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Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

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Geraldine O’Brien, journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald

O'brien G. ‘Heritage Views’, article for the ‘Teaching Heritage’ website

Meanings attached to heritage are changing: it's fairly well documented that when organisations such as the National Trust started in 1945, "heritage" meant bushland and, as far as the built environment was concerned, Georgian buildings. It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Sydney's Victorian architecture was not appreciated, and buildings such as the QVB were regularly called "eyesores" and "monstrosities", and were threatened with demolition.

Attitudes also change with the generations – as surviving buildings acquire the patina of age, and as they're further removed from our own time, they become correspondingly more precious. Sydney's Victorian architecture is now generally admired, as are its successors, the Federation and Edwardian styles. In the last few years, an Art Deco Society and a 20th Century Heritage Society have been formed, springing initially from the Art Deco style of the inter-war years (much of it disappearing as pubs and cinemas were razed), but also looking at the legacy of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The NSW Historic Houses Trust, which began its portfolio with John Verge's classic Elizabeth Bay House, now has a range of mostly 19th century buildings, but has the still startlingly modern Rose Seidler House (Harry Seidler's first commission in Australia, for his mother) as one of its most popular properties. As definitions of heritage have expanded, the trust has also acquired (with the former Sydney Cove Authority) a group of working class terraces in The Rocks, Susannah Place. These are the houses of the not-so-rich-and famous, with coppers and backyard dunnies, off-plumb walls, certainly not architect-designed. But the people who lived there were an important part of The Rocks story, and of Sydney's story.

I still think that our industrial heritage is not appreciated, though this could be partly because most of it has not been publicly accessible for so long. Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf was, to my mind one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in this city and the group of wharves at Walsh Bay are a fitting match for it. But, apart from people who worked there, or those with special interests, such as the National Trust, I doubt there'd be a great public outcry if they were razed. In 10 or 20 years' time, however, those buildings, or the old railway yards at Eveleigh, are likely to be considered really important. Similarly with redundant powerhouses, which are usually dramatic and impressive architecturally. The Casula Powerhouse has been recycled as an arts/community/cultural centre and is a fantastic piece of work.

In fact, their importance can only grow as less and less "characteristic" Sydney buildings survive and international modernism takes over the city and suburbs. Look at the "Tuscanisation" of suburbs where typically Australian houses set in generous gardens are replaced by faux-Mediterranean villas set in acres of paving.

I think, too, people are more conscious now of the need to protect and preserve their immediate surrounds — urban consolidation added to the Sydney habit of regarding real estate as a short-term investment means that the suburbs are facing unprecedented rates of change. While the heritage mafia are often accused of being backward looking, reactionary or afraid of change, it is also true that they are fighting to preserve not only atmosphere and character, but the uniqueness of certain areas: Ku-ring-gai with its trees and gardens, Balmain with its higgeldy-piggeldy streets and simple cottages, or Federation suburbs like Haberfield. Without this variety, Sydney as a whole would be a poorer place. I would never want to live in Ku-ring-gai, but I'm glad to know it's there.

Heritage is the combination of all those things that make us, as individuals, the people we are and, on a larger scale, make us the nation we are. It can be as small as a baby's rattle, passed down through generations, a family photograph, books, or a piece of furniture. Or it can be as large as Uluru, the Sydney Opera House or an old harbour ferry. It can be unique to an individual – a personal memento which may look like a piece of junk to any one else – but I think in its broader sense it is something we all share. And it crosses cultural boundaries – the Greek milk bar in a country town, Uluru, the Italian fishing fleet at the fish markets, the Aboriginal Day of Mourning site in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, the Eureka flag, the broad-verandahed country homestead and the Heads of Sydney Harbour may have special meanings for different groups of people. But they are also all part of our common heritage, whether we were born here or migrated.

It is anything and all things that connect us to our place, which symbolise our place in the world and the way in which previous generations have chosen to express their sense of their place in the world. One of the most moving heritage items I think I've ever seen is the Afghan camel drivers' "mosque" in Broken Hill: it's a tiny, roughly built shed of corrugated iron, painted blue, with a prayer rug on the floor and a copy of the Koran in a glass case. Obviously to descendants of those camel drivers. this place is intimately connected with their history. But it is also part of the story of the opening up of the outback, and part of the very early story of multiculturalism in this country. Heritage places and items can tell many different stories at once and in some ways can be very subversive of the "official versions", if you care to examine them closely enough.

The thing that often galvanises people into thinking about their heritage – even using the word – is when it is threatened. Once upon a time there was a very ugly wall of medium-rise buildings along East Circular Quay, between the railway and the Opera House. Then a developer bought up almost all the buildings, and knocked them down preparatory to redeveloping the site. Suddenly, the vista that was opened up by the demolition became "public property", people wanted it to stay and did not want the Opera House diminished by a wall of lesser buildings. It was the most vocal people have been, probably since the battles for The Rocks in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, in the case of the East Circular Quay development, the protests came far too late. Decisions about the site had already been made. As someone who has sat through hundreds of council meetings, I am always amazed that members of the public almost never turn up. Certainly no-one came to meetings when the decisions about East Circular Quay were being made, although the progress of the development application was regularly reported.

I'd like to see all students taught a little about the planning process, how it works, so that they feel empowered to look at developments in their neighbourhoods or in the city and protest if they don't like what's planned. Without some explanation, the world of LEPs and REPs and DAs etc can seem intimidating, but people are entitled to know about developments that affect them. They should also be encouraged to join organisations like the National Trust, and local heritage societies which are the only independent voices monitoring development. They become increasingly important at times – such as the present – when government uses our common heritage assets as income-generators. Once these buildings or sites are privatised, they will never be returned to the public domain and what happens to them will be correspondingly more difficult to control. Plenty of organisations such as the National Trust and the Institute of Architects, the Institute of Engineers etc use the professional expertise of their members to identify and nominate sites for heritage protection. But it is important that the community becomes part of this process: because what the community values it will fight for. Besides, although local councils are now required to identify their heritage items, even with the best will in the world, some will slip through the net. North Sydney Council recently found a couple of houses which were to be demolished had not made it on to council's heritage list because they were tucked away in a bushy location and had been literally overlooked. It is true that heritage processes are complex but they are not impossible for people to master and starting at the local level gives a good insight into how the systems work.


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