Comments on the proposed development of Kings Square

Agnieshka Kiera

Introduction

My comments are limited to the likely impact of the proposed development on urban design and function of Kings Square as the only essential public space left in the heart of the city. In doing so I acknowledge that there are many other equally important aspects of the proposed development, which I don’t feel sufficiently informed or skilled to comment on. However in order to dismiss any likely criticism of limitations of my comments let me preempt my comments with the following notes:

THE ECONOMICS

In order to dismiss the City’s claim that it is prudent economic consideration and responsible financial management that demands maximising the proposed redevelopment of the square, I note the long-standing and publicly-raised objections to CoF selling $50 million of CoF investment property to Sirona for $29 million. Should the project proceeds as currently planned, it will erode the ratepayers’ asset base which has been built up over generations by close to $40 million. In my view this type of economic rational undermines any potential argument that reinstatement of the originally designed, proper city square, would come with a ‘hefty price tag’;

ROLE OF THE SQUARE

I note the City’s argument that “there is a need to achieve a significant increase in office workers in the city centre and to reinvigorate and tighten the retail core of Fremantle” (whatever it means). As countless research and examples around the world demonstrate, a properly designed town square contributes more to reinvigoration of the city centre than any maximisation of the already half empty places for rent and filling up the precious public space with brick and mortar. Should the Government Department of Housing relocated to the Fremantle’s site currently available for a compatible redevelopment in a proximity to Kings Square this goal would have been achieved without overdeveloping and commercialising the square;

THE LESSON FROM HISTORY

I note but don’t buy the often raised ideological argument that “the Kings Square proposal plans to reinstate and reinforce the historic alignment of High Street through the square”. The reasons for extending High Street through the square are long expired and are dead (the trams, the need for parking next to the Town Hall, the horse drawn traffic). The original full square, like the urban design of the whole city, was a strategic urban design solution based on centuries-old European tradition, and the acquired knowledge of what makes cities work, as well as anticipation of the sufficient population increase in the long term future that would eventually make a good use of the sizeable square in the heart of the city. So the 20th century decision to cut the square in two triangles and filling up one of the triangles with brick and mortar has proven to be a short-term and mistaken solution, as the ensuing replacement of the historic buildings with the 1960s replacements indicates. The only lesson that can be drawn from the past mistakes is that the fragmentation and overdevelopment of the square has been a major cause of the failure for the misshapen, small size left over spaces to work properly as a square.

Objection to the current redevelopment plan

So let me focus on the core subject of my comments, the reasons why in my view the proposed redevelopment of the square represents yet another short-term and short-sighted solution, which can potentially become the ultimate nail in the coffin of Fremantle’s future as a vibrant and successful historic port city and a unique and well planned alternative to all other mixed bag regional centres of Metropolitan Perth.

THE SIZE OF A SQUARE

The size of the square relative to the projected long term increase in population of the city is essential to the proper functioning of the evolving community ‘living room’ and a drawcard for visitors. What is often referred to as ‘activation’ of a public square includes many functions and complex activities involving social theatre, daily encounters and rituals, a meeting place and the place for public gatherings, civic functions, relaxation and pleasure and much more. So doing business is only a relatively small part of activating a public square as the countless local gurus and others from around the world, including Ian Gehl, Ruth Durack, Adrian Fini, Richard Weller, Dominic Snellgrove, Ian Molyneux, Linley Lutton, the Fremantle Society and many more, including myself, have argued as the reasons for reinstating the original layout of Kings Square in Fremantle. There are also countless examples elsewhere, but let me pick up only one, which I know intimately: the main square of Krakow laid down in 1410, at the time the largest square in Europe. It wasn’t designed to serve the then population of some 10,000 residents. It was designed to function as the heart of the city for centuries to come, and this is exactly what has happened. Almost a millennium later, the Main Square of Krakow remains largely intact in terms of its original layout and historic redevelopment and still functions as the heart of the so expanded city. It remains one of the most successful public spaces in Europe, not only in terms of activation of the civic functions, community activities etc but the viability and vibrancy of the city centre, serving some one million residents and matching number of visitors a year.

