As part of Open House Melbourne, a discussion forum was held at the Wheeler Centre on Tues 25th July to explore the questions, what is it that we value about Melbourne’s heritage? and what weight should emotional and social significance hold when it comes to making decisions about preserving our buildings? The subtitle “What would Jane do?” referred to Jane Jacobs, the pioneering planning activist and author of the seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs led the fight to save New York’s Soho and Little Italy in the 1960’s from a giant expressway, suggesting that perhaps there is more that we, as a community could do to help protect our own heritage…but what ?
Panellist Chris Johnston of Context Planning and Heritage Consultants argued that there should be more of a priority put on community attachment to a building or site, regardless of architectural achievement or rarity. Currently there is little weight put on social importance alone, but often it’s the seemingly insignificant old buildings or places are what gives communities their ‘identity’. An example she used was Bruce Hall at ANU, which had nothing extraordinary about its appearance, but was an integral hub for students and members of the university community since it was built in 1961. It was demolished earlier this year to be replaced by new state of the art facilities, against strong opposition. The decision was seen to be misguided, assuming that newer ‘better’ facilities would be a suitable replacement, highlighting that is it not merely the purpose of a building that gives it significance, but the stories and experiences that surround it. Panellist Stuart Macintyre, current Chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria, made the point that if a row of terraces is demolished to make way for a giant apartment block, it still serves the same purpose; creating residences, but it doesn’t feel the same – and he is right.
Panellist Marcus Westbury, who is overseeing the redevelopment of the old Collingwood Tafe into an arts hub, took perhaps a more radical viewpoint, saying that buildings need to be in use and should not just sit there as a shrine to their former glory. He points out that sometimes the restrictions on altering heritage buildings are so onerous that it is impossible to make use of the building, and that the best way to protect a building is to make use of it. Maybe there needs to be more flexibility in making adjustments to a building, meaning that the idea of making use of a heritage site could be much more appealing to average members of the community and not just major developers that have the money to get past restrictions.
“Demolition by neglect”, where buildings are purposely abandoned by developers and sit unused for so long that they fall into disrepair, was discussed, though this isn’t a common problem in Melbourne, where real estate is so hot that buildings don’t tend to sit abandoned for too long. One example however is the Princess Mary Club which was demolished earlier this year after it sat rotting for decades. Perhaps it could have been saved if the owners had kept it in use. The idea that heritage buildings should be made use of is an interesting one. Perhaps we are too precious about preserving the condition of these buildings and should put them to new and creative uses? It is definitely food for thought, as many heritage lovers will agree that we need to keep heritage in pristine condition, in order for it to last for generations to come. We can all agree though, that altering (but not too much !) and making use of a building is a far better outcome that having it demolished.
Perhaps there needs to be more respect when it comes to recognising the social significance of a building or site. There is of course the legal site owner, but this owner needs to respect that the community has some level of ownership too through their stories and experiences of the site, and the emotional attachment this brings. The problem is though, how are councils or property owners to know what sites the community finds significant and important? It seems that the only time anyone ever makes a stand or shares their passion for a building is when there is fear of it being demolished or altered. Community engagement seems to be reactionary only. As Chris Johnston joked, if you want to find out if a building has social significance, park a bulldozer in front of it and see how the community reacts. The outcry over the continued loss of pubs across Melbourne lately is an example of this; many were not listed because they were not considered architecturally notable or intact, but all have a long social significance as places of importance to their local communities over many decades. Perhaps the community need to be more vocal about the kind of protection they want to see for their local heritage. Even the bluestone laneways in the back streets of the inner north holds significance in maintaining the identity and feeling of a suburb, one audience member pointed out.
The panellists highlighted that there really does need to be more focus on the social significance of a heritage site when the decision on whether to protect it is being made. Perhaps there needs to be more acceptance in the idea of reusing these sites for new purposes, as another means of protecting them. Regardless, the community needs to be more involved in highlighting which places are important. Few people realise that anyone is able to apply to have a site protected, so maybe we need to be more like Jane Jacobs and speak up about the kind of city we want to see.
Three CBD pubs that are about to be demolished or facaded to allow new development. The social significance of their continued use over decades (150 years in the case of the Great Western) will be lost; only the architectural features will be preserved.