As someone who has seen the CBD develop and mature, Peter Barrett certainly appreciates what it has become.
Peter well remembers the time (not so long ago) when it was a provincial, stark and (frankly) embarrassing place to spend time after office hours.
His New York-based aunt visited in 1971 and said she had never experienced a more provincial town.
“She said it was so dull and lifeless,” Peter said. “And she commented about only seeing white faces in the street.”
“Now she comes back often and just loves Melbourne now. She’s living in San Francisco and wants me to swap places with her for half of each year.”
“Melbourne has grown up. It’s a great city now,” he said.
Peter says Melbourne is now mature enough to not make comparisons between itself and the world’s greatest metropolises but, rather, to celebrate and cherish its own uniqueness for its own sake.
Mr Barrett moved to the CBD from Richmond in 2003 and, up until recently, operated his architectural heritage consultancy from home. He now rents a CBD office and is enjoying the separation between home and work.
Given his line of work, Peter has a fine appreciation of Melbourne’s built and cultural heritage and senses that the opposing forces of conservation and development have reached a fine point of balance.
“At the moment, we have whole blocks that are still intact from the inter-war years, for example,” he said.
“These low-scale areas of five or six storeys are pretty special.”
“If the rate of development continues, it will erode this heritage and it will be lost.”
But, while he marvels at Melbourne’s heritage assets, he appreciates the evolution of the city and is by no means against good development.
“Part of the current problem is the quality of what we are replacing these buildings with,” he said.
“We should be building the heritage of the future, not putting up structures of a clearly average standard.”
“The city is a work in progress, so we should be working towards the heritage of the future. In 40 or 50 years time, you want the people to be proud of the heritage we are building for them now.”
“If we sacrifice buildings of average heritage value for new buildings of equally average value, then what have we achieved?”
Mr Barrett said good architecture had a flow-on effect into all aspects of city living.
As an example, he suspects that the creation and appreciation of Hosier Lane was a flow-on from the development of Federation Square.
“Federation Square has numerous positive effects on the city at large,” he said. “It’s ripple effects can be felt far and wide, despite what people might think of the architecture.”
He laments the threat to Hosier Lane posed by the proposed Marriner development of the Melbourne Theatre Company site in Russell St.
“So soon after Hosier Lane has been recognised and acclaimed as important, someone is trying to destroy it,” he said. “These are the things that set Melbourne apart.”
Mr Barrett said the challenge for heritage advocates and developers was how to change and evolve while, at the same time, preserving the most valuable aspects of the past.
“Saving something for its own sake can be very short-sighted,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘no’ to everything but far harder to keep the really important parts and add to the city’s heritage through new development.”
“It’s up to conservationists to make suggestions and put forward ideas which encourage and demonstrate to owners the way forward.”
Peter’s love affair with the CBD goes back to when he was a child. His customs agent father had a “rabbit warren” office in the Robbs Building which occupied the site of the current Rialto building and the kids were encouraged to explore and play in the “seedy” west end of the city.
“Mum loved the city too and she’d bring us all in for shopping trips and to look around during the school holidays,” he said.
Peter said his “dehumanising” and “Dickensian” private school education didn’t really suit his disposition and his school was more concerned about grooming doctors and lawyers.
It was not until he was 25 that he worked out that architectural heritage was for him.
Until that stage, he had worked in an insurance company and in high-end retail.
“Thank god I got out of insurance,” he said. “I could still be there.”
He’s loving his life now – living and breathing, working with and within the CBD.