The Guardian

The Guardian May 9, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Heritage vandals

So that vandal Frank Sartor wants to erect a giant coffee table over the 
former Maritime Services Board building (now the Museum of Contemporary 
Art) at Sydney's Circular Quay. Why doesn't this surprise one? 

The furore over the proposal  and the alternative design, which involves 
demolishing the existing building altogether  raises some interesting 
points about architects and the preservation of heritage buildings under 
capitalism and socialism. 

For Communists, the issue is clear. The architectural works of the past are 
part of the people's aesthetic and cultural heritage (not to mention their 
material value) and must be preserved accordingly. 

All socialist states have made the preservation of the architecture of the 
past a major concern of their governments. As a result, filmmakers seeking 
preserved, unspoilt streetscapes from past eras have flocked to Prague and 
other East European capitals in recent years to take advantage of this work 
of former socialist governments. The historic buildings of Moscow, 
Leningrad and Kiev and many other cities in the former Soviet Union were 
lovingly preserved, despite the ravages of a harsh climate. Not only the 
buildings but their precincts, the space around them, was preserved. 

Today they are being turned into real estate, sold for the construction of 
commercial hotels and the like. 

Havana, capital of socialist Cuba, having been spared the commercial 
"development of Mexico or Brazil or Chile, is arguably the most attractive 
capital in Latin America. Certainly it is the most coherent urban 
reflection of the region's history. 

Unlike capitalism, socialism does not view land and buildings as 
commodities. Nor are museums and art galleries required to show a profit 
lest they be deemed failures. 

"Inefficient socialism subsidises the upkeep of heritage buildings and 
allocates users for them  government departments, cultural or scientific 
institutions, unions or youth organisations, shops or residents. The range 
of uses is limited only by the physical characteristics of the building 
itself. 

In capitalist countries like Australia, an historic building can usually 
only be saved if it can find a role in the "tourist industry, as a souvenir 
shop, a restaurant, a commercial art gallery or an hotel. 

This leads to all manner of unfortunate compromises. Relatively small 
buildings are preserved, but only if approval is given for them to be 
dwarfed by a hotel or office block built on "the rest of the site around 
them. Unsympathetic additions are constructed to render a building "more 
viable commercially. 

When we were setting up the National Film Theatre of Australia, I was given 
an introduction to the NSW Treasurer, a National Party MP. He was 
surprisingly confident that they would be able to provide us with a 
building. 

It seemed Sydney's CBD was chock full of old buildings that were deemed to 
be historic, "so they have to be preserved. Unfortunately, they occupied 
prime city real estate. 

We are talking about the cluster of former and present government 
buildings, built of Sydney ironstone, around Bridge and Macquarie Streets -
- the lands Department, Education Department, Treasury, etc. 

He and some of his cabinet colleagues had a solution, however: they would 
demolish the buildings and re-erect them in a "historic park somewhere more 
suitable. He was a bit vague as to where that would be  "somewhere down 
near the wharves. 

He lost his portfolio not long after this and the "historic village never 
got built. At least one of those buildings has since been preserved by 
turning it into  what else  a hotel. 

Old buildings can of course make quite splendid hotels, but it is not the 
only use that a building can be put to. It is, however, one of the few uses 
capitalism can think of that can make money. 

The other, of course, is a restaurant. Whether it's Walter Burley Griffin's 
incinerator at Lavender Bay or the Mortuary Station at Central Railway, the 
only suggested use for the buildings once preserved is to lease them out as 
restaurants. 

If the restaurants are not commercially successful then the preservation of 
the buildings is held up as a waste of money. The significance of the 
buildings to the architectural heritage of the city and the people, the 
buildings' historic, cultural and aesthetic value, all this counts for very 
little with capitalism if the buildings cannot be made to turn a profit. 

The priorities of capitalism also affect the way architects work under that 
system. "Private enterprise requires that architects engage in self-
promotion if they wish to obtain contracts. 

This inevitably results in a drive to produce flamboyant, "showy designs 
that will startle and be noticed. Whether they are suitable, sympathetic to 
the site or the purpose, or aesthetically pleasing is largely irrelevant. 

The architect's aim is to stamp his or her name on the building as 
prominently as possible, and the head of the council or committee 
commissioning the building or extension is just as keen to get his or her 
name in the media in concert with that of the architect. 

This approach is bad enough when it involves only a modernistic structure 
brutally plonked down in the grounds of a completely incompatible type of 
building (like the huge glass pyramid sited in the foreground of the 
Louvre). But when the modernist architect tries to impose his (or her) 
design on the older incompatible design you have a recipe for disaster. 

You have the Circular Quay coffee table.

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