Architectural Heritage – Integral to Cultural Development

Munich in the south of Germany is the capital of Bavaria. It was voted the world's most livable city in 2010. The city father's took a great decision to rebuild it exactly as it had been prior to World War II

The intellectual ideas of every period and culture in world history are reflected in architecture and their are consequences if we tear down our living heritage, even in regard to modern buildings of great merit.

Heritage is not really about age. It is about buildings that have contributed to the growth and cultural development of a society, a city, a town or hamlet.

The decision to be made is really all about whether they can continue to have a role to play by using clever design to incorporate old into the new. Nearly every instance where this happens the result is not only pleasing but helps in aiding people’s quality of life.

Conservation of an amazing building gives a city character. As a bonus for all time, the layers of history can be peeled back to reveal what its citizens have achieved. It can also help inspire and motivate the future we are moving toward.

Consider the city fathers and citizens of Munich, who took a decision to rebuild and preserve their old city, despite it being bombed nearly out of existence during World War II. This extraordinary feat means that today. with a little wear and tear, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the old and the new.

What is important is the contribution the restored city has made to its economic welfare, which noted in the billions of dollars it attracts as a financial and publishing hub in the south of Germany. The capital of Bavaria, in 2010 it was voted the world’s most livable city.

Careful efforts at reconstruction are underway and have been for twenty years or more. This involves fixing problems from previous reconstruction among other issues

The fabulous stone buildings on the Acropolis at Athens are another amazing example. They stood for over 2,400 years, despite human folly. They are a symbolic foundation stone for today’s western culture.

There is still so much to learn from, and about them, as currently those working on their conservation and reconstruction can confirm. The ruins remain as visual evidence of a society that had a great grasp on the natural environment and why space should be an integral aspect of, and important to, the production of aesthetically pleasing design.

The mathematical genius of the Parthenon whose columns optically stand in a straight line, but are in fact all deliberately curved, is gob-smacking stuff. It has stood on the high ground of the Acropolis for thousands of years. It has been blown, up, rocked by earthquakes and its sculptural treasures plundered.

Its aesthetic has been disfigured by people hell bent on destroying humanity. Today in glorious ruin it manages to still draw us up the hill where the Greeks used to shelter in times of trouble,  provide us with a platform of knowledge to learn from, which is nothing short of amazing.

Parthenon-Now

In almost every field of their endeavor the ancient Greeks were pioneers and their achievements in architecture, in literature, thought and science are a part of the Greek legacy to the world at large.

It was in a garden dedicated to the Greek hero Academus, hence the word Academy, that Plato taught Greek philosophy. Early Greek philosophy is nothing less than the discovery of the cosmos, i.e. the realization the world as a whole had a structure, revealing it to rational enquiry. The Greek word kosmos means order.

Among other things Plato developed was the art of self-criticism, seeing his own life as a divine mission to his fellow citizens. That required picking out the ‘soul’, and not the body, as that part of a man that required cultivation. As the body is improved by healthy exercise, so the soul benefits from morally right behaviour and ruined by the opposite, the soul was traditionally regarded as the source of life…but we digress.

The word classic means of the first class having acknowledged excellence; the word classical pertaining to the standard achieved by ancient Greek and Latin authors or their works, or the culture, art, architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity generally. The main characteristics are clarity of outline, restrained, harmonious and in accordance with established forms.

Gothic style stables belonging to the Governor now the Conservatorium of Music at NSW

In the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s, the scene that unfolded in most major cities in Australia was also happening in many other parts of the world.

At Sydney aesthetically pleasing well-designed solidly built buildings, either domestic or commercial, were biting the dust. I must admit while being a witness to this chain of events I could not foresee a time in the future when we would have any regard, or appreciation, for our built heritage.

It is a miracle really that the ‘Gothic style’ stables, built to be part of the first Government House at Sydney survived to be incorporated into and provide such a wonderful point of contrast for a backdrop of amazing architectural modernity that is the Conservatorium of Music. Learning about music and the harmony of life in such surroundings for students must be a powerful experience and motivator.

When working in the 60’s as a personal assistant (interior design student) to an architect in a building firm heavily involved in small commercial work and the modern renovation of many fabulous large bungalows in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, Whelan the Wrecker and his swinging ball was destroying much of Sydney’s early heritage. The interesting aspect of the story is that he got so sick of the destruction himself he had the union impose bans to stop it. Today he holds an important position protecting what remains of Sydney’s heritage.

