They paved paradise, put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise, put up a parking lot

Big Yellow Taxi, by Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon album, 1970

OMG - last week brought bouquets and brickbats like never before. The bouquets from practicing architects who deal with heritage hammers every working day. The brickbats came from the wielders of the heritage hammers.

Example of the former: “Loved (the) heritage hammer but you omitted local councils who insist (that) infill housing in heritage areas be ‘upgraded’ to mimic old houses. On the other hand, ‘frilly’ imitations which actually aren’t proportionately accurate and have inaccurate detailing are embraced.”

Example of the latter: “How 70s… I can't be bothered attending any more meetings with architects who put on tantrums & insult (an) individual officer. Think I will go shopping for an expensive knock off handbag or go to the beach.” Admittedly, I had recently got a heritage order overturned, but that’s no reason for the argumentum ad hominem.

Only one side seemed to acknowledge what I actually wrote. The harshest criticism seemed to be about things I didn’t say. So let me try to be a bit clearer (if no less strident).

I love old buildings. Not just because they are old, but because they have value beyond their physicality. I love what they have to teach us. I love what they bring to urbanity and cities. I love real heritage.

But ascertaining heritage requires discrimination. Let me try to parse the topic.

Last week I opined that heritage has three attributes: the quality of the building, the context of the building, and the social life within, and that to be worthy of retention, or careful adaptation, it should contain at least two, preferably all three, characteristics.

On that basis civic, public and commercial buildings are more likely to have high heritage value. Usually better built, they command more social interaction and value, and are more prominent in the environment. More than street facades, they have larger spaces capable of adaptation to contemporary needs.

Likewise grand houses, where design quality, curtilage, and the lives lived there may all be significant; heritage worth keeping and adapting. But not just because they have an old ‘style’, which seems to be the only criteria for listing any building, or creating a heritage area.

On the other hand, most houses in suburbia are mass gimcrack vernacular. Standard designs, poorly built. Repetitive use of a plan doesn’t mean it’s good, just that it’s popular or easy. Using the cheapest available materials and techniques doesn’t guarantee quality. Although we might have a romantic view of past building styles, the design and construction of past eras is really very poor.

The McMansions of today are lampooned for their visual sophistry, but are actually far better built: the bricks are better, if not so flamboyant; the framing is moisture and termite proof; the bathrooms and kitchens better built with better equipment, if not still subject to fashion replacement. The insulation is better, as are all the electrical and plumbing services. Even their grotesque energy use is being curtailed by increases in NatHERS settings and prolific photo-voltaic panels.

The problem with replacing single storey early twentieth century houses with McMansions, the current flashpoint of heritage hammers, is one of scale not style. Yes, the contemporary facade may be gauche and hideous, but it’s the uncharacteristic double storey, built to the edge of the setbacks, that offends. The problem for council assessors, egged on by locals, is that the regulatory codes are ineffectual in stopping the bloated volumes. Hence heritage is used as a hammer to knock it on the head. Hypocrisy not honesty.

That embodies my two main concerns. The standard vernacular house of the last 150 years is not very good, and certainly not worth keeping as ‘heritage’. If the problem is one of inappropriateness of the infill replacement, then the matters should be addressed directly in the regulatory codes, not by using heritage as a stealth hammer to knock back the proposal.

Secondly, ‘heritage areas’ limiting new work. Whilst a mass of vernacular houses may be picturesque, and heritage status awarded, that is no reason to hold any further development and improvement to the ransom of history. Sensitive additions and amendments can be made, even to the fronts, without the mantra of being ‘in keeping’, ‘sympathetic’ and ‘unseen from the street’.

My antipathy to the vast swathