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Pubdate: 15-Oct-1996

Edition: Late

Section: News And Features

Subsection: Arts

Page: 12

Wordcount: 951

Heritage: whose list is it anyway?



NEWS. The Capitol Theatre reconstruction has picked up yet another industry gong – this time from the Australian Institute of Building; the American Express tower’s sunglass removal has been approved; the shish kebab has gone, just like that, overnight. This confluence of events re-exposes all the old vexed questions about which buildings to keep, and why.

The city’s heritage list is under review yet again, by yet another joint city-State committee sustained by the faint hope of finally establishing some certainty for the city’s bruised and beleaguered stakeholders.

Certainty? In Sydney? Buckley’s. Sydney city planning has always run on the Darwinist public school principle of rewarding the loudest shout. Certainty would calm the air but spoil the fun.

Last time they reviewed the heritage list it took years for the squabbles to die down (remember Lyn Shaddock’s description of the list as the Satanic Verses?) And even were this committee to fluke quick consensus on a keep-list, being listed still only means you have to ask before you demolish. Then the squabbles, the threats, the tantrums start all over again.

So, what should the criteria be? Whose, indeed? Is consensus possible in so diverse and bolshie a society? There’s no longer any doubt, thankfully, that civilisation demands a healthy connection with the past, as well as the future. But it is possible to overdo it. And as the heritage mafia – I use the term affectionately – has gained strength, there has been some resounding silliness, along with some memorable successes.

There are times, I suppose, when the Marie Antoinette-slept/ate/passed water-hereon-her-way-to-the-throne/ bedchamber/guillotine school of heritage listing has to hold sway. This is known as cultural heritage – to distinguish it from anything that can be defined or agreed upon. Justifiable instances must exist, although they are not immediately apparent.

However, when this principle becomes inverted, as it must in our anti-hero culture, into a desire to preserve intact every dank two-room worker’s hovel from here to Castle Hill, something’s gotta give. Either that, or you end up losing the George Pattersons and sanctifying the hovels, dankness included, for the rest of eternity.

Against such extremism one safeguard, which some will see as enemy infiltration, is inclusion on the heritage review committee of a developer. In this case the developer is Jim Barrett, representing the Australian Property Council (formerly BOMA). Barrett has an enviable track record of revitalising first the QVB, then the Capitol. Both projects were undertaken in collaboration with the City Council, and both have been wildly successful within the constraints of Permanent Conservation Orders, which is about as serious as heritage gets in NSW.

The QVB is a fine piece of architecture; eclectic, pompous, overblown, but with immense presence, both material and spatial, inside and out, the new hole in the floor notwithstanding. In 1959 Lord Mayor Harry Jensen tried to bowl the thing over for a car park and a couple of fountains; 20 years on Barrett found a way of using the car park to save the building, rather than raze it, and of tarting it up with just the blend of ersatz

authenticity to guarantee both commercial and heritage success.

The Capitol, by contrast, is no fine architectural exemplar. Never was, never will be. Vulgarity has been its keystone from the start. Built as a single-storey markets building, it was converted first, in 1916, into a hippodrome, complete with a hydraulically operated seal tank (now the orchestra pit). Successive conversions saw the building operate as an auditorium with an open-air Italianate garden (1920s), a Chicago-style atmospheric cinema in the 1940s and now, a 2,000-seat lyric theatre.

The single connecting thread is unabashed populism. Revelling in the vaudeville penumbra of the art world, the building and its liberally applied embellishments were always just as tacky as minimum levels of light and audience sophistication would allow.

This is still true, although both parameters have risen significantly over the years. But when the City, with the help of Ipoh Garden, Peddle Thorp architects and Fletcher Construction came to conserve and adapt the building in the early 1990s, the whole lot was listed, right down to the faux-marble balustrades and the crazypaving carpet.

This brought delicious ironies. The tawdry gems were not only lovingly restored by serious-minded heritage types but fastidiously re-created, exact in every detail.

Ridiculous perhaps. But in an ever more populist global culture, what could be more apt? While at the other, sublime end of the stick the high-minded works of earlier generations are biting dust at a great rate.

What do Flugelman’s Kebab, Woolley’s State Office Block and Andrews’s Amex tower have in common? All are works of high modernism threatened in later life by the changing tide of taste and commerce, all claiming (or having claimed for them) a moral right to persistent identity.

The artist’s rights, we are told, need statutory protection. What right of intervention has any mere elected politician, especially one with “at best … a lay person’s likes and dislikes” (Herald, October 7)?

Turn it around. The Lord Mayor’s personal taste isn’t the point. An artist is commissioned, and paid, to produce a work of art or architecture which moulds or inhabits public space. The work receives professional acclaim, perhaps, but never wins the public heart. A generation on, the elected representatives of the day decide to sell/remove/demolish. Is this a moral infringement? Whose “rights” (read “wishes”) should prevail – the public’s, or the artist’s?

Great claims have been made. The Dobell Memorial has been likened to the Eiffel Tower, the State Office Block to a Whiteley painting. But analogies are treacherous. No Whiteley stakes a permanent claim over public territory, while the Eiffel Tower was a temporary installation which, although it met with controversy, was kept through public acclaim. In return it offered a world record, an unforgettable icon and an unrepeatable chance to see finde-sie’cle Paris as God might.

Robert Hughes has repeatedly pointed out that art got much harder to like, much less agree on, when it went abstract, and society went pluralist. Arguably, in these disparate days, all public art should be temporary. After all, Davids are thin on the ground lately. And you can’t climb a shish kebab.


Two Illus: The exuberant vulgarity of the Capitol Theatre, left, and the austere modernism of the State Office Block, right.

Which deserves saving?


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