Dick Gross condemns ‘sterile’ Stokehouse design

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By: Zoe Tovey

Former Port Phillip mayor Dick Gross is lobbying the council not to go ahead with the planned redesign of the Stokehouse restaurant, claiming that the new modern design is “sterile” and out of step with the character of the St Kilda foreshore.

At public question time at the Ordinary Meeting of Council last month, Mr Gross questioned why Council had not considered the option of building a replica of the 19th-century weatherboard building, which was destroyed by fire in January.

He described the replication of the old St Kilda pier kiosk, which also burnt down, as “an absolute triumph in saving something that was precious to the community”.

“Why can’t we do what we did with the kiosk on the pier, and reproduce it exactly?”

Mr Gross, who served as a Port Phillip councillor from 1996 to 2008, asked whether the council’s commitment to the values expressed in the Burra Charter, which guides heritage planning decisions in Australia, had led it to reject the idea of rebuilding the Stokehouse according to its original 19th-century design. Stokehouse owners the Van Haandel Group recently selected Robert Simeoni’s design from three finalists.

“Our intention is to create a new Stokehouse that merges architecture and landscape; a building that sits within and floats above a new indigenous landscape in a natural and meaningful way,” the architecture firm said in its proposal.

The Burra Charter stipulates that recreated heritage buildings should be redesigned with modern elements rather than replicated. However, Mr Gross said it was common practice throughout the world to restore and rebuild old structures in the spirit of their original form.

“What is the inherent nature of that [replacement] building that makes it appropriate for the St Kilda foreshore?” he asked.

“Because to me it looks like a building that could be a Seaford life-saving club or an Aspendale restaurant. It doesn’t speak to me of the St Kilda foreshore; it’s sterile and it doesn’t seem that it would add much to what is an incredibly visited, precious place for Melbournians.”

Mr Gross’s comments received a frosty reception from councillors, with mayor Amanda Stevens saying they would take his questions under advisement, before swiftly moving on to the next agenda item.

However, it seems Mr Gross has some support for his views from the public. Most of the comments on the council’s Have Your Say web page canvassing public opinion of the restaurant redesign urged that the building be rebuilt in its original form, an option that was not available among the three potential designs.

“Please rebuild the Stokehouse to similar look & feel,” wrote Lisa. “Recognise heritage we have lost so many beautiful buildings. When St Kilda Pier Kiosk was burned down to see this rebuilt the same was great joy.”

Elaine Ex Elwood wrote that: “I hope that the building will be replaced exactly the same as was the St Kilda pier café. I have been there countless times and always loved the building. It is a St Kilda icon. Don’t ruin it with a modern box we need to retain the old buildings in the area.”

“Mr Heritage” suggested a compromise, saying the exterior should be replicated and the interior redesigned in contemporary style: “I loved the exterior heritage detail the wooden interiors the shack like atmosphere. Something that should be replicated with a radical architects studio in the basement below sea level.”

Council stated on its Have Your Say page: “Community input is balanced with Stokehouse business objectives and expert advice from architects and planners.”

To read former mayor Dick Gross’s thoughts on why the Stokehouse should be rebuilt rather than redesigned, see page ???

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