Goodness, how many fabulous stone and brick buildings did we witness being wiped out in the name of ‘progress’? I was constantly in hot water with the architect for asking why we could not have better solutions to re-arranging a living space without destroying the aesthetic and the architectural integrity of the original house’s design. There was so many quality fittings and superb timbers originally used. And these were being removed. He would tell me I was not to ‘rock the boat’, and ‘I was really too young to know what I was on about’. What we were getting was going to be much ‘better’ and that the clients were going to be ‘better off’.

But are we better off today than we were? And, will we be better off 20 years from now? I am not against change. Personally I embrace it constantly and its part of a progressive society. I also enjoy advancements in the arts, sciences and technology, however I am against change for change’s sake.

Change needs rhyme, reason and intelligent unemotional and unselfish debate.

Federation style Flats, Carr Street, Coogee Beach, Sydney

At the time my architect boss didn’t realize I had lived most of my life in a wonderful old block of what we now describe as Federation style flats near the sea. I just love old blocks of Flats (as opposed to apartments) because they have large rooms with high ceilings, superb architectural detailing, sometimes a walk in pantry or butler’s pantry, milk boxes, letter boxes, a back door and spaces that conformed to the tenets of the golden ratio of measurement. This meant human beings really felt good when they were at home.

One 30’s deco flat I lived in also had its original maid’s quarters. In direct contrast to the Victorian way of accommodating maids in an attic, it was indeed luxurious with a bedroom, sitting room, with built in bookcases, cupboards and easy access to the kitchen.

The block I lived in as a child was vandalised on an ongoing basis by an owner hell bent on dragging the tenants into a ‘promising future’. This meant replacing beautifully rendered in excellent condition timber window frames with mean thin aluminium ones. They were hard to maintain, especially near the sea (you can paint and stain timber) and this was pre-powder coated, which still has to be maintained if its going to continue to look good.

Ceilings were lowered by false ceilings by an ugly board studded with holes. As a child I used to think these were hideous. Today we can perhaps say at least they protected the original ceilings so they could later be restored. Then lovely details like picture rails were also stripped off in the name of fashion. They were usually part of a scheme that divided the room into aesthetic proportions, so that when removed they put the design out of kilter.

Deep open arched verandahs were glassed and boxed in with a combination of dreaded aluminium windows and cheap ply board. This ongoing awful act of ‘modernisation’ (vandalism) sealed my fate. I actively went in search of knowledge about the history of the evolution of design, especially as it related to architecture. I wanted to gain an insight into, and better understanding of, the intellectual ideas that gave great buildings around the world, birth. The objective was of being a fully informed interior designer. It turned out to be so much more of a journey, one I have riding along on ever since.

I still haven’t quite got over the council at Sydney allowing the destruction of one of its most respected architect Harry Seidler’s groundbreaking buildings at the bottom of Macquarie Street during the early 90’s. At the time, after practicing my trade for nearly 20 years, together with like-minded colleagues, I started a lecture series about the evolution of western art and design.

The objective was to use our collective knowledge to raise people’s awareness of the visual arts and also offer an appreciation for our living heritage and cultural inheritance. The first lectures were held in one of the rooms in the concrete modern annexe at the State Library of NSW, Australia.

During the break we would stand out on the roof terrace overlooking Macquarie Street and discuss how we all felt a great pit of despair inside as we viewed the sad and sorry state of the Macquarie street-scape.Ghastly late 60’s and 70’s brick buildings had replaced many of the beautiful nineteenth century Sydney sandstone classically styled town houses and commercial buildings that had made this one of the most classy and elegant streets in the country.

Between the wars these quite wonderful buildings had been interspersed with some other very good buildings, such as the first Sydney New York Gothic style skyscraper (BMA House).  It did add up to a very charming mix.

When they were torn down they were replaced by quite simply dreadful box style buildings, whose interiors and exteriors were proportionally disparate. Bland beyond belief they had ubiquitous low ceilings, that made people feel claustrophobic with often awful consequences. Many had crumbling mortar and were dotted with mean rust-ridden air condioning boxes that stuck out of previously fashionably framed timber windows – replaced by those mean metal windows. They dripped stale water onto all those walking along the street below, while slowly staining the walls on the way down. ‘Yuk’ was the only word that came to mind as we stood there looking at them. Here was visual evidence of the ‘good life’ we were all aspiring to and the riches money could buy and, as we were constantly reminded, all in the name of ‘progress’.

But did that mean it was going to be better? An article by Richard Reeves in a 2005 Journal of the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in England entitled ‘The Sun sets on the Enlightenment’ poses many interesting questions. One point he makes is that ‘only by having a clear view of where it is we want to go can we stand any chance of determining our path. We need to rejuvenate the spirit, reinvent the sense of progress or be condemned to managerial politics bleached of idealism and vision, corporate short sightedness and disillusionment’.

Powerful stuff.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

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