Mixed heritage: Book review

A new survey of heritage protection highlights Australia’s uneven record as it prepares to host next month’s International Council on Monuments and Sites assembly.

8 August 2023


Sydney’s harbourside Rocks precinct, saved by the green ban movement. Alamy

By the time of the 1960s property boom developers were demolishing whatever they wanted in Australian cities, with the exception of churches and other colonial properties that caught the eye of the National Trusts. But something changed in the 1970s.

James Lesh’s Values in Cities charts the explosion of heritage advocacy in that decade, from the Whitlam government’s inquiry into the National Estate to the heritage legislation passed in every state — even Queensland, where Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party hoped to find and mine oil on the Great Barrier Reef. With cities now no longer part of the national conversation — apart from the housing crisis and never-ending traffic jams — it is refreshing to find a book that places them centrestage.

As Lesh demonstrates, heritage battles and community advocacy have done more to retain a sense of place and history in our cities than the leadership of the town planning profession, which have been increasingly captured by property developers. Streetscape overlays in the inner suburbs of our cities, from the terraces of Sydney and Melbourne to the timber-and-tin of traditional Queenslanders in Brisbane, owe their existence to patient lobbying by National Trusts, historical societies, a variety of professionals, and state government heritage councils, all garnering community support.

Imagine Sydney without The Rocks and its finger wharves, Hobart without Battery Point, or Brisbane without remnant sandstone colonial buildings (even if one is now a casino). Office block developers — and later apartment developers — were restrained from knocking down much of Melbourne’s Collins Street. Central Perth didn’t survive so well, and Adelaide maintained its dignity partly because there simply wasn’t as much money to be made there as in the other capitals. In all these battles strong community groups emerged, aided by the remarkable green ban movement of the Builders Labourers Federation.

Some heritage protections have been aggressively undermined by developers over the last decade or so — particularly in the West End of Brisbane, where hapless investors have bought into high-rise towers with a view not just of the flood-prone Brisbane River but also of traffic jams on Coronation Drive. Vale, too, the Sirius building in Sydney’s Rocks, social housing refurbished for multimillion-dollar price tags.

In September this year Australia will welcome more than 1000 delegates to our first-ever general assembly of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, founded in Paris in 1965. As an advisory body to UNESCO, it provides assessments of nominations for much sought-after world heritage recognition.

Australia has achieved notable international landmarks in heritage conservation, especially the Burra Charter, developed here in 1979 at a meeting in the town of Burra. This was the first charter to argue convincingly that heritage conservation should take account of successive uses of a building or site. As Lesh explains, it has had a major influence on heritage practice around the world.

Internationally, the federal government has successfully nominated major “natural” sites, not least the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu, and notable buildings, including the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House, for world heritage listing. Innovatively, it also nominated a group of convict sites spread across the continent. Only national governments can nominate buildings and sites, and with that comes an obligation to maintain and conserve the site. Even the Morrison government had to look like it was trying hard to curb agricultural flows into the Barrier Reef.

One of the great strengths of Lesh’s book is his attention to First Nations issues. He points out that many heritage advocates (including me) were slow to appreciate the Indigenous context of the places they were writing about. We were all conscious of the contribution archaeologists and National Parks officers had made to understanding Indigenous landscapes, and the Mabo judgement established beyond doubt claims for continuous Indigenous occupation. But the fact that nineteenth- and twentieth-century structures were also on unceded land has taken much longer to apprehend. Lesh cites the impressive amount of scholarly work on clan recognition over the last three decades that has led to the renaming of many urban places, especially in Melbourne.

Values in Cities identifies the explicit and implicit values that have underpinned the heritage movement, values that have of course changed dramatically over time. TV restoration programs still celebrate the haute bourgeoise in Sydney and Melbourne doing up homes designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Robin Boyd, and gentrifying Sydney’s Millers Point, but they also feature workers on more modest budgets tackling abandoned country churches and even bush shacks.

You don’t have to be a heritage devotee for this book to be worth consulting. Any readers facing redevelopment pressures in their street or the destruction of key structures in their local community will get useful clues about how to protest against what they regard as essential to a sense of locality and history. Given the book’s high price, get your local library — one of our most vital community assets — to buy a copy.

We need a parallel book to Lesh’s that explains and exposes the implications of our private property regime and also how developers, building companies, land-consuming retail giants and wealthy tax-minimisers have ruined whole coastlines and happily demolished heritage structures in many suburbs and country towns.

At a time when most members of federal parliament hold one or more investment properties, we have run out of popularly elected representatives prepared to question the untrammelled rights of property owners to do what they want, not only with their own structures but also to undermine the amenity and sense of place of their neighbours. Local governments, with only modest conflict-of-interest reporting requirements, have given us many examples of the shameless reshaping of our urban environments. The evidence is in your face on the scandal-ridden Gold Coast, the Sydney suburb of Canterbury and the Melbourne suburb of Berwick, but you can also witness it in all those other councils that have been or should have been placed under administration.

As I write, developers are demolishing older blocks of flats — and expelling tenants — to erect grandiose luxury apartments. In the midst of our greatest housing crisis since the early postwar years, heritage advocates and town planners will have to give more thought to saving the apartment blocks that remain the backbone of affordable rental housing in all our cities.

Adaptive refurbishing conserves embodied energy and helps reduce climate change impacts — which is one of the reasons why the heritage-listed Marks and Spencer department store in London’s Oxford Street has survived the threat of demolition. Our design and planning professions, as well as our councils and parliaments, need to give a lot more thought to sustainable buildings and how they provide for current and future residents of our cities