The heritage B-list

What is it?

A recent article in the Saturday Age by Julie Szego on the proposed demolition of Ampol House, “Stripping the glitter from architecture’s ‘golden’ oldies”, offers an insightful observation into the nature of heritage and the planning policies that protect it.

Ampol House, a kooky old gasoline company headquarters on the corners of Elizabeth and Grattan Streets in Parkville, has been vacant for a number of years. According to its National Trust listing it was also designed in “a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of 20 years previously”. Thus the building is neither currently useful nor even considered as original architecture. The University of Melbourne wishes to demolish the building and use the site for their new Peter Doherty Insitute of Infection and Immunity. However, despite the low heritage value of the old building and high medical value of the new one, the proposal was blocked by Council and is now fighting its way through VCAT.

Szego notes that the fevered desire to preserve the past is caused by “a loss of belief in the future, in the whole notion of progress”. We may not realise it, but whilst we feverishly pickle large swathes of our urban fabric, we are stifling new creativity and preventing our city from adapting to contemporary living conditions.

What do we think?

We, along with Szego, lack confidence in the heritage policies of Victorian councils. Buildings are often protected thanks solely to their age, quality rarely being a consideration. A recent town planning permit received by architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe, for a renovation to a terrace house in Carlton North stipulated that the only changes permitted to the front facade would be works aimed at restoring original detailing: this despite all original detailing having long been stripped from the facade and newer, historically ignorant elements like a large glass door being added.

What was the City of Yarra trying to achieve? The terrace may have once upon a time had wrought iron balustrades, but 100 years of history have since happened, irrevocably changing the building’s character. Surely returning it to its original state spits in the face of authenticity and only disrespects those neighbours that have survived the 20th century in their original form?

What should we learn?

Post-colonial Australia does not possess the millenia-long history of Europe, yet our heritage policies here are as vigorous as, if not more so than, countries who boast architecture of the ilk of Big Ben or the Colosseum. We as a community attempt to hide our collective shame at this derth of history by slapping heritage controls on any buildings, or parts of buildings, that have managed to stay standing for more than 50 years. We need to face the reality of our cultural identity: we are a new country still finding our way. We cannot afford to suffocate the possibility of new architecture, cannot afford to languish in the past merely because we are uncertain of the future.

About Warwick Mihaly

Warwick Mihaly is a principal architect of Mihaly Slocombe, teaches design and construction, and writes.
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