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high-profile Australians talk to James Elder about heritage

‘Elder, J. 'Taking Heritage to 2000’, reflections, The National Trust Quarterly, Oct-Jan 2000


FAITH BANDLER writer, co-founder Aboriginal-Australia Fellowship

I look back with considerable pride on what has been kept by the people in the area where I grew up, on the north coast. It hasn't been battered by modern buildings. There are old buildings, old hotels that were there when I was a child and are still there. On the whole I'm really quite positive about heritage in this country.

Saying that, I would have liked to have seen much that has been destroyed in Sydney saved. And of those that stand, too much has been stacked on some of the old buildings and they've lost that gracious touch. Macquarie Street was once a very beautiful street, and now, to my way of thinking, it's a regular horror. Only people can stop those destructive elements, and they are the people who care. We're great in numbers but we're not sufficiently mobilised and governments don't do things out of the goodness of their heart; they bow a little too much to the people who construct these monsters and that saddens me.

I saw people's passion rise during the campaign for the 1967 referendum and there was quite a mighty force for something that was good. I don't know that we have that today. I think in some ways modern technology has destroyed the coming together of people with their ideas. We don't talk as much as we did. We came together, once in the '40s to stop the terrible war, and then in the '60s to acknowledge the injustices against the Aboriginal peoples, and they were great forces; I don't see that today. There are tremendous divisions in the community today.


GEOFFREY BLAINEY author and Emeritus Professor of History

I think I first scented heritage when l was aged eleven. We moved to Ballarat and, in a way, it was like a haunted city with so many fine buildings of another era. The presence of these buildings and the abandoned minesites, I was conscious of – without knowing what they signified.

My first real contact with heritage-type activities was when I joined the board of the Australian Heritage Commission in 1976. Glancing back I suspect that my first book, published 45 years ago, was openly sympathenc towards the endangered relics of a vanishing mining era in western Tasmania.

In the last 50 years the change in the public mood towards townscape and landscape has been astonishing, at least to my mind. But then I'm more easily impressed, being Light Green and not Dark Green.

You ask about things I'd like done. I'm not really sure. But with many country towns dying on their feet, many of them places with atmosphere and dignity, I'd like to see, somehow, the best parts of them looked after.


BARRY O'KEEFE President, The National Trust of Australia (NSW)

There were some grand buildings such as St Gabriel's School opposite Waverley Park and the Vickery buildings, which constituted the core of the War Memorial Hospital at Waverley, that I recall very clearly from my childhood. There was also a WWI cannon at Waverley Park on which my brother John and I used to play. We used to have a marvellous time on it. I remember the AWA Tower in York Street, which you could see from our house in Dover Heights, because the high-rise in the city hadn't been built then. They're the sort of things that stand strongly in my childhood memory.

When I moved to Clifton Gardens in 1965 I was already interested in built heritage, and I then became interested in our natural bushland heritage as a result of contact with those great women Joan and Eileen Bradley who formulated the Bradley method of bush regeneration. That led me back to my childhood where we'd spent quite a bit of time in the mountains where I used to ramble through the bush with my grandfather who was an old bushie. So that connection straddled my intermediate years and reinforced a latent love of that type of atmosphere.

Then I joined The National Trust in the '60s because I was appalled by what was happening to buildings like St Gabriel's, which was just pulled down and replaced by a bowling green. And so in the '60s l had a rediscovery of the wonder of Australian bushland unaltered, and a great concern about the destruction that was going on in our city of wonderful buildings that tell us a great deal of where we had come from.

I stood for the board of The National Trust in 1991 because I thought it was a great organisation that I could perhaps give some assistance to.

Those who were concerned about the natural and built environment in the '60s have since been joined by a lot of other people, so now the paradigm of protection of heritage is well established.

The difficulty is that paradigms alone don't protect. Paradigms are about how you see things and developers, and unfortunately governments who are fulfilling the roles of developers, often don't see things in that way. They will espouse the cause of heritage in words, but their actions and the words don't match.

So you have a new threat: what was the threat of the group that was characterised back in the '60s and '70s as rapacious developers has been replaced by economic rationalist governments that give little value to history or heritage when it comes in conflict with their monetary bottom line.


PHILLIP ADAMS broadcaster, columnist, media commentator

Growing up in the '40s was a free and liberating experience. And for me, heritage meant the steaming piles of mullock at the Kew Municipal Tip. My cousin Terry and I were transformed into archaeologists (though we were of course entirely ignorant of the term) digging through layers to see what treasures we could discover. Old mantle radios moulded from brown bakelite. Exhausted car batteries awash with acid. Broken kitchen appliances and detritus from various industrial processes.

Where Howard Carter emptied Tutankhamen's tomb, we dragged the most interesting artefacts to a tomb of our own. It was an empty storm-water drain that ran beneath Kew into the Yarra River. We found a couple of bricked-up branches that we turned into subterranean huts until they closely resembled the last resting place of the young Pharaoh, full of our version of wonderful things.

