The ruins of the Stokehouse reveal the task in rebuilding. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Architects say the fire that burnt down St Kilda's much-loved Stokehouse restaurant on Friday night has provided an opportunity to build a new landmark beach destination on the foreshore.
''It's about time inner Melbourne had a really exciting piece of beach architecture,'' said Philip Goad, professor of architecture at Melbourne University.
Hundreds of people watched on Friday night as a fire that took hold in the restaurant's kitchen razed the building. Port Phillip Council has demolished the remains.
And, like the debate following the St Kilda Pier kiosk fire in 2003, locals and urban design experts are divided over what should be rebuilt on the Stokehouse site: a heritage replica of the early 1900s building or a contemporary venue.
''I would like to see a similar process to the one engaged in to rebuild the historic St Kilda pier kiosk,'' deputy mayor and local councillor for the area Serge Thomann said.
The restaurant sat on Crown land, and the state government and the council in conjunction with the Van Haandel Group, which holds a 21-year lease over the site, will decide what happens.
The Van Haandel Group issued a statement mourning the building's loss and saying the company would ''as of Monday commence planning to bring back the Stokehouse''.
Architect and former Port Phillip Council design chief Jim Holdsworth as a young architecture student sat on the Lower Esplanade's grassy slope watching another St Kilda building, the Palais de Danse, burn down in 1968. ''Then they built The Palace,'' said Mr Holdsworth, which also burnt in 2007. ''The demise of that dreadful shed nobody lamented.''
Mr Holdsworth said the Stokehouse should be immediately reconstructed ''as it was''. When the St Kilda Pier kiosk burnt, Mr Holdsworth argued a replica should be built. ''There were some pretty whacky ideas, which I opposed, simply because - like the Stokehouse - the building was lost through unfortunate circumstances.''
David Brand, a former councillor and an architect who lives near the site, said it was a unique chance to rebuild the venue, though this would be harder than with the pier kiosk. ''We had enormous documentation on it.'' The Stokehouse, which had many renovations, could not be accurately replicated, he said. He said it should be rebuilt along with the ''ugly, misplaced'' St Kilda Lifesaving Club next door. ''It is taking up really important foreshore land. It's a pity it didn't burn down instead.''
Whatever was built, Mr Brand said, it was ''important the architecture [complements] what was there before and it's not just an architect's wank''.
Professor Goad said ''community feeling'' towards the venue would be crucial. But rebuilding the Stokehouse, which changed dramatically over the years, would ''always be an artificial copy - and probably not a good one''.
He said Melbourne's bay boasted few remarkable pieces of architecture, although the Williamstown and Seaford lifesaving clubs were exceptions. ''If there is an opportunity to do something as good as the Seaford lifesaving club it should be considered,'' he said.
Another architect, Ivan Rijavec, said the Stokehouse building ''was never of any intrinsic architectural value'' and rebuilding it would be giving in to nostalgia. ''It will be a fake only to satisfy the emotion of diehards,'' he said. Melbourne had been ''very tentative around Port Phillip Bay'', but needed to show more confidence around the water. Mr Rijavec said that there should be an architectural competition to decide on the site.
Former state architect and influential designer John Denton also said there should be a competition to decide what to build. ''A competition to decide its design would be a nice idea. They are a good idea to get those exquisite little gems happening.''