With over 20 years’ experience in Aboriginal and historic cultural heritage planning, public historian, urban planner and GML Heritage CEO Sharon Veale talks about heritage, art and state governments, and their role in the sustainability of our built environment. 

Would you say that the meaning of heritage is more important to countries like Australia than those with an older urbanised tradition?

Heritage means different things to different people.  Research in Australia and elsewhere commonly demonstrates that most people understand heritage as old buildings.  But heritage is much broader than that, and has living dimensions which are social and cultural. 

Heritage meanings and values operate at many levels they can be can be personal, collective, physical and non-physical and it is constructed and represented differently across cultures and continents.

I wouldn’t say that heritage is more important in Australia than those countries with an older architectural or urban tradition.  At its simplest, heritage is our inheritance and the age of it is not the key determining factor of its significance.  

What is your definition of ‘interpretation’, and why does it matter in our built environment?

Essentially interpretation is a unique form of communication or storytelling that can enrich our appreciation of the environment-natural, urban or built.  Cities and buildings evidence where we have come from and connect us with place and history.

In the context of heritage, we interpret places to enable audiences to enjoy and appreciate the stories and meanings from our past that are considered significant in the contemporary.  I think interpretation matters because it can create curiosity and engage people through human stories, meanings and emotional connections.  It can also add a finer grain, texture and sensory delight to places. 

Why do state governments have such a bad record when it comes to heritage protection?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that all state governments have a bad record in heritage protection.  I would, however, say that government has made some decisions that demonstrate a lack of imagination and vision when it comes to heritage. 

Currently in NSW, much of our heritage is up for sale, or has been sold.  Heritage is conceived as real estate, with a market value.  This view doesn’t acknowledge or ‘value’ heritage places as an irreplaceable and distinctive part of our cultural life and identity.  What I have noticed is a lack of imagination and creativity in responding to heritage broadly on the part of government. 

While we have a statutory planning and policy framework for heritage protection that has been effective in protecting places through listing, what heritage means to today’s communities is quite different to what it was in the 1970s when heritage legislation was introduced in NSW.  I think the present government has shown that it is out of touch with the community and what it values with regard to heritage places. 

Recently, their approach and decisions about the Sirius building, the GPO, the Lands Department and the Department of Education, as well as the Parramatta North Urban Transformation Area, have demonstrated that their judgement is misaligned. 

I think they need to listen to the community more closely, remembering that we are only short term ‘custodians’ responsible for caring for the places that reflect our historical experience and identity. 

What is the link between heritage and sustainability, and do you think that developers understand this link?

Heritage can and does connect to environmental, social and economic sustainability.  I think in Australia we are only beginning to have a deeper more nuanced conversation. 

I think some developers get that there is a link between reusing or recycling materials or buildings through adaptive reuse, but I think there is less awareness of heritage and sustainability in relation to culture and identity. I would also add that the embodied energy in existing buildings needs to be formally credited, and our current regulatory system including codes and compliance requirements doesn’t effectively address green building technology and heritage conservation. 

With your background in art, what do you see as the relationship between art and architecture, and does this relationship help or hinder achieving better design?

I think architecture can be a form of art for living and life. The Sydney Opera house is considered by many to be a work of art as it creates in many of us an emotional response due to its elegant form and beauty.  More often, I think we see art and architecture in relationship to each other through public art. 

At its best, when artists and architects come together to design and express their creative response to a place or space, the sensory experience can be masterful and provoke people into feeling a range of emotions from awe and wonder, to curiosity and delight.  I’d advocate for art in the design of the built environment any day. 

If you had the power to change our built environment, what would be top of your list to change?

This is a big question.  I think it would be around adaptive technologies/materials with low environmental impact, design excellence, beauty and a return to generosity in the public realm and to building future heritage, i.e. buildings that will span 100 years or more which create imaginative places reinvigorated with life and potential.