Trouble is, our version of Tut's tomb almost became our tomb when a flash flood sent a vast volume of water charging through the giant drains. We just escaped being washed into the Yarra, along with our treasures.

But that experience gave me a lifetime commitment to sifting through the rubbish heaps of history.

As a direct consequence of my archaeological explorations of the Kew Municipal Tip, I became a collector, on a large scale, of the flotsam and jetsam of ancient civilisations – Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, Etruscan, Grecian, Venetian etc.

Thus one thing leadeth to another. Any change over the years in Australia's attitude to heritage, you ask? One. People are no longer so determined to wreck anything of age, smashing old buildings and dumping the shattered materials on tips like Kew's.

Now we care for the past, both ancient and recent and the rate of destruction has slowed down enormously.

On a heritage front, I would like to see the preservation of the odd suburban streetscape, be it filled with fibro cottages or triple-fronted brick veneers.

Preserved, in their entirety, right down to the knives and forks in the kitchen dresser. Right down to the old newspapers beneath the lino.


IAN KIERNAN, Chair, Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World

I grew up in wartime and so it was a very different Australia to that we know now. During the Second World War I spent a lot of my time on a rural property outside of Bathurst that happened to be a most significant heritage building – Dockairn. I have very clear memories of growing up there in the beautiful gardens and the wonderful colonial building.

Regrettably it was destroyed by fire in the early '50s. In 1946 my father returned from the war and life changed quite dramatically. They were hot summers and pretty good times.

I knew that I had an appreciation for heritage even as a young boy. I was absolutely appalled to see the rapacious destruction of so much of the inner city in the '60s and '70s. And I was equally appalled by the new style of architecture that that period delivered to us. I used to buy regularly doors, windows, staircases and sandstone from demolition sites to incorporate in buildings that I was restoring and renovating.

There's better appreciation today for our history and our heritage. There's nothing that better records the socio-economic history of the time than architecture and if you destroy that you're destroying your own history. I mean we've only been here for three-and-half of my lifetimes, and we must hang on to what is our important history.

I shift the cause for environmental problems back to two basic sources: greed and ignorance. The destruction of our built heritage aptly falls underneath those two elements as well. For ignorance we need to educate: the kids should be taught the importance of our heritage, the evolution of our specific Australian architecture and the need to maintain that. Greed is more difficult, because developers will look at floor space ratio as the main factor in delivering the profit; often that will mean ignoring the good architecture and heritage just for profit.

So I think we need stronger legislation, stronger action from government (particularly local government), and we've just got to hold back those developments that are purely on an economic basis.


PAT O'SHANE, magistrate

I grew up in Far North Queensland, literally in the bush. So I certainly as a young girl didn't have any contact with built heritage; of course all my heritage was Aboriginal. What I always say to friends and family is that Aborigines didn't survive inland for as long as they did, ‘this being the oldest and harshest country in the world’, and not learn a few lessons about how to live in the environment and ensure its renewal. We need to look at some of those same lessons and apply them to all heritage.

Am I any more positive about our view on heritage now as to 20 years ago? I so wish I was. I think that we are now in an ebb in regards to social consciousness to all kinds of things. Just today when I was lying in bed I heard the news that in Melbourne they're going to destroy the Dockland area and I find that so depressing. I mean Sydney has been ruined in my view. So much of the built environment has been removed to make way for alleged development and now I find it frightening that we seem to be debating whether or not Chinatown should also be handed to the developers. It's just shocking. So no, I don't feel more enthusiastic or hopeful now than I did 20 years ago.


DICK SMITH, adventurer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, former Australian of the Year

I lived in the bushland of the northern Sydney suburb of Roseville and I used to disappear down to the bush all the time, and there was a track which wound around Sydney Harbour and it wasn't built by the Romans, it was built by people during the Depression. I love old roads and old tracks and I can understand even from those days that it should stay.

Whereas back in the '50s most people generally ignored the importance of Australian heritage, they tended to look at what they called 'the old country' – something had to be at least 300 years old before it was important. Fortunately, through The National Trust and others, people have realised that we have the most extraordinary heritage here that we must preserve.

I don't have a lot of fears for future heritage, though I have a lot of hopes. Because of The National Trust and other organisations, we're going to be able to protect more and more.

I think today we're going along the right track and what we need is very good communication to tell the general public that we are a wealthy society so we can afford the cost (and sometimes it's very high) to protect heritage. And generations to come will thank us.


TIM FISCHER former deputy Prime Minister

My powers of recollection were not until the '50s and '60s. One of my most vivid early memories was the Olympic torch going through Wagga. Another is that the passage of refrigeration in this country ‘from the Coolgardie safe to the kerosene refrigerator to the electric refrigerator’ was a great rite of passage of households across country Australia. For me this is home heritage. At another level, our rail heritage has been something that has influenced me.