As the two photos below demonstrate, the square functions 24/7, 365 days/year and has indisputably contributed to the economic success not only of the world heritage listed historic core of Krakow, but the surrounding inner city areas, the satellite local centres and the economy of Krakow as a whole. Equally, it was prudent for the Royal surveyor to design the layout of Fremantle with a large square in its centre with the visionary, long term planning at its core. So it makes sense to ensure that Kings Square is returned to its originally planned size and is properly restored and upgraded/enhanced as the major public space of the city with St John’s Church and the original Town Hall as its major features and places for communal activities.

FREMANTLE SQUARE

The current decision-makers didn’t even have to work hard to follow the conventional path of Claremont, Joondalup or Armadale to proceed with its shortsighted plans to maximise the development by filling up the square with brick and mortar and predominantly commercial activities. Ten years ago, the City commissioned Local Identity and Design Code for Fremantle and the Urban Design Centre’s study as the basis for the best outcomes for inner city and Kings Square. And the new Council of 2010 promptly rushed to ignore both and came with the globalised, conventional vision for central Fremantle to become high-density and high-rise instead. Yet, the Centre’s report concludes that Fremantle deserves: “a true urban square – of appropriate size and dignity to anchor the heart of Fremantle … this is the concept that speaks to the City’s confidence in its future … and refuses to bow to the short term exigencies of a conservative marketplace”. The current decision-makers have instead chosen to abide by the conventional solutions that elsewhere have produced, at its best, mixed bag outcomes, or, at worst, failed, at least as far as a truly sustainable redevelopment of heritage cities demonstrate all over the world (see Donovan Rypkema or Dennis Rodwell).

THE LANDMARK

Town Hall and its clock tower, like the Round House, has been Fremantle’s symbol as a city and a landmark since it was built. Visible from many vantage points it served the community as the reminder of time; allowed visitors to orient themselves around the city; proudly projected and maintained Fremantle identity; and has been associated with many historic and community events that have taken place in the Hall. Its 1980s and 2010s conservations of the interiors and the facades respectively won the WA awards. Yet gradually its landmark quality has been eroded by such degrading developments as Johnson Court (dwarfing the Town Hall views from Fremantle Park) or Myers building (from High Street east). The planned construction of the new Council building and redevelopment of the whole block of Newman/ Queen/William Streets with the bulky, 5-7 story tall, massive square blocks would further dwarf and downgrade the remaining qualities and role of the original Town Hall as a symbol of Fremantle. The planned top floor of the new building will intrude on the architectural view of the clock tower on the approaches to the City, particularly in the closer perspectives from William, Adelaide and Queen Streets.

TREES AND OTHER FEATURES

The ill-conceived split of Kings Square in two triangles would be reinforced by the new Council building. Despite the dismissal of the opponents to the proposed development by at least one of the EMs, as being ‘hopelessly fixated on geometry as if all great squares are actually “square” in shape’, the same EM contradicts his own argument by admitting that: “the very earliest plan for Fremantle was for a square shaped area that had the original St John’s church in the middle”. More importantly, the originally shaped square has had plenty of room for growth and activation, gradually reinforcing its civic role and public use with the Town Hall and St John’s church as its major focus of its public function. The several majestic and magnificent Moreton Bay figs planted some century ago were meant to adorn the square and to provide shade and respite, both being two of the square’s many public functions. The Moreton Fig trees, contrary to the view-blocking/space-fillers/weed-like London planes, are urban trees with the sculptured trunks and sculptural branches and high canopies permitting the views to be seen at the pedestrian level and providing shade and respite from the hot, limestone built buildings and pavements. All of which in the harsh WA climate has been an essential component of the wise planning of an urban space. Instead the current split of the square into triangles, reinforced by the new Council building, would reduce the precious space currently available for planting trees, while the awkward shaped building of useless internal spaces (for example the sharp corner of Newman and High Street) would take up the area of the square that is otherwise still available for trees and public space.

