President of the ANU Choral Society SCUNA Helen Moore and Jazz/Latin flautist Cicilia Kemezys outside of the Fitters Workshop. Photo: Elesa Lee
Close your eyes and listen. Imagine hundreds of workers and craftsmen shouting to be heard amid the din of banging and drilling in a vast concrete building. Listen again. The pure strains of female voices resonate in the same building, thrilling the rapt audience with Peter Sculthorpe's Rites of Passage, commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House and unheard for 35 years.
What would those hardworking men have thought about the fact that nearly a century after their sweat helped build the national capital, their workshop had become the subject of a bitter debate among Canberra's arts community and politicians, 100 metres from one of the city's most prestigious apartment blocks on the shores of a lake that did not then exist?
Welcome to the Fitters Workshop debacle. What happened between 1912 - when the Fitters Workshop designed by Old Parliament House architect John Smith Murdoch was built to accommodate workmen supporting the adjacent Kingston Power House - and 2009 - when the ''accidental'' discovery of its unusual acoustic thrust it centre stage into a debate about the best use of the building - is not germane to this article.
Let's begin in 2009 when Chris Latham, director of the Canberra International Music Festival, had a slogan ''interesting music in interesting places''. One of the interesting places was the Fitters Workshop, which he described as a ''Stradivarius of a space''.
In its 2011-12 budget, the ACT Government allocated $3.8 million for a capital works project in support of an earlier decision to relocate Megalo Print Studio to the Kingston Arts Precinct, which includes the successful Canberra Glassworks in the former Power House.
The historic building, which had stood empty for decades, had already received $200,000 from then arts minister Jon Stanhope for plans to design its future use as part of the Kingston Arts Precinct.
The funding was intended to deliver a new print workshop and gallery space. Other works included toilets and a lift to provide access to the mezzanine level of the building. Changes to the surrounding landscape were to also improve the connection to the adjacent Canberra Glassworks and the Old Bus Depot built in the 1940s which houses the popular Sunday markets. The grand vision was to create a critical mass of visual arts activities and reinvigorate the foreshore.
But after pressure from a number of music groups the project was stalled and Megalo left in limbo.
In October last year, the ACT Legislative Assembly's Inquiry into the Future Use of the Fitters Workshop in the Kingston Arts Precinct was formed and is due to hand down its recommendations later this month.
One of the options put to the committee is that Megalo move to another location on the site to a purpose-built facility and the workshop become a community space available for a variety of uses, including musical and exhibition purposes.
In his submission to the inquiry on behalf of Pro Musica, which organises the Canberra International Music Festival, Latham said: ''This beautifully proportioned, empty industrial space in the heart of the proposed Kingston Arts Precinct combines elegance, openness, light and sound in a quite remarkable way. It is an extraordinary accidental find in a city as planned as Canberra. The space is a 'blank canvas', ideally suited to showcase Canberra's vibrancy as a cultural and art making centre. Very little work is required to open it up for major exhibitions by other Precinct occupants such as the Glassworks and Megalo. It is also the perfect - and virtually only - mid-sized music venue in Canberra …
''It remains for Canberra's leaders to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.''
It may well be a once in a lifetime opportunity but just how the contradictory uses will be managed and paid for remains elusive. The issue is certainly complex and grandiose ideas of a mixed-use venue have little practical backing.
Of the 56 submissions on the Legislative Assembly inquiry website, 34 are in favour of Megalo's relocation, 20 are in favour of a musical space or multi-purpose and two are from Bus Depot Markets about planning issues.
Megalo's artistic director Alison Alder says, ''The architects presenting at the inquiry all noted that, as a concert hall or multi-purpose space, the building would require an annexe to house a green room and amenities. A multi-purpose space would also require storage to house chairs, lighting, exhibition furniture as well as the 500 square metres of carpet that would need to be rolled in and out as required, plus the sound-dampening velvet drapes necessary for 'acoustic curatorship'. Many witnesses and submissions to the inquiry recount the significant heritage links of Megalo to the industrial past of both the building and precinct. The sensitive architectural plans for Megalo's relocation to the Fitters Workshop have minimal impact on the fabric of the building and celebrate the building's industrial heritage.''
It seems a dreadful irony that Latham, having discovered the unusual acoustic, is not using the Fitters Workshop for this year's music festival which is titled Marvellous Music in Amazing Spaces.
''We have not made any attempt to use the Fitters Workshop this year because of the sensitivity of the situation,'' he told The Canberra Times. ''Personally I am keen for a cooler temperature to the debate. It became quite heated and bitter and I think it became hard to convey accurate information.''
Latham said Stanhope's resignation in May last year was probably the first sign that there might be some chance for the decision to be reviewed. ''While he was in power it was made very clear to everyone that the Megalo option was the preferred government option.''
Latham says Canberra is in real need of a mid-size performance space. ''I am hoping that once the committee announces its findings that we could see if it was possible to use it in 2013 for the Centenary year. We really need another venue. The Albert Hall is very much in use on weekends next year for the Centenary and we are already facing issues about how to get a two-week booking so that we can put a stage in and leave it there.''
However, this raises the question of how a mixed-use space can properly accommodate both a stage for music concerts and be an exhibition space. A recent incident in which several people were injured when temporary structures for an art exhibition collapsed illustrates the hazards of a multi-use space.