More broadly the need to protect fragile sections of the Riverina, including the waterways of the Murrumbidgee and the Murray were very early in my life points of great importance.

From my time in state and federal politics, I think the record is mixed by governments of all political persuasions. Take the Toaster near the Opera House signed off by Bob Carr, or take the Gold Coast and the failure to cluster their highrise in a way which might actually give the beach some sunshine.

With regard to one aspect of heritage that I would like to see embraced, I am being absolutely consistent in calling for the retention of the hundreds of magnificent railway buildings around Australia, preferably as living, breathing centres of activity, and where viable, centres of railway activity.

I think today there is a much better understanding and broader commitment to heritage: both built and environmental. The period of black bans and Jack Mundey's efforts in retrospect were illegal actions, but certainly jogged the community and made a contribution to get the balance right. But I think the biggest change is that it is now recognised that there is fundamental value in retaining that which is old.


BOB CARR Premier NSW

I grew up in Matraville – a new suburb created on sand hills with pockets of remnant bushland – in the late '50s, early '60s. It was close to La Perouse where Australia's European history had begun in 1788 and to a post WWI cluster of housing called Matraville Soldiers' settlement, which featured a memorial to the dead of WWI. I was conscious of such pieces of heritage.

As a junior high school student I remember being recruited by an English teacher for a Sunday afternoon tour of Greenway buildings. In my first weeks at the University of NSW, I remember seeing an exhibition in the Roundhouse of Boyd's Australian Ugliness. I vividly remember a black and white photograph showing a parking sign stencilled on one of the pillars of the Mint Building in Macquarie Street.

I was a supporter of green bans – which I reported on as a journalist for ABC radio current affairs – and was proud to appoint Jack Mundey as Chair of the Historic Houses Trust when I became Premier.

As Minister for Planning and Environment I applied conservation orders on 1151 heritage items, including 455 interim conservation orders and 194 permanent orders.

Heritage protection needs to embrace the built and the natural environment, individual buildings and ensembles of buildings, items of moveable heritage and entire precincts, the indigenous and the non-indigenous.


DAVID MURRAY Managing Director, Commonwealth Bank

Growing up in the '50s was a very easy time: there were no threats, we didn't live in a war or a depression like our parents, it was easy to get a job and there were big things going on in the world and everyone was very relaxed. So heritage was not the issue that it is today, because people took for granted some heritage buildings that we had.


Today, in a whole stack of different ways, there have been dramatic changes to heritage. In terms of buildings, which is the closest I get to it in my work, there have been fantastic developments in architecture to recognise the old and the new. I think the best example of this is 48 Martin Place in Sydney – the site of the Commonwealth Bank head office and probably one of best heritage sites in Australia. And it operates inside as a modern, efficient office building. I think that with the refurbishment of the 48 Martin Place site, we've got a record of involvement: we've been a sponsor of The National Trust and we've also been involved in the refurbishment of St Andrew's and St Mary's cathedrals in Sydney I've had a close personal involvement with the St Mary's development in which we're spending over $20m and putting the spires on that were never built in the original design.

Heritage is about a public good, so it always requires some work by the government to preserve a public good and that means the government has to work with businesses.

I think we have a good balance now of old and new, but my major fear is that if it's not done well then there will be no commercial incentive at all for business to take heritage into account and businesses will be forced to abandon heritage. It's got to be easy for them to take heritage into account. You need creative thinking and innovation to find a match of preservation of heritage on one hand, and development on the other. To do that you need to give people flexibility; otherwise they really won't take an interest in the heritage component. They won't be able to.


ELSA ATKIN, Executive Director, The National Trust

My earliest memory is being taken to see some of the heritage in Baghdad as a primary schoolgirl growing up in Iraq. We were taken on a picnic to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

When I came to Australia in 1960 I wasn't that interested in heritage – until I met my husband-to-be. He was studying architecture and involved me in The National Trust Younger Set. We started going to Maitland and looking at heritage there and that ignited my interest again, and I started thinking and talking of all the things I used to see in Baghdad, Lebanon, Rome, London and such other places.

Today we are a little more conscious and proud of our heritage; 20 years ago people took very little notice when we used to talk about beautiful old buildings around Australia.

There is more pride now in our heritage and more confidence that our heritage is worth conserving. The fact that you are more confident in yourself as an Australian also makes you appreciate what is local, and what is local is our heritage. Robert Hughes says that when a nation starts appreciating its local heritage, it means that it's matured.

As to how we're doing, I can say that we seem to take one step forward and two steps back. That's very disheartening. For example, The National Trust has lobbied for so long and we have wonderful instrumentalities now in government: we've got the Heritage Council, the Heritage Act and the Heritage Commission.

