICE and including economists, structural engineers, environmental engineers, quantity surveyors, a researcher and a photographer – all working pro bono – began examining plans for the estate. The team decided to focus its efforts on a vacant block of flats at 42 Ascot Street, in order to demonstrate the viability of refurbishment.

And demonstrate they did. OFFICE found that refurbishment was not only more feasible than replacement, but estimated that it would generate direct construction savings of $281,838 per dwelling. By adding elevator cores, replacing window glazing, widening doorways and other practical measures, the buildings could be brought up to code and contemporary standards. And by refurbishing the vacant buildings first, the entire estate could be progressively upgraded without displacing any of its residents. This was an ingenious strategy, as OFFICE’s study also identified that demolition incurred many millions of dollars in costs not tied to the built fabric itself, but instead associated with relocating residents, along with disruptions to healthcare, education and community connections.

“We produced a feasibility report that was given to local community groups, state government and members of parliament,” says Mintern. “And about three months after releasing that report, the government actually started to refurbish the block of flats that we specifically looked at, which had been vacant for two years. And I think it’s just being completed now, so there will be 10 families or individuals living there.” Hanson offers a more definitive account of OFFICE’s impact. “The entire street was marked for demolition,” she says. “But the rest of the street wasn’t suitable for redevelopment without demolishing that building. Simon and Steve are very modest, but in my opinion they not only saved that building, but the entire street.”

Soon after OFFICE published its Ascot Vale Estate report, the Victorian government announced its Big Housing Build initiative, which included an expansion of public housing sites for renewal under public-private partnership agreements. Members of one of these public housing communities, the Barak Beacon Estate in Port Melbourne, contacted OFFICE for assistance. Once again, the existing buildings were slated for demolition. Once again, no reports could be found that considered or excluded a refurbishment scenario. Once again, OFFICE undertook its own study of the estate and was able to demonstrate that refurbishment and extension of the existing buildings was not only feasible, delivering improved units and the same dwelling numbers as the prevailing plan, but that it would save the government an estimated $88.6 million without necessitating the displacement of residents. Ultimately, however, the response to this study was less encouraging. After Margaret Kelly, Barak Beacon’s last remaining resident, was evicted in August 2023, demolition of the estate quickly followed. At present, no plans for Barak Beacon’s redevelopment have been released.

OFFICE considers its studies of the Ascot Vale and Barak Beacon estates to be part of an ongoing “Retain, Repair, Reinvest” project, which advocates for the retention of existing communities by not relocating residents, for the repair of existing buildings to reduce carbon emissions, and for reinvestment of any savings in order to improve comfort and upgrade public housing. It is only natural that OFFICE now sets its sights on Melbourne’s 44 public housing towers. “You need to show us why it’s not possible to retain those communities. It’s 10,000 people’s homes that they’re proposing to demolish,” says Robinson. “You’re never going to get these assets back, these land holdings. And the role of government in supplying housing is just going to continually decrease.”

Which brings us back to the question: could Melbourne’s 44 towers actually be retained and repaired, rather than demolished and replaced? In 2007, the state government held a design competition that set out to answer that question. A multidisciplinary team comprising architects BKK and Peter Elliott, along with landscape architects, sustainability experts, engineers and an artist, won the competition with Tower Turnaround. The winning design swapped out segments of the towers’ façade with bay-window pods, which extended apartment living space by 4.8 square metres, and provided shade and insulation. It also included an entry pergola, rainwater harvesting for communal laundries and roof-mounted wind turbines. The pods could be added incrementally while residents remained in place. While only one pod was fabricated and installed, on a Footscray tower, BKK director Simon Knott is adamant that the design was feasible and could have been implemented in full on a number of similar towers. “It did actually stack up,” he says. When asked why the project did not continue, he is frank. “There was a change of government.”

Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, winners of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize, have proven in multiple projects that such ideas do stack up if given the necessary political support. The French architects, who recently concluded a three-year teaching appointment at the University of Sydney, have a mantra of “never demolish”. In Paris and Bordeaux, they have transformed entire social housing towers through the addition of lightweight, structurally-independent volumes that attach to the face of the building, increasing living space and internal flexibility within units while improving views, access to daylight and natural ventilation. These projects provide evidence that retrofitting can be achieved quickly, at half the cost of constructing new apartments, and without displacing any of the buildings’ occupants. They also radically alter the appearance of the original buildings, adding fineness and transparency to what were dull and monolithic edifices.

Aesthetics and symbolism are important factors in how public housing is perceived and valued. In 2016, Sydney’s Sirius public housing complex was described as being “about as sexy as the car park at my local supermarket” by Dominic Perrottet, who was NSW minister for finance, services and property at the time. Perrottet argued for his government’s plan to demolish Sirius and sell its harbourside site to a private developer by asserting that, beyond a few “elite apologists,” locals would welcome “the demise of the concrete eyesore and the promise of a new, less brutal building on the site”. While the site was sold in 2019 for $150 million, a public campaign was able to avert demolition. In a single weekend in 2021, some 80 per cent of Sirius’s revamped apartments were sold off the plan for a total of $435 million, with one rooftop penthouse selling for a staggering $35 million. Had the government underestimated the building’s sexiness?

OFFICE points to the contrast in fortunes between the Ascot Vale Estate and the Cairo Flats in Fitzroy, designed 10 years prior and by the same architect, Best Overend. “Ascot Vale has all the same principles,” says Robinson. “Shared facilities, north-south orientation, communal rooftops. But Cairo Flats is on the Victorian Heritage Register, whereas Ascot Vale is deemed unliveable.” While Ascot Vale has been left to languish, apartments within the privately owned Cairo Flats have been carefully renovated by award-winning designers. Indeed, Chris Barnett, an architect and sustainability expert, writes that Melbourne’s public housing towers’ “poor connectivity to surrounding communities, harsh and meagre communal areas, and drab pebble-crete façades now commonly stigmatise them as a symbol of our neglected public housing system”. But he also notes that “the apartments in the towers are now considered relatively large by private market standards, with views developers would drool over”.

Ascot Vale resident Clare Hanson offers another perspective, suggesting that the size, prominence and austere character of Melbourne’s towers imbues them with a powerful social presence. “The towers are visible from all over Melbourne,” she says. “That’s why I thought that they’d keep them standing, because they are a symbol to all that we are a kind society.”

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.


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