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the Sydney experience of conservation and modernity

Johnson, C. & Marr, D. The Heritage Office Lecture 1998

excerpt one

The thesis I am developing here is that conservation and modernity can coexist if they are handled carefully and well. Part of this process involves getting new buildling systems and patterns to understand the old, to establish the right sense of scale and for the relationship between new and old to be correct.

Philippe Robert and my office have looked at ways in which new and old in Sydney can relate so they reflect an understanding of building systems and patterns. Options we have developed range from total conservation to demolition, and include the possibility of new interiors and the blending together of various levels of retention. Examples show a clear separation between the old and the new.

Another project that my office has been involved in is the Locomotive Workshop at Eveleigh Railway Yards. This giant warehouse of a building had a series of annexes and sheds added to its southern elevation over the years. In adapting it for new uses with air conditioning we have placed the new annexes for the new services in a similar manner alongside the southern wall. We have, however, used new materials and colours that are different to the old and, internally we have worked with the rhythm of the building in a way that I think reinforces the significance of the old while still encouraging new uses. I believe that this issue of understanding the way a building goes together – its patterns and its systems is very important.

There are many examples from the past where previous government architects have understood the question of good manners and decorum.

An 1870 photograph of Government House, which was designed by Edward Blore in London, clearly shows how the building did not understand the Australian climate. To give some protection to the windows a pergola was placed outside the northeastern windows, which was then grown over with vines. James Barnet later added a stone colonnade in 1880 on the north-eastern side. Barnet's structure understands the rituals of the original building through the placement of carved coats of arms at the top of each column to represent previous governors. The colonnade has since become one of the most recognised parts of Government House, as the site where new parliamentary cabinets are photographed with the governor, where entertaining takes place and the connection between inside and outside occurs.

Another example, also by James Barnet, is the General Post Office in Sydney. This project, originally designed by Barnet in 1863, was constructed in amazing circumstances cheek by jowl with existing terrace-house buildings. His building was of such strength that it clearly needed space around it. In an article in the Illustrated Sydney News in January 1888 there were calls for a 'Piazza of the Italian style' to be placed in front of the GPO to give it a sense of decorum and a sense of space. Eventually the space was opened up and a large piazza was indeed constructed in front of the building.

In Sydney there are very few recent buildings that do contribute to this sense of decorum. The most obvious is the Sydney Opera House that sits proudly on its point and is one that everybody respects. Recent concerns expressed about the buildings at East Circular Quay are as much about the impact on the Opera House as they are about the quality of the apartments.

If one looks at David Moore's aerial photograph of Sydney Harbour, the two more recent Sydney buildings that really have this sense of decorum are the Opera House – representing culture and the celebration of a land peninsular surrounded by water – and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – representing the connection across the harbour. These two structures provide a new scale for the city. Between them lies our new public square – Sydney Harbour, the water square. As the world begins to focus on Sydney and the 2000 Olympics, these two icons and this public space are increasingly recognised as the international symbols of Sydney.

But to return to my general thesis about conservation and modernity. I have positioned heritage as a continuum, as a process of growth and change. Heritage is more than physical objects, it is also about memory, aspirations and broader definitions. It is similar to some of the issues that Paul Davies and others are relating to science and biological systems and to Darwin's evolutionary processes. I think the heritage community is increasingly taking on these broader definitions.

The Heritage Council of NSW's own logo, for instance, represents the broader definition of heritage. There are four separate elements representing architectural, Aboriginal, movable and natural heritage. Wendy McCarthy when she was chair of the Australian Heritage Commission produced a fascinating video about heritage which included people like the Aboriginal singer Christine Anu and Poppy King, the lipstick entrepreneur, who both talked about heritage in terms of identity. Identity is a key part of heritage.

The National Trust recently developed a program to find the top 100 Living National Treasures within the Australian community, which again broadens the concept of just what heritage is about. If we also look at the Burra Charter, a key document defining heritage within the Australian context, we realise that it was based on the Venice Charter, which is part of UNESCO. UNESCO is also about the plight of cultures, like that of Tibet, and the need to ensure a continuity for these cultures.

Heritage is increasingly seen as part of the whole system of the cosmos (of natural systems and manufactured systems), with concern about impacts on our future and influences on our past. It is important that current events from modernity do modify our past and our approach to conservation.

