Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
For our cultural desert’s sake, roll them off to rot
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.
A BUILDING is not just a building. A building is a symbol, and the more people who place their faith in that symbol, the greater the statement in destroying it. The speaker? Not Osama bin Laden (though his shadow was palpable), but V, from V for Vendetta, during his movie-length quest to persuade Evey that blowing up Parliament was a righteous act, under the circumstances.
By film’s end we agree with him, but the eventual explosion is still shocking. Why? Because of the symbolism; the way the Westminster building’s bizarre mix of classical plan and gothic elevation so perfectly symbolises British on-the-fence expedience. Oh, yes, and the democracy thing.
In Australia, by contrast, we encourage destruction of our ancient symbols, whether by neglect, arson or bulldozer. It’s almost as if our governments, federal and state, need to ensure those who accuse Australia of being “as devoid of culture as of history” are not left without a paddle.
At council level, admittedly, there’s still zealotry, listing every one-room worker’s hovel and sterilising entire precincts. But councils have so little power.
Meanwhile, the muscle levels of government have swung so strongly back to slash and burn that the powerful Heritage Council, chaired by a real estate agent, constantly accepts botoxed fragments in lieu of authenticity. The late Harvard philosopher John Rawls proposed a “veil of ignorance” for social policy decision-makers. Sounds like just our kind of veil. Rawls’s argument, though, was that decision-makers should approach their task as if they have no personal stake in the outcome.
This is obvious; call it objectivity, or fair-mindedness. Our politicians, though, have donned Rawls’s veil inside out, taking all decisions as if they were the ones with vested interest.
So it’s especially ironic that the next casualty of this fashion botch looks like being that rare and shining example of heritage-cum-financially-self-sustaining, the much-loved 3801 steam train and its home of 20 years, the Large Erecting Shop, Eveleigh. Most Sunday mornings, the charming Wind in the Willows “whoop whoop, chugga chugga chugga” of the old steam loco is audible around Central. Come December, it’ll probably chug and whoop no more.
Zoom out. In April last year Peter Costello commissioned a Productivity Commission inquiry into “the conservation of Australia’s historic heritage places”. Historic heritage, not the other sort. The commissioners were Neil Byron, a forestry economist, and Tony Hinton, a diplomat with expertise in public-debt management. Their draft report rests its 327 pages on the single premise that heritage listing should become voluntary.
Whoa there! Good idea. Problem solved. If the listing authority can’t reach agreement with the property owner, it’s not heritage. Simple. That’s the feds, of course, but the state shows strange and unnatural concurrence. The same simple self-adjudication principle has sent NSW building certification down the toilet of self-interest. Now for heritage.
Not all heritage, of course. Just the bits deemed “state significant” – read “significant enough for demolition”. Such as the 3801, her sister locos, the fabulous brick and cast iron sheds that house them and the 200-odd listed heritage buildings in the Redfern-Waterloo “operational area”.
Redfern-Waterloo – at least the government holdings there – has special exemption from the Heritage Act. All listings are up for ministerial grabs. The 70-page draft Redfern-Waterloo Built Environment Plan includes a two-paragraph “heritage strategy”. Item 1 suggests you “conserve and protect heritage items where appropriate” (otherwise you can replace them with an “archival record”). Item 2 encourages “adaptive re-use”, retaining heritage items where practical. The thing is, heritage is so much more practical when you can get it into the compactus.
This government self-exemption from heritage rules is, says the former rail boss David Hill, “scandalous”. Resident submissions offer descriptions such as “breathtaking hypocrisy”, “blatant disregard for the people and environment”, “short-sighted and ugly”, “sterile and worthless”, “major fudge” and “pretext for massive overdevelopment”. Still, there it is. There is no recourse at law, because there’s no law. Only flip-flop discretion.
The 3801 was the first of the original Australian-designed and made steam locomotives – the “38 series”. It was our pride, our Sydney-Newcastle record holder, our Flying Scotsman. It was decommissioned in the early 1970s and exiled, with the rest of Sydney’s steam-based rolling stock, to an underfunded back paddock at Thirlmere, known as the Rail Transport Museum. There, with its fine timberwork and handsome interiors, it sat in the rain and rotted.
In 1983, when Hill became rail chief, the 3801 was derelict. By 1986, it was fully restored, housed in the magnificent Large Erecting Shop and given work as the centrepiece of 3801 Limited’s not-for-profit fun runs. Since then it has more than paid for itself.
Last year, with 10 full-time staff and 97 volunteers, it generated $2.1 million in income. Over 20 years, more than half a million Sydneysiders have ridden and there’s talk of opening the building as a working museum.
Only now, a cash-hungry Government seems poised to return the 3801 to Thirlmere. On November 26, the 20-year agreement that effectively leases both the loco and the fabulous shed to 3801 Limited ends.
The Government, so far, declines to renew. Under the draft plan, the shed (like much of Redfern, including the much-loved Marian Street Park) is zoned high-rise. Twelve storeys on the shed, 18 on the park. That’s not a good sign.
As for symbolism? The train and its beautiful shed represent Australian ingenuity, independence, craftsmanship and pride. Dangerous ideas. So government must be right. If we’re ever to deliver a full-on cultural desert to the heart of Sydney, we’ll have to let ’em rot. Thirlmere or bust.