And that's fine, they are looking after our heritage, but then the top end of town and the government come along with a big development, and guess what – all of that regulation and legislation is forgotten. Or they produce different legislation to wipe out that which is existing to protect a particular item of heritage. And that is really scary.

The future of heritage in this country is really about education, about raising the awareness of people. At The National Trust we try and educate the community about the value or our heritage, and I still believe we have a long way to go. I hope that the turn of the millennium will give the Australian community a jolt to think about our heritage and to feel confident about the value of this fantastic heritage that we have here, and to want to protect it.


TIM FLANNERY author, principal research scientist at the Australian Museum

Growing up in the '60s meant most of my contact was with natural heritage. The world that I grew up in was treated disgustingly and some of my earliest memories were of being revolted by the way nature was being treated and not understanding why older people didn't feel the same way. And I still wonder why that is. l think there was something unique about that period, but I don't know what. I've pondered it often and can't put my finger on it.

Later on I noticed a similar disregard for the built environment. When I was at university there were all sorts of fights going on about inappropriate buildings and I started to see it then as a very political struggle. In Australia the idea that ‘Everyman's home is his castle’ is entrenched and if you own land you can do anything, especially if you're a developer.

Aboriginal societies understood the nature of environments much better than we do and the inter-relatedness of environments. They saw that what you did with a particular piece of land would have implications for the surrounding country. So I'd like to see a change in the way we view the ownership of land.

I have a bit of a different view of the world: that most of the worthwhile things that we've achieved have been achieved through reigning in the power of great individuals.

So we as individuals have been the real winners when powerful people have had their power limited by democracy, environmental legislation and heritage laws. But the hardest to beat have been the ruthless, almost outside-the-law property developers.

In Sydney in the '70s they were corrupting politicians and those people are still largely unreformed. I want to see property crimes trials established in NSW. It would be like war crimes trials.

There would be an investigation to establish if past actions were within the law and if they were within the law, were they moral?

So there'd be two levels to the investigation: one would be straight criminal and fearless – you'd have an independent magistrate who would go back 30 or 40 years and you might just want to start with the 20 or 30 most disgusting buildings. I think when something such as this does happen, it will be the turning point. We will have beaten these, or have the chance to beat these people.

For this to start to occur ultimately the shift has to occur in people's attitudes. You can't really legislate. Something has to come about through greater awareness.


SIMONE YOUNG, opera conductor and Opera Australia's musical director designate

I grew up in a family where my father was very interested in historical architecture; not from any sort of studied architectural view, just from the historical relevance and the beauty of the buildings. So even as an eight or nine-year-old, we'd often go roaming around the city and dad would point out different areas of The Rocks and Macquarie Street. He was very focused on Australian history and very interested in the beauty of the city. So I guess I've been very aware of the built environment in Sydney from a very early age.

It's difficult for me to know whether the changes to heritage in Sydney are as big as they seem, or whether they've coincided with my being more aware and having spent 12 years away from Australia. When I came back to Australia in 1990 it was post-Bicentennial and there were big changes: a lot of historical buildings had been restored for the Bicentennial celebrations and the whole focus was on protecting our built heritage. So that's when I saw big changes.

I'm relatively optimistic for the future, though I think it's very hard for us at the end of the '90s to recognise the architectural value of things that were built in the '50s and '60s. I think this is a bit of a danger.

Everybody recognises the beauty and the value in a lot of the 19th century buildings but it's hard for us to recognise the architectural value of perhaps some of the visually less attractive buildings of the '50s and '60s. Yet they still have something to say about our history and our development as a city.

I think the general public has to take a stand on things. That's what saved a lot of the inner city. The public cares very much about Sydney and its changing skyline, and change can be a good thing.

I don't think we should protect everything just for the sake of the status quo but I do think people should let their voices be heard about what they feel about their city and what is important to keep.


NAOMI EDDY, environmental strategist and Cleo Magazine's Young Australian Environmentalist of the Year

My interest in environmental heritage was first sparked in the 1980s at school when our studies began to cross over with the environment. The teacher used to describe pollution and greenhouse gases and the effects of them, and that really got my emotions charged.

I used to go to the library at lunch and photocopy all the articles on the environment I could find in magazines. I remember there being an enormous amount of attention being given to the environment in the '80s, which really motivated me to become involved.

However, today I just don't seem to be seeing the same sort of enthusiasm for environmental ‘natural and built’ campaigns. Everything seems to have plateaued.

Having said that, I still get much deeper bouts of pessimism when I go overseas for work. That really does help to put it into perspective for me and I think, due to our good fortune of low population and our awareness, we are actually a lot better off than many other countries. Nonetheless, now is not the time to sit back and feel comfortable with what we have done and are doing to protect our environment.


Reproduced with the permission of the National Trust of Australia (NSW)

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