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Transcript

excerpts from Robert Hughes’ 1998 National Trust Annual Heritage Festival Lecture

Hughes, R. ‘Fighting for a Clearer Vision’, reflections: The National Trust Quarterly, July 1998

excerpt one

I don't know whether it's an advantage or not, when you are talking about respect for the fabric of a city, to spend most of your life away from the place. I was born and raised in Sydney. But I left Australia nearly 35 years ago, and since then I have spent most of my working life in Europe and New York, coming back here for about a month every year. If I had lived here all the time, as most of you do, the changes in the built environment of Sydney would have seemed continuous, a flow. To me they look more like one of those time-lapse sequences of photos, in which events stand out and look surprising, startling even, and discontinuous. Hence, all the more vivid.

The Sydney I grew up in, in the early '50s was a sandstone and brick city, shading off into fibro as you went west. It was mostly low to the horizon and because it had practically no high-rises, the Harbour was visible everywhere – it dominated Sydney even more, if you can imagine it, than it does today. The idea that any part of it would ever be shut out from the common visual scope of its people by waterfront building would not have occurred to many Sydneysiders in 1950.

It was, at its core, a Victorian city. Not much remained of its Georgian buildings and, due to their poor construction, virtually nothing was left of any structure put up until the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie, whose architect was Francis Greenway. But the long reign of Queen Victoria, from the 1840s on, saw the construction of the essential Sydney: the banks and clubs and churches and mercantile exchanges, the Town Hall we are in tonight, the Departments of Works and Lands, the warehouses, the GPO, innumerable and now mainly lost pubs, the big villas and the small terraces. These, with their gradations of size and detail and decoration, gave Sydney a peculiarly human scale, a special intimacy, and a coherence of language, which of course everyone took for granted.

It may not have been spectacular or grand if you compared it to the biggest efforts of Victorian building in England, but it was never pompous or oppressive. It was imperial but not crushingly so. It was quite compatible with democracy, because, like so much 19th century architecture, in its generosity of visual events, it affirmed that the citizen was the reason for the state, and not the other way around. It wasn't Hapsburg Vienna, or Paris in 1900, but it was ours, part of our inheritance to keep or squander, an expression of our history, and although we sometimes laughed about its moments of wedding-cake pretension we thought it was permanent. And in this, we were wrong ...

... Now the purpose of the National Trust is to preserve heritage by preserving the actual, not the simulated, objects of social memory: buildings, sites, gardens and the like. Its only power is that of argument and classification. It can recommend and explain and argue, but it cannot actually stop the bulldozers. All it can do is raise consciousness by appealing to what Abraham Lincoln, in a different time, place and context, called "the better angels of our nature". The Trust does not stand for doomed and quixotic enterprise of turning Australia, and Sydney in particular, into a frozen museum of obsolete buildings. Those who work for it are very well aware that preservationists need to negotiate in good faith with developers, whether corporate or government; and that there is seldom, on either side, a perfect monopoly of black or white. But the claims of the past do need to be heard, and on an equal footing with those of the future. As Australians, we should believe in future possibility. But it's a question of balance. Memory really matters ...

... In order to support the idea of Australia as utopia, there had to be one curse among the blessings: the curse of amnesia. Quite early in our history we became good at forgetting it in the interests of what we interpreted as progress.

In their pride at Australian democratic progress, our ancestors set out to edit from their mental record two of the primary facts of Australian history: number one, that white settlement of this country had occurred in order to create an enormous jail, the jail of infinite space, for people who were perceived as members of a criminal class, and that Australia actually did begin as a police state, a projection of the mentality of crime and punishment on a whole continent. And number two, that what was called colonisation and settlement was actually invasion, military defeat and social ruin of thousands of black people who had occupied the continent for thousands of years by a technologically much more sophisticated group of whites who had never been here before. It is not my plan tonight to preach to you about the woes of the convict system. Nor do I have anything to add, tonight, to the ongoing argument about Aboriginal land rights, which is the great moral issue through which most political argument in Australia now runs, the central node through which so many other strings of argument are knotted? A test case, you might say, of our integrity and maturity as a nation. Rather, I want to point out how these deep formative experiences evoked a wish for denial, and thus set a pattern, a kind of template, for Australia's way of dealing with its own past, which was in turn to deeply affect the way we treated our own built environment.

