Working paper

A history of Australian capital city centres since 1945

URP Working Paper No. 61
Cities and towns History Urban planning Melbourne Sydney Adelaide Brisbane Perth Darwin Hobart

Which historical changes are imprinted in the contemporary Australian city centre? This question has real meaning when we try to determine which places reflecting superseded historical processes should be preserved. Since World War II the pressures of redevelopment and modernisation on city centres have accelerated and expanded. These pressures are focused most intensely in Australia on the State capitals. As a result, much of the built and cultural heritage of the capital city centre has been obliterated, not only uses dating from before the war but also the post-war structures which replaced them.

Since the 1950s architects, planners and historians have identified significant buildings and structures dating from colonial times and many places have been heritage-listed by Commonwealth, State or local government. But few of these places date from later than the 1920s and fewer still from after 1945. This lack of recognition adds to the threat presented by intensive redevelopment, especially as many of the significant post-war buildings are privately-owned and located on expensive central sites. Their primary purpose is to continue to earn profit from the sale or lease of floor space. For the same reason, attempts to prevent the replacement or drastic remodelling of these buildings has often been vehemently opposed by owners and developers. They have also questioned the stated historical significance of the buildings as each is treated as an isolated case. Some comparisons have been possible due to heritage professionals’ knowledge of similar buildings in the same city but no architectural or historical context for the buildings of the post-war city centre in Australia overall was available. ‘[F]or all the importance of these city centers in Australian life and for all the complexity of their present problems, the Australian CBD has so far been the subject of but scanty geographical investigation.’* Historical investigation is equally scarce.

In response to this problem, the Australian Heritage Commission commissioned a report on post-war multi-storied office buildings and in 1996 included in its priorities for the National Estates Grants Program, ‘Historical analysis, identification and assessment of the main themes associated with post World War II CBD development in Australia’. The purpose of this project was to prepare a contextual history of post-war central business district development and to establish a thematic framework to assist heritage researchers in identifying places of significance I completed that study in early 1997. This working paper is based on the contextual histories which form a major part of that report.

The working paper is divided into two main parts. Historical development of Australia's capital city centres provides a brief overview setting the city centre in its historical context. This section considers the whole city not just the centre, but also refers to developments which have shaped and are still evident in city centres. It should also be noted that the cities and their centres were one and the same to begin with and that the centre retained most of the urban population and services for many years, in Darwin’s case until well after World War II. City centres since World War II comprises the longest section of the paper. This discusses the postwar city centre in terms of major historical themes chosen from the thematic framework developed in the heritage report. These headings are arranged so that the first themes in each thematic section are the most general and set the context for those following.

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