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It's time for a national architecture gallery


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It’s time to get serious about establishing a national architecture gallery.

The Herald-Sun (Melbourne) reported recently that Heritage Victoria has recommended to the state’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, that “the former Hoyts Cinema Centre in Bourke St be heritage-listed”. The Minister, however, is reported as saying: “I don’t think we should be saving ugly buildings in Melbourne.”

Heritage advocates learned long ago that seeking to protect buildings primarily on the basis of their aesthetic merit or contemporary functional relevance is not a reliable strategy. They focus instead on a building’s historical virtue, broadly defined to include social, economic and architectural history.

The executive director of Heritage Victoria says the former Hoyts complex, which was completed in 1969, is significant at the state-level because:

I think the claim in respect of the building’s contribution to the history of brutalism is far-fetched (see “Does this car park warrant heritage protection?”), but I’ve no reason to doubt the veracity of the other assertions. What I do query, though, is whether they’re of such moment that they justify the inherent costs of protection.

Protection isn’t free. Apart from the cost incurred by the owner, it imposes costs on the community. It can reduce the supply of alternative uses like housing or office space, with consequent implications for affordability. It can also increase pressure to develop other sites more intensively (see “Does architectural heritage mean really old?”).

Protection can also inhibit finding economic uses for a building. For example, community organisation Melbourne Heritage Action opposes a proposal to add a floor to the top of the Hoyts tower.

These costs distinguish buildings and large structures from the way other events and artefacts of historical importance are treated. The record of key turning points in the evolution of our society – for example, wars, universal suffrage, free public education – necessarily relies almost entirely on ephemeral media.

We can’t experience most history directly, so we rely on books, films, debates and discussions. In the absence of a physical presence, we consequently tend to focus more on their meaning and implications.

Even where there’re tangible manifestations, like paintings and artefacts, they’re almost always small and portable. They can be accommodated in galleries, museums and interpretation centres.

That enables them to be managed and safeguarded at a fraction of the cost of protecting a building. They can also be supported by interpretive media and displayed along with contextually similar objects.

Take the history of nearly any field – for example, the Australian trade union movement – and it’s recorded almost entirely in ephemeral media and small artefacts like banners and photographs.

However, with buildings we have the option of preserving them in their entirety, so inevitably that’s what advocates often seek to do. In effect we give them the same significance as the natural landscape – notwithstanding some buildings proposed for protection have been around for only 50 years or less.

There are certainly some existing structures that warrant the cost of protection. We paid a high price for the wholesale demolition in the 1960s and ’70s of many important buildings constructed in our cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But in the overall scheme of things, the historical claims to protection of buildings like the former Hoyts cinema complex or the Total car park are much less compelling. That’s not to say they don’t have some historical value, but rather that it’s not enough to justify the private and social costs of preservation.

I have to wonder how a proposal to demolish Sydney’s Cahill Expressway or Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway would fare on the same logic used by Heritage Victoria. I expect these barriers between the city and the water would have a much more convincing historical case for preservation than the former Hoyts cinema centre.

As an alternative to protection, we could instead “preserve” some worthy buildings in a National Architecture Gallery. It would exhibit documents and artefacts associated with a particular building, but the key offering would be a virtual re-creation of the structure.

3-D modelling and developing holographic techniques would enable a virtual walk-through of a building and, moreover, provide simulated access to parts – like offices and services – that would very likely remain off-limits to the public if the building were protected. Indeed, a National Architecture Gallery could bring back to (virtual) life those valuable historic buildings already lost to demolition.

A computer-generated representation isn’t, of course, the same as the real thing. It can’t substitute for preservation of really important buildings and structures, although it could provide a useful complement offering a much richer and more accessible way  (eg online) to appreciate them.

It would, however, be a way of addressing cases where the social cost of protection exceeds the social benefits; or where the benefits accrue to a very narrow section of the community.

As it happens, I disagree with Mr Guy’s view that the former Hoyts cinema centre is ugly. These are subjective judgements and tastes will differ, but I think it’s quite handsome, if bland. I think it has some historical interest too.

But the fact it’s an attractive building isn’t enough to justify permanent protection. If I can get a rich appreciation of an important social advance such as the eight-hour day largely via books and articles, I can live without the social cost of a permanent 10-storey monument celebrating the coming of the first multi-cinema complex to Victoria.

If I want to know more about this building then a permanent 3-D walk-through in a national architecture gallery would be a pretty good outcome.

This article was originally published on Crikey blog The Urbanist and is reproduced with permission.



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