ACTIVATION

The countless cases of the successful squares elsewhere fly in the face of the argument by one of the EMs, who has defended the current plan as: “most good urban designers know that it is better to have a smaller space fully activated rather than a massive Roman forum devoid of humanity”. It is a baseless argument and we shouldn’t search far to see its false premise. As the very success of the reconstructed Bathers Beach and the restored and upgraded Old Port area of Arthur Head A class Reserve demonstrates, it is all about the quality of design and considerate upgrade that makes a public space successful. In case of Arthur Head it was both, the quality of design and actual upgrade, based on the values of the local context and heritage as a driver of both, that ultimately has attracted the public. In addition the restoration and upgrade of the Old Port area has successfully activated the adjacent commercial activity of the former Fishermen Co-op building. It has happened without introducing any commercial activity to the area except permitting the local artists to continue working in Fremantle by providing the workshop space with public access for them in J-shed. As the result the former port depot that indeed was ‘devoid of any humanity’ before has evolved into the much loved public reserve, where the restoration of the dunes, vegetation and modest development of paths and boardwalks with gentle introduction of heritage interpretation, have become the basis and a drawcard for activation. These days it includes the daily sunset watchers, joggers and walkers, art lovers, visitors to Fremantle, artists, swimmers, diners and divers alike, complementing and mutually reinforcing attraction of the Fishing Boat Harbour. So the more appropriate quote for Cr Sullivan’s argument should be one of the Roman emperor’s saying: ‘build it and they will come’. The secret is in the appropriate, contextual, people orientated and creative urban design of the public spaces to serve people, not cramming it with brick and mortar and adding more excluding uses to the already oversupplied eateries and half empty commercial spaces in Fremantle.

IMPACT ON HERITAGE

Finally, considering the many places of cultural significance providing context to the square, including the Town Hall and the nearby heritage buildings of William and Adelaide Streets, why the proper process of heritage evaluation and heritage considerations hasn’t been adhered to in the current redevelopment plan? Has the Conservation Management Plan been prepared prior to calling design competition for the new Council building? Has the Heritage Impact Statement prepared for the City of Fremantle been done with due professional integrity, essential to an objective evaluation? The urban design guidelines begin with a principle, which states that the heritage values of the area must be maintained and complemented, yet by the end of the document, it is obvious the heritage values have been in large part ignored in the proposed redevelopment. The new Council building has nothing in common nor does it pay any respect to ‘the fine example of Victorian Free Classical style civic architecture’ of the Town Hall or the ‘Gothic revival style’ of the Anglican St John’s Church or the Victorian character of the western and northern ‘walls’ to the square. On the contrary, surrounded by the oversized, voluminous, buildings of unrelated architecture, these fine examples of Fremantle and WA heritage, will be dwarfed, overshadowed and relegated, just like many of the Perth heritage buildings, into insignificance.

Conclusion

For all of the above reasons, the current plans for redevelopment of Kings Square should be abandoned and start afresh with due consideration given to both Urban Design Centre’s study and Design Code for Fremantle. This is the last chance for Fremantle to build on its assets, with the relevant local context as its core objective and with heritage as a driver for reinstating and urban refinement of the originally designed square, based on the fundamental principles for sustainable redevelopment. As all successful examples around the world demonstrate, new redevelopment of a historic city needs to have a tangible relation to the genius loci of its place, to its spirit and its DNA. The design of new infill cannot be translated from the one place to another and should be specific, complementary and reflective of the local place while creatively integrating old and new. The locally specific urban vision and good architecture work well for historic cities. And contrary to the much of modern development, the old cities are already compact, pedestrian, sustainable, ecological, efficient and need only local solutions to become better.

The current plans for redevelopment of Kings Square are contrary to these principles by introducing the conventional, largely commercial, short-sighted and unrelated to Fremantle type of over development of the oversized new administrative building, turning the square into a claustrophobic triangle surrounded by more large, un-Fremantle like buildings.

Agnieshka Kiera, 21 January 2019
Ma Arch AICOMOS, CIVVIH, ICTC

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