... When I was at school in the 1950s, and it was a very good school, we were taught essentially nothing about Australian history: it was poor, thin inglorious stuff. Convicts arrived in 1788. Settlers settled. Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth discovered the site of the future Hydro-Majestic Hotel. Explorers went out, found nothing and generally failed to return.

There was Federation. There was Gallipoli. And so on. But nothing much to compare with the rollcall of kings and queens, of set-piece battles and revolutionary upheavals and mighty movements of power and edifying utterances of moral principle, that formed the texture of English and European history.

Over there you had Elizabeth the First and Cromwell and the French Revolution and Garibaldi; here you had the Eureka Stockade. Not much to build on. And that feeling that Australian history was by its very nature thin and derivative, a little dinghy towed in the wake of the English battleship, also affected responses to Australian culture ... including Australian architecture.

Now architecture is the symbol of development. But architecture is also the first victim of development: to build, we destroy. In particular we destroy in the cities, where the great concentrations of wealth and changing needs are, where memory and newness have their sharpest oppositions.

excerpt two

Learning to value what is local is one of the means whereby a culture finds its maturity, its balance, its sense of self. It's how we find a relationship with our own history which is nobody else's history, and if we don't do that we end up not being able to say who we are. An urban culture that predicates itself chiefly on an obsession with development is not worth having. A city needs deep memory, without which it becomes merely a stage set.

You cannot throw out the past like a Kleenex. It always used to amaze me to read this or that developer or government official, who had just caused some historical building to be ripped down for this or that purpose, describing his critics as 'elitists', nostalgic fuds standing in the way of the Progress of the Australian People. On the contrary: intelligent preservation is democracy at work. It affirms that we have a shared history, out of which come shared forms of consciousness.

Ten years ago, in the catalogue to a Bicentenary exhibition of documents, drawings and photographs of lost Australian architecture, Peter Watts – the director of the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales – pointed to the amazing rate of demolition of our historic heritage.

The key record of the main colonial houses still standing in New South Wales and Tasmania in the 1920s had been made by the architect Hardy Wilson, in 1923. It listed only 23 buildings.

Of them, 65 years later, 10 had been utterly demolished and one was only a shell – a loss of 50 per cent within two generations. Great houses and their surrounding gardens were simply wiped out, leaving behind only their names commemorated today as the names of suburbs...

... In Sydney, only Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Bay House remained. And this didn't even include the destruction of post-colonial, Victorian and Federation houses, or commercial structures like stores, warehouses, wharves, factories and the like, or the total or partial destruction of entire streets, like the terrace houses of Victoria Street along the spine of Kings Cross... When we look at the major surviving official buildings of Macquarie Street – the Convict Barracks, the old Rum Hospital – with their sober, simple brick and stone work, and their long, elegant runs of verandah, we are glad that one coherent sequence from colonial Sydney survived the wrecker's ball. But if you turn to the western side of Macquarie Street, and see what has replaced its beautiful array of terraced town houses, and how little of the original fabric remains, it's an occasion for grief as well.

All the more so, when you reflect that the boundaries of Hyde Park, along with an area from Bridge Street to what is now Whitlam Square, and not forgetting the south side of William Street, as it rises towards the Cross, once contained a marvellous concentration of Regency to 1860s town houses and villas of which absolutely nothing, not a stick or a stone, now remains. The building historian Max Kelly has estimated that, of the Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Federation buildings in Sydney that were standing in 1900, fully one-third were demolished in various development booms and government replannings by 1960.

