The Australian Institute of Architects has called on the Federal Environment Minister to block approval of the Australian War Memorial’s $500 million redevelopment proposal arguing that the demolition of Anzac Hall violates legislated heritage protections.
The proposal is currently undergoing assessment as a ‘controlled action’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) with the public display of final documentation ending on Wednesday.
The Memorial says it needs more space to tell the stories of more contemporary military missions, and plans include a new southern underground entrance, refurbishment of the main building, a new larger Anzac Hall connected to the main building, a glazed link, a bigger CEW Bean Building and public realm works.
It says it cannot find more room without further expansion and that the heritage assessment released in September had supported the proposal overall, while acknowledging the significant impact of Anzac Hall’s demolition.
Director Matt Anderson told ABC Radio National on Thursday (22 October) that more than 50 changes had been made to the plans after feedback from the consultation.
But the #handsoffAnzacHall campaign spokesperson and former national president of the Institute of Architects, Clare Cousins, has urged the Environment Minister Sussan Ley to listen to the feedback from experts, including the government’s own principal heritage advisor, the Australian Heritage Council.
“All of the heritage advice has been consistent in finding that the demolition of Anzac Hall will – unequivocally – have a significant negative impact on the Australian War Memorial’s heritage value,” Ms Cousins said.
“The strength and value of Australia’s legislated environmental and heritage protections would be undermined if such a violation of the Heritage Management Plan for this iconic site were permitted to proceed.”
She said the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) had a responsibility to be a fair and independent arbiter in assessing the redevelopment proposal but the Institute was deeply concerned by the record of interactions between it and the Memorial which appear to presuppose that approval to demolish Anzac Hall will be granted.
“DAWE cannot be both project approval facilitator and independent assessor – this represents an irreconcilable conflict,” Ms Cousins said.
She said that according to the documents, DAWE advised the Memorial to undertake a “specific social heritage survey” in February 2020 after widespread criticism of the plans to demolish Anzac Hall.
“The Memorial has relied on the results of this survey to argue that there is ‘Broad support … for all elements of the Project including the replacement of Anzac Hall’. However, the copy of the survey included in the EPBC Act documentation appears to contain no specific questions about the demolition of Anzac Hall,” she said.
“The final documentation the Memorial has submitted also contains numerous inconsistencies and questionable assertions.”
Ms Cousins said the Memorial’s analysis of the 167 submissions received contradicted their claims of near-universal support for the proposal with more than 80 per cent of comments opposed to the proposed replacement of Anzac Hall.
Ms Cousins said that DAWE’s assessment rested on whether there were feasible alternatives that avoid adverse impacts on the Commonwealth Heritage values of a Commonwealth Heritage place.
The documents provided by the Memorial showed that three out of the four preliminary design options enabled an expansion of the gallery space while also retaining Anzac Hall.
“We urge the Minister to have the current EPBC referral withdrawn with instructions to pursue alternative solutions that meet both the current and future needs of the Memorial while also preserving its physical and social heritage values,” Ms Cousins said.
“We fully support the goal of enhancing the memorial and better commemorating our servicemen and women, all we are asking is that it be done in the right way.”
Mr Anderson said the heritage assessment had concluded that the redevelopment overall would improve the heritage value of the Memorial.
He said the Memorial had responded to the feedback, including that of the Heritage Council, and modified the plans for Anzac Hall, the glazed link, the oculus and parade ground.
”We take it all very seriously,” he said.
Meanwhile, more than 70 notable Australians have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister in support of the Australian Heritage Council and opposing the redevelopment.
Among the signatories are: Paul Barratt (former Secretary of the Department of Defence), Paul Daley (author and journalist), Elizabeth Evatt (first Chief Justice of the Family Court), Steve Gower and Brendon Kelson (former Directors of the War Memorial), Carmen Lawrence (formerly Premier of Western Australia, federal Minister, and Chair of the Australian Heritage Council), Don Watson (author), architects, historians, former diplomats, and former officers of the Memorial.
The signatories include 22 recipients of awards under the Order of Australia.