Latham said in his submission that the building has a seven-second echo, which rivalled that of St Paul's Cathedral in London. However, two independent acoustic reports compared the quality of the workshop to other venues such as the sadly underused Albert Hall and prohibitively expensive Llewellyn Hall. Both concluded the workshop was only suited to slower forms of music such as Gregorian chant or Enya.
An in-depth report by KDVL Acoustic Consultants, which compared the Fitters Workshop to six other venues, stated the workshop in its current bare condition has a reverberation time that is more than twice that of the other venues tested, which has its own problems. ''A public speech would be unintelligible beyond about five metres. Music of any complexity, speed or detail would simply be lost in the long reverb tail, thereby defeating the point of the music,'' the report stated
Certainly not all Canberra musicians are on the same page. As Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky says in his submission, ''I have experienced the acoustic in this venue a number of times. I can see why singers in particular like the space, as it enhances their voices. However, the claims made are exaggerated and are now getting silly. The place is perishing cold in winter, the toilet facilities are inadequate for the public, the seats are very basic. If any of these are 'fixed up', you will inevitably alter the acoustic of the place; this needs to be kept in mind. Canberra does need more spaces of this size for concerts and that should be a matter for local government.''
Colin Stewart, architect of the prize-winning scheme for the entire Kingston foreshore project, said the building should be retained much as it was, as a multi-purpose venue. He said plans for the area as a cultural precinct included plans for many additional buildings, which could include a purpose-built facility for Megalo.
Some argue it's a case of an elite group of performers hijacking a space that would bring more joy, more benefits to a far larger number of people in a building that should belong to us all.
The issue escalated when politicians jumped on the bandwagon and has raged at various levels of snide intensity since then. As one observer has said, ''The Fitters Workshop debate is such a lavish story of political intrigue, self interest, competition and lust for power that I am thinking of writing a screenplay that would rival The Slap for drama of relevance to middle-class Australia.''
Although even the most vocal musicians are adamant they are not against Megalo moving to the precinct, it is the printmakers of Canberra that have been most disadvantaged. Megalo was established in 1980 as a community access screenprint workshop for paper and fabric printing. In 2000, the etching, relief printing and lithography equipment from the Studio One Print Workshop was incorporated to establish what is now a comprehensive printmaking facility for international artists and the broader community.
All agree that Megalo's temporary premises in Watson, to which it moved in 2003, are dire and the delay is severely compromising its operations and morale. Megalo was scheduled to move into the refurbished Fitters Workshop later this year but Alder says its programs, planned 18 months in advance, have been stalled and she hadn't been able to accept or pursue any future exhibitions because of uncertainty of the studio's future location.
Megalo's submission to the inquiry made the following points: ''At present Megalo has a building, the Fitters Workshop, with approved architectural plans and allocated budget. The alternative is a purpose-built building, built somewhere on a site yet to be determined, in a building yet to be designed and costed. There is no plan, costing or allocated budget for the development of the Fitters Workshop as a multifunction space. Ongoing debate and prevarication will ensure that the Fitters Workshop remains empty and unused for many years to come.''
There were plans drawn up by government commissioned architects in 1994 for a permanent home for Megalo in Childers Street near the Street Theatre which were later abandoned.
Musicians may complain there are not enough music venues in Canberra but at least there are options.
Scores of reports have been produced. Among the most comprehensive is the 2011 Fitters Workshop Conservation Management Plan by Duncan Marshall, commissioned by Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn Architects, which is doing the design work to relocate the Megalo Print Studio to the Fitters Workshop. on behalf of the ACT Government consistent with the obligations under the ACT Heritage Act 2004. Among the recommendations in the 120-page document is that the primary use of the Fitters Workshop be sympathetic to the industrial/engineering character of the building. ''The current proposal to use the building as a working print studio would seem to be a sympathetic use, subject to a detailed understanding of what such a use would mean for the building.''
Some lobbyists have changed tack during the course of their campaign, from calling for a stand-alone concert hall to a multi-purpose venue which houses both music and visual art. On the surface this sounds like an appealing soft option that will satisfy everyone.
In Pro Musica's submission Latham says: ''Our proposal outlines how 50 weeks of curated exhibitions, installations, shows, concerts, workshops and other public events at the Fitters Workshop would create an epicentre and meeting place within the Arts Precinct that would help profile the arts in Canberra to local residents and visitors.''
The move away from the initial call for a purely vocal performance space into a mixed-use building has its own problems, often the case when a committee is making decisions that end in an unwieldy compromise. The downside is that as a venue for hire the building cannot be repurposed to suit one art form. An exhibition space for glasswork would require structures such as display pedestals, paintings certain lighting, music performances a stage, dance music amplification which would distort sound.
The lacklustre performance of arts minister Joy Burch has done little to inspire confidence of an unambiguous outcome.
A recent survey of Australia's cities ranked Canberra the second most liveable after Adelaide. One of the main criticisms was the lack of a vibrant cultural scene. Let's hope the ACT government makes a bold decision that will change this and avoid an anodyne solution that dilutes the vision and loses quality of experience for arts practitioners and the public.
Most arts organisations would argue for a tailored solution rather than a one-size-fits-all compromise which will mean having to say no to someone.
Despite what some letter writers may think, the issue is not simply a bitch fight between musicians and print artists. It's a complex story that if handled with vision and courage could transform the Kingston Foreshore into a world-class arts precinct.
Diana Streak is Arts Editor.