This is an incredibly high rate of loss, and of course it went on at an even greater pace through the decade of the 1960s, the time when Australian developers discovered the home unit and the curtain-wall high-rise ...

... But the greatest rate of change, inevitably, has been in downtown Sydney, the place most subject of all to pressures of boom-and-bust development.

excerpt three

This is where the colony began: Sydney Cove, where the sea-weary crews, convicts and marines of the First Fleet disembarked from Captain Arthur Phillip's fleet of transport ships on January 26, 1788, and began the long and arduous enterprise of British conquest and settlement of the new land. It has the same symbolic significance for Australian history as the early Massachusetts colony does for America, or Rome, where Aeneas founded the new Troy, does for Italy. You might think, therefore, that it would have been treated with the respect due to the primal site of European memory in Australia, that its architecture, symbolism and planning might in some ways thoughtfully defer to the layers of history it embodies. You would be wrong. Sydney Cove was once a very beautiful place. It is now a strikingly ugly one, except that the natural beauty of the Harbour itself redeems it, as it can redeem almost anything as long as you just look at the water and the wakes of the ferries and the sky. If successive generations of builders had conspired to produce the worst possible result from a combination of greed and bureaucratic ineptitude clapped on top of a marvellous place, they couldn't have done worse than the planners of Sydney did from pure opportunistic insensitivity to the meaning and possibilities of a site. One side of it has more or less survived: the Rocks so remarkable in its deposit of sites and objects of memory, like the Argyle Cut, where you can still see the marks of the convicts' picks in the sandstone, and the surviving warehouses and terraces. But the whole of the Rocks was nearly lost in the calls for demolition that followed an outbreak of bubonic plague there in 1900 – as though evil microbes were copying the bad morals of the larrikins and whores of earlier decades; then in the 1920s there was wholesale demolition of the north end to make way for the south pylon of the Bridge; and in the 1960s the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority envisaged clearing the whole area and replacing its intriguing and picturesque warren of terraces with high-rises and plazas. Luckily this Seidlerization of a great site of memory was defeated by a black ban imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation in 1973. So the Rocks basically survived, though in too boutiquey a form for some tastes, including mine.

And meanwhile the Opera House had risen, through all its storms and swamps of controversy and cost overruns, on Bennelong Point across the water. But one of Sydney's great urban disasters was cooking up at the head of the bay.

If there is one thing that Circular Quay should symbolically express, it is the sense of arrival, of coming from water to land and opening up into vistas of spatial possibility. This is exactly what the planners prevented when they stretched across the end of Circular Quay the thick concrete condom of the Cahill Expressway, a gloomy visual screen the colour of an elephant's bum, full of urinous shadows relieved by spots of business neon. Behind this mess is an incoherent strip that might have become a fine public space, but now is merely a muddle dotted with unrelated sculpture about nothing in particular... Behind this rises the unresponsive wall of skyscrapers.

And in the midst of it all there is no sign of any actual commemoration of the First Fleet, which is as wretched a failure of collective historical memory as Australia has to offer... All it would take is a wall with the names on it; but this simple act of commemoration has remained beyond the grasp of our city fathers (and mothers), and will apparently continue to.

Meanwhile, if you look back from the Quay towards Bennelong Point, you see the last insult being prepared to what should have been, and with some humane imagination would have been, one of the world's great city entrances. I refer to the Toaster, that dully brash, intrusive apartment block that now obscures the view of the Opera House from three directions. It was designed by an architect named Dino Burrantini, working to guidelines from the Sydney firm of Andrew Andersons. It replaces Unilever House, but it's more massive, and it ruins the relationship between the Opera House, its promenade, the quay and the Botanical Gardens behind. In doing so, it gives us one more painful example of the way in which developers, seemingly without the least sense of responsibility to the urban fabric of Sydney, without even thinking about what its citizens might want – except for the small group of the very rich who can afford to live in the toaster itself – have kept doing whatever makes them the most money, with the market the only law.

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

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