Melbourne’s new William Barak building is a cruel juxtaposition

Using the image of the most famous 19th-century land rights activist may be a backhanded tribute. Peter Bennetts

The shroud surrounding the southern corner of the former Carlton and United Breweries site on Swanston Street in Melbourne was removed last week, allowing the anticipated Portrait building to make its skyline debut.

Now that the entirety of the 32-storey residential apartment block is in full view, we can see without doubt it is an astonishing technical achievement. Using shadows created by negative spaces carved into the balconies, architects Ashton Raggat McDougall (ARM) have fashioned a portrait of the Wurnundjeri/Woiwurrung activist, artist, diplomat and knowledge holder William Barak into the full height of the building’s southern facade.

A massive close-up of Barak’s bearded visage now gazes down the main axis of Melbourne’s inner-city grid, transforming the northern border of the CBD from an area once infused with the distinctive odour of industrial-scale hop fermentation into a powerful site of reflection and memory. Or at least that’s the intention, I think.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph earlier this month, developers Grocon revealed their lofty ambitions for the building, with the company’s chief executive Carolyn Viney reported as saying the building was “designed to raise the profile of the Wurundjeri people and culture”, and adding:

The idea stemmed from our desire to do something very meaningful in the context of the project’s location opposite the Shrine of Remembrance.

Whatever the architectural merits of the building, if remembrance is their object then they’ve missed the mark by a long shot.

Perhaps the gesture itself is admirable. Despite the difficult provenance of the actual image, brought to public attention by David Hansen in an article for the Griffith Review several years ago, the evocative portrait is a poetic and welcome intervention in the cityscape.

Peter Bennetts

The problem I have is not with the idea that Barak should have a place in the consciousness of the city, but with the overt association between the 530 luxury apartments that are the Portrait building’s actual purpose, and the lifelong dedication of William Barak and the entire Kulin nation to the struggle over land.

To place high-end CBD real estate and an image of the most famous of 19th-century land rights activists in the same frame is a cruel juxtaposition if ever there was one. This unconsidered conjunction exposes our blindness not just to history but to its contemporary consequences in institutionalised racism and unequal power relations.

I’m pretty sure the answer to the simple question “who owns the building?” is not “the local land council”.

William Barak. Wikimedia Commons

To understand why this image is a backhanded tribute, it’s helpful to know something of the context of Barak’s struggle. Beruk (in Woiwurrung way) was born some time around 1824 into the last days of an intact Wurundjeri world, where whitefellas were still mostly a rumour.

There had of course been a few sealers and whalers, a couple of explorers and an ill-fated mission to establish a settlement on the Mornington Peninsula. But apart from these and a couple of other stragglers, at the moment of Barak’s birth the number of white people living south of the Dividing Range was approximately none.

By 1903, the year of Barak’s death, that figure had climbed to 1.2 million. In the space of just one lifetime that is, by any reckoning, a tsunami of colonisation.

From his birth on Brushy Creek to his death at Coranderrk 79 years later, Barak’s life intersected with an era that could not have been imagined by his ancestors. And into this extraordinary time, he emerged as an extraordinary man.

His biography wends its way through his role as tribal leader or ngurangatea, his search for a place to “sit down”, his friendships with supporters and allies in positions of power and his late blooming as an artist of some note.

But his true work was his advocacy for and struggle over the continued right to occupy the corner of land that became the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, all that was left to him of his once expansive inherited country.

The history of this struggle is told extensively in Diane Barwick’s seminal work Rebellion at Coranderrk (1998).

The 32-storey 530-apartment tower is on the site of the former Carlton brewery at the end of Swanston Street and in line with Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. AAP Image/Grocon

In an unflinching narrative, Barwick gives a blow-by-blow account of the hounding of the Coranderrk mob over the course of half a century, exposing in detail one of the most shameful chapters in Australia’s history of race relations, full of collusion, skullduggery and pure venial, avaricious bastardy.

As the narrative moves from one episode of treachery to the next, it pauses over the many petitions composed and dictated by Barak on behalf of and counter-signed by the council of Coranderrk elders and residents. Towards the end of their struggle in 1893, as their once flourishing community was threatened yet again, Barak and the other Coranderrk residents sent a heart-rendering plea to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines. To quote from Barwick’s book:

We heard little about our land going to be taken from us[…] They ought to leave us alone and not take the land from us it is not much. We are dying away by degree. There is plenty more land around the country without troubling about Coranderrk […]

We got plenty of our own cattle and we want the run for them and if the White People take it away from us there will be no place to put them […] and also when we go into any of the White People’s paddock to hunt or fish they soon clear us out of their private premises very quick and yet they are craving for Coranderrk.

Alas, the land was eventually taken. Under pressure from the local RSL, it was broken into lots to be offered to returned servicemen after WWII. As Barwick pointed out:

None of the Aboriginal ex-servicemen of the district acquired any portion of the land their forebears had cleared and farmed.

In other words, it was business as usual.

Given the ignominious end to the Coranderrk saga, there is something fitting in the challenge Barak’s portrait offers to the Shrine of Remembrance and the unequal tribute the cenotaph pays to the fallen. He reminds us other meanings lie beneath the great urban sprawl of contemporary Melbourne, not extinguished but in a layer that underpins the city. So let Barak stare down the Shrine, by all means.

And let the contemporary community of Wurundjeri men and women, people who are our neighbours, partners, friends and fellow Melbournians, have a site of special prestige. Just let’s not forget, even for a second, who owns it.

Colonialism might be over but the logic of coloniality hangs around like the bad smell of fermenting hops. It’s going to take more than 530 investor-owned luxury apartments to clear the air.