Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
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.