Moral and other Rights

By Paul Fairweather

Recently there have been changes made to a couple of the wool store apartment buildings in Teneriffe.

Some of these changes, in particular the erection of the fence adjacent to Mactaggart’s Woolstore Apartments blocking the pedestrian access adjacent from Vernon Terrace to the river, raise some very curious issues for me around moral and other rights.

The Copyright Act 2000 has a provision to protect the moral rights of an author of an artistic work, whether that be a piece of art, music or a building.

It seeks to protect against infringement of that work by way of reputation and attribution, as well as to allow the original author to comment or influence changes to that work.

The erection of this fence raises not only the issue of the moral rights of the original design authors but also the moral rights of an individual or group to make changes to their property for their own benefit, particularly when these changes impose a restriction or other negative impact on the greater public.

As an architect, it is a minefield to navigate the maze of legislative controls when designing any building.

When working on a place of heritage significance, the complexity increases exponentially, balancing the expectation of developers, future owners and users, councils and other planning authorities as well as the public, while producing work that stands the test of time, yet respects the fabric of the existing buildings.

When the Teneriffe wool stores were being converted in the 90s, there initially was strong resistance to the idea of cutting these large open planned spaces up into apartments.

While for a time many of these buildings were used for discount furniture, rugs and fabric markets, ultimately their value as development sites outweighed the costs of the ongoing maintenance and other holding costs.

In order to preserve them from ongoing decay, the decision was made to convert them to apartments and therefore to transfer the ownership from an individual or company, to many people.

The future care and maintenance of these buildings has been passed to the collective care of apartment owners, represented by their Body Corporates.

These custodians now have the responsibility of the financial upkeep of these buildings but the question remains about whether that responsibility gives them the right to make changes to these buildings and their immediate surroundings, without the same level of consultation and due process that was required when they were originally converted.

At the time of conversion, the Heritage Council and the Brisbane City Council put very strict controls on many of the interventions and alterations to these buildings.

To the design teams, many of these controls were seen as impositions to creative and design freedom, and at times impacted on the amenity of the future owners and occupants.

These controls were often about benefit for the public good, that being either visual appearance, or another public amenity.

When I was architectural project director for the conversion of the Goldsborough Mort Wool stores into the Dakota Apartments, the authorities imposed strict control on changes to the building facades, though some latitude was granted at the ground level.

Wherever possible, the original train tracks were maintained, as were the original openings in walls.

In accordance with the Burra Charter, new materials were required to be distinctively different from those of the existing building fabric.

The design team made a very subtle acknowledgment of the original processes of the loading and unloading of the wool on to the trains.

This was achieved by incorporating panels into the screen fences that were reminiscent of the steel side panels of the train trucks.

This design element was one of many that formed part of the approval from the legislative bodies as being an appropriate response to the adaptation of this building for its new use as apartment buildings.

I notice with some regret that recently these screen elements have been removed and replaced by more modern decorative panels.

The changes to the Dakota Apartments screen panels would not be noticed by many, while the issues at Mactaggart’s is of great interest to many people. Both however, raise a series of questions.

What are the rights of building owners, and what are their obligations?

Do they have a right to make changes without reference to external bodies and the original design team, or do they have an obligation, moral or otherwise, to take into consideration a broader context?

It is my view that the custodians of most buildings have some obligation, and it is greater for those buildings of heritage significance, to balance the expectations of owners against the expectations of the public and the impact changes to those buildings make on the public realm.

The qualities and characteristics that make the wool store buildings special have survived for many years despite them passing through numerous hands and different uses but the shared responsibility of maintaining these qualities will continue for as long as the buildings stand.

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