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In Conversation with Heritage Architect Nigel Lewis

As a long-time adviser to and friend of the Abbotsford Convent, Nigel Lewis was instrumental in the community campaign to save the Convent from commercial development more than a decade ago, conceptualising the Convent as an arts and cultural precinct. We chat to Nigel about his latest project with the Convent – a plan to restore our historical rotunda.

The Abbotsford Convent rotunda dates back to 1904 when it was a place for The Sisters of the Good Shepherd to practice quiet reflection and contemplation. Sadly, today the rotunda is dilapidated and unsafe for use. With plans to restore the rotunda afoot – providing our community with a breakout space to rest, read, contemplate, enjoy a coffee or even see a performance – we chat to heritage architect, Nigel Lewis, about the history of the rotunda, why restoration projects matter and why we need your help to make our restoration plans a reality!

When we think about the rotunda from a heritage perspective – encompassing our inherited traditions, monuments, culture and memories – the rotunda evokes strong visuals and associations of that time. It captures a significant moment in Victoria’s social, cultural and agricultural history. Why is it important that we conserve the rotunda as a way of preserving this heritage, and this chapter in the Convent’s and Victoria’s history more broadly?

The conservation of the rotunda will be one of the most important aspects of the on-going restoration of the contemplative garden. The garden was overgrown with blackberries and other weeds when the Abbotsford Convent Foundation took possession of the Convent in 2004.

The contemplative garden was created when the main Convent was built in 1902 and replaced the grid pattern design of the Abbotsford House garden that dated from the 1840s. Two north-south paths remain from this era within the meadow that extends towards the river. The gardenesque design of the new garden follows the fashion of similar landscape designs of this period, such as William Guilfoyle’s design for the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Guilfoyle used rotundas or shelters in the Botanic Gardens to provide picturesque visual elements. The Convent rotunda serves as the focus of the contemplative garden and is aligned with one of the 1840s pathways.

Work to restore the rotunda will include removing layers of paint which have been applied over time, in order to revert back to the rotunda’s original colours of the early 1900s. What colours will the rotunda be once the restoration is complete?

The colours will be the same as used for the main Convent building in 1902, a deep red and a buff-stone colour. There are sections of these original colours on the main Convent building that have survived in sheltered locations.

How did you determine what the original colours were, and why would the Sisters have chosen these colours at that time?

Layers of paint were carefully scraped back to reveal the original colours, and these indicated that the rotunda was painted so as to be linked with the new Convent building.

Compared to the task of restoring and protecting the Convent’s 11 heritage-listed buildings, restoring the rotunda might seem ‘easy’. However, heritage restoration work is meticulous in its planning and execution. Which part of this restoration do you think will be the most challenging and why?

The restoration of the existing joinery will be the most challenging. This has been deformed by footing failure, and has been subject to some areas of rot. As much of the original fabric as possible will be kept.

Which part of the restoration do you think will be the most rewarding?

The roofing restoration will be the most rewarding. It has been established that it was timber planked as was used by Guilfoyle for the Rose Pavilion at the Botanic Gardens, with a similar spherical finial. It will have a very striking appearance compared with the current cement simulated shingles and truncated finial.

Your career in heritage architecture spans some 40 years, including your role as Australia’s first architectural and heritage adviser, when in 1977 you were appointed by the then Department of Planning at Maldon. How have heritage restoration and conservation attitudes and practices changed over this time in Australia, and where do you see the future of this practice heading?

There have been major changes since then. Heritage controls were very limited at that time, and restricted to individual landmark buildings of state significance and the towns of Beechworth and Maldon. The practice of cultural heritage conservation has moved from an activist base led by the National Trust to the widespread adoption of Heritage Overlays by local government across the state, combined with a large list of buildings and areas of state significance protected by Heritage Victoria. It is now a commodified ‘industry’ acting for Heritage Victoria, councils, architects, building owners and developers. Pro bono work is now rare. The future is uncertain as development pressures are transforming Melbourne. Many development proponents now regard heritage controls as having a low threshold.

When the fight to save the Convent for use as an arts, cultural and educational precinct was won by the Abbotsford Convent Coalition in 2004, with your assistance, you were quoted in the media as saying that the campaign was the “longest running, most professional and successful heritage campaign in Australia”. How does the Convent today compare to your vision of some 20 years ago?

The success of the project far exceeds the initial expectations of the Abbotsford Convent Coalition, and certainly that of state and local government. Apart from the conservation and sympathetic re-use of so many buildings, what is most gratifying is how the Abbotsford Convent has now become such an accepted part of the life and culture of Melbourne.

How do projects such as this restoration help to deliver on your original vision?

Such projects represent a prudent and incremental process that underpins the cultural heritage values of the Convent. The viability of the Convent project depends of the careful implementation of such projects as they help enrich the experience that is provided by the Convent.