In the light of the removal of the statue of James Cook in Cooktown earlier this year and the Hobart City Council’s decision to remove the statue of the racist head-hunter and state premier William Crowther earlier this month, I look at the absence of two others. And find out what happens when statues of the city’s founders are removed.
At 433 Collins Street, on a block bounded by Collins, William and Market Streets, and Flinders Lane, amidst Melbourne’s cathedrals of commerce, the gothic revival banks, with their carved stone and stained glass windows, there once stood an icon of modernism. Built in 1964, the National Mutual Building had 20 floors of office space, a retail area and a rooftop restaurant.
In front of it, the modernist architecture continued with a wide forecourt, with steps, concrete paver, and planters. Symbolic of the capitalism of the area, the Melbourne pub-rock band, Painters and Dockers, played “Die Yuppie! Die!” in the plaza. Also in the plaza, symbolic of implicit greed, were two statues celebrating the colonial establishment of Melbourne. The two figures were distanced, for neither were friends: John Batman and William Fawkner.
Gary Foley was decades ahead of the Black Lives Matter when he put the statue of Batman on trial in 1991. Foley and fellow activist Robbie Thorpe put the figure of Batman on trial for his genocide against the Indigenous population of Tasmania, rape, theft and trespass. Of course, Batman was found guilty, anyone who looks at the evidence would know that, but there was a desperate Australian nationalism that wanted to ignore it.
Its end came in 2012 when a slab smashed onto the forecourt. The ‘experimental’ architecture attaching the skin to the building was failing. The building sat empty, waiting for demolition. The statue of Batman by Stanley Hammond was removed without any bullshit by the site’s developers. The two statues are currently in storage, there are no plans for them, and it is unlikely they will ever return to public view. And for those concerned, Melbourne still has more than enough Batman memorials.
What has been put in place of Batman and Fawkner is more engaging. The seventies were severe, hard-edge geometric. You could sit around the raised garden beds and statues, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. Around the new building, there is a native, drought-resistant garden flowing down the hill. Instead of a bronze figure, there is a bronze fountain in the shape of a Banksia seed pod. A water feature that uses very little water. It wanders playfully between rocks and can be opened and closed with a sluice gate. Nearby a water wall flows down the side of the building.
There has been no evidence of any loss of knowledge of history nor any sanitisation of history. Nor was there any other disaster predictions made about removing statues in recent years because they were uninformed brainfarts from conservative commentators. Instead, it appears that people are enjoying the absence of Batman.