To conclude I would like to bring together some key words I have highlighted during my lecture because they summarise my reading of the issues of heritage today.

Firstly, heritage is about identity. It not only includes static objects. It is something much deeper and richer than artefacts.

Growth and change, adaptation and layering are all part of understanding heritage, science and an optimistic sense of the future.

We should understand linear and non-linear systems. When a particular function and use for a building finishes it is tempting to try to hang on to the belief that it may keep going endlessly, but something more radical is required at this point in time.

Urban design – the trigger picture of how forms and shapes fit within the city – is an important part of understanding conservation and heritage.

Decorum is an important virtue that we need to reassert. Good manners, politeness and repressing some of our individualism can be a positive sign for the city.

Building systems and patterns are important parts of interpreting old buildings, adding to old buildings, and placing new buildings amongst old buildings or landscapes. Where modernity and the pursuit of the new occurs it must understand the grain of how the old occurred and interpret this in a modern way.

Living heritage is very important; we can't make all buildings museums. We must have a living city, like Sydney, where heritage is part of how the city functions – a city filled with restaurants, working places and living places.

And finally, that modernity is future conservation. Our European approach to time, based on the old being better than the new, needs to change to a more Asian cyclical approach to time. Old and new are all layers that come together.

excerpt two

While a building still stands, it lives not in the past or the future; it is now. Francis Greenway's stables, Wharf 6/7, Elizabeth Bay House, Ken Maher's Homebush Railway Station all exist now. To demolish and replace with something else is not to choose between the past and the future – with all the pent-up hope and optimism that the expression suggests – but to choose between what we have now and what we may get.

Often what we have now is worth demolishing. Carnage on Millers Point was a small price to pay for the Harbour Bridge. And I don't mind losing a Greenway fort and a city tram system to have the Opera House. But when we do decide something is worth preserving, it's not just because we're comfortable with it or that we're nostalgic (but of course we are) or that we want to be able to see the narrative of our little civilisation. It's because, I think, we very deeply crave and need contact with other imaginations. Exciting societies, artists, civilised people always feed on and crave contact with other imaginations, with the imaginations of other cultures and other times.

What is strange and uncomfortable about those imaginations is often what is most instructive and exciting about them. That is why conservation architecture is so obsessed with archaeological accuracy – it's the only hope we have of shaking ourselves free, if only for a moment, of the imagination of today to confront and experience the imagination of the past. And it's also why poor reuse – where the taste and imagination of the past is softened or obscured to accommodate the attitudes of today, particularly commercial attitudes of today – means that this kind of operation can be almost as bad as demolition.

This need – a vital need – to keep a true connection with the past is much more than an architectural issue. All the arts are involved, but there are peculiar problems with architecture. Now, I'm sorry to point this out in this company – at the same time taking great pleasure in doing so – but a book is a permanent thing. Once it is published it is there. But building is temporary. It may last a thousand years, but a few points on the Richter scale, a nasty civil war or developer Harry Triguboff and it's gone forever.

It is my view that the least of what is lost is a chunk of the past. We've lost something of now and all the imaginative and civic possibilities it once offered for now and the future. Let us look at that expression the future you posit so confidently against the past. Modernity is a splendid style, attitude, movement. But who is to say that it represents the future? There has always been this tremendously pretentious streak running through the modern movement: this notion that it, and it alone, shows us the way ahead. The way to the future will only be clear when we get there. There is a less pretentious version of this claim, which is to say that a building or movement represents the spirit of today. But it's essentially the same thing and still too soon to tell.

This bundle of claims to be modern, to represent the future or to represent the spirit of today is, of course, an indispensable part of the rhetoric of development. It is the language that progress associations have used for God knows how long to bust up country towns. As they take away the civic amenities of now, they offer their very personal, very profitable notions of a future. Somehow we see this as bogus when it's operating in Bathurst or Batemans Bay, but I think, Chris, the same idea lies behind much of what you've said tonight.

This notion of the future tries to disqualify us from asking over and over again the first and essential question which has to be asked in every heritage controversy: is what's coming better than what's going? It's a very, very simple question. But you can't ask that question if what's coming is this thing called 'the future'. I say what's coming is another building. The developer of the building says what's coming is the future – this wonderful, this irresistible future. Most of Sydney has been lost in the maw of that false proposition.

Reproduced with permission of the NSW Heritage Commission.

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