The redevelopment of Pentridge prison raises troubling questions about how we preserve our punitive past, and whether it is ever acceptable to exploit misery as a brand. By Naomi Stead.

Pentridge Coburg

Pentridge Piazza.
Pentridge Piazza.
Credit: ASPECT Studio

It’s a bright and blowy Saturday afternoon and I am sitting in the recently opened central piazza of the Pentridge prison redevelopment, contemplating the looming bluestone facade of the Division B cell block. A good number of people are here enjoying the new public space: a young couple arrives with a stroller and spreads a picnic blanket on the grass; a man pushes a trolley, stocking the bar for tonight’s open-air cinema. People lounge on timber benches, brightly dressed moppets run squealing through a water feature, pigeons flutter. It’s all very agreeable and urbane.

And yet here I am, thinking about “bronzing up”.

This is, as I have recently learnt, a slang term for when a prisoner in a state of dissent or distress smears shit all over themselves and everything else to hand. Apparently it derives from a dark parody of cosmetics. I know all this because I have been reading about the history of Pentridge prison, in preparation for my first visit. I’m caught in a swirling state of cognitive dissonance as I try to square this pleasant spot with its sobering history.

H. M. Pentridge Prison was founded in 1851 and closed in 1997. The complex is recognised by the National Trust as a place of state significance, and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register as “the most well-known and used gaol in the State’s history”. It was also the largest prison complex constructed in Victoria in the 19th century.

It was, by all accounts, a terrible place to be. For almost a century and a half it was a sealed-off world of brutality: the site of floggings, rape, punitive humiliation and death by misadventure and design. It incarcerated political prisoners in the form of draft dodgers, and was the site of murder by the state – Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hanged in Australia, was killed there in 1967. Rupert Mann, author of a photographic and social history of the prison, says that between 1973 and 1997 there were 75 deaths at Pentridge, only 13 of which were from natural causes.

Pentridge was an embodiment of the 19th-century model prison “separate system” – which emphasised isolation and silence as instruments of moral reform. Later, after this approach sent a disproportionate number of prisoners insane, the institution moved towards labour as a source of redemption – including in rock-breaking yards, where “specially insubordinate or quarrelsome prisoners” were put to work breaking rock into gravel.

Some of this I have learnt from the 2016 Conservation Management Plan, prepared by Bryce Raworth. It’s a cracking read, a compelling account of how the history of penal reform played out on the site, noting how the buildings embody powerful ideas about punishment, penology and redemption.

Raworth’s report observes how the prison’s entry gates, flanked by towers in a grim mediaeval fortified style with “corbelled crenellated battlements and elongated cruciform arrow slits terminated with round oillets” are deliberately intimidating: the building was designed to threaten. And this is precisely the tension that is playing out now, in the contemporary redevelopment of Pentridge into a mixed-use retail, residential and entertainment precinct. If all goes to plan, the symbolic and architectural reversal will be absolute: from forbidding to inviting, from contained to permeable, from fearsome to fun. From punishment, we might say, to profit.

Don’t get me wrong: I think that repurposing the site is exactly the right thing to do. It’s accepted wisdom that adaptively reusing heritage places is one of the best ways to preserve and celebrate them. There’s also a whole branch of heritage scholarship to lean on, namely the study of “dark heritage”, which examines the most ethical ways to preserve and interpret sites where Bad Things Happened. But there are challenges at Pentridge, and they’re significant.

The process of redeveloping the site started in 1999, two years after the prison’s closure, when the state government sold it: a walled campus of imposing bluestone buildings with vast buildable area, a void in the fabric of Melbourne, a mere nine kilometres from the city centre. To wit: a prime opportunity for someone to make a killing.

The site duly passed through the hands of various commercial developers, being subdivided and sold on. The northern parcel was purchased in 2013 by its present owners, Shayher Properties, who proposed a billion-dollar restoration and redevelopment. This northern section, known as Pentridge Coburg, includes the iconic prison entry and administration building, two intact cell blocks, the former hospital, the warder’s residence, the remains of the infamous rock-breaking and “airing” yards, several watchtowers and a lot of imposing prison walls. Some parts had already been demolished, including the notorious Jika Jika maximum security unit, but a lot remains. In the centre is the parade ground or mustering yard, now reinvented as Pentridge Piazza.

Designed by landscape architects Aspect Studios, this new piazza is, to my eye, a success; it balances the needs of the public realm – for shade, furniture, event space, playgrounds – with the heritage requirement to maintain the open space and views to the key buildings, and preserves a material and symbolic connection with the past through the careful use of bluestone remnants.

Just to one side of the piazza is the brand new shopping centre, with specialty shops and cinema, designed by architects the Buchan Group and built on the site of the demolished Block C. It’s good as these things go – light and airy, with all the easy amenity we’ve come to expect from shopping malls. But still it’s jarring, to be floating all blithe and fey between the hairdressers and dumpling shops, only to remember what happened here, before.

The 2014 site master plan prepared by NH Architecture articulates a vision of the development as “proudly embracing the site’s past” through “retention of the bold and powerful brand name Pentridge”, while promising a “vibrant, colourful and exciting” urban precinct. It seems a bit of a stretch to be “embracing the past” solely through retention of a name, or indeed by recasting the name as a brand. But in fact this does represent a dramatic reversal: early on, the prison’s locale was also named Pentridge, until local land owners complained about the negative associations and were successful in having the suburb renamed Coburg.

So for the redevelopment today to reclaim the name Pentridge is a direct volte-face. But still, it rather sticks in the craw to think of profit being derived from this name, given everything it stands for. It seems callous at best when real estate advertising makes breathless references to “life sentences” and exhorts buyers to “break into Pentridge!” But then, as Susan Sontag reminds us, “heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together”.

As a visitor I knew a bit about the site but wanted to know more, and I wanted the information in situ. In this I was disappointed: there were a few formal information panels, and some carefully selected – and strikingly anodyne – short quotations set into stair risers and carved into the timber entry portal and so on. But a time line of key moments in the prison’s history was astonishingly perfunctory: a series of uninformative badges stuck to the backside of the supermarket. There’s little to explicitly tell the visitor what this place was, what happened here, and what it all meant.

I’m not the first to observe all this. But what Pentridge’s critics sometimes miss is that it’s not an oversight but a deliberate and explicit strategy. The site’s heritage interpretation plan, prepared by Sue Hodges Productions in 2013, argues that the more “difficult” or intense stories should be reserved for those who deliberately seek them out. (Sure enough, there is an informative website and, as I later discovered, a dedicated room on level 1 of the shopping centre with historic photographs. Heritage tours are planned.) But the casual visitor should not be unexpectedly confronted.

This, of course, is arguable. And within these debates lie some of the most urgent and contentious questions of our age: how much should people be obliged to confront painful histories; how should we reckon with the intangible and material traces of past brutality; how to face historical truth, bear witness and discharge our shared responsibility – as Sontag put it – regarding the pain of others. This conversation is important, with implications far beyond this site.

I think some education about the history of Pentridge is an appropriate price of entry. But the murkier problem here is the commodification of dark heritage. It seems to me that human misery should never be co-opted to make a buck. Not even through the secondary workings of place branding or the market value and unique selling points conferred by a site’s “authenticity”, “character” or “colour”.

It has a colour, all right. And that colour is bronze. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Dark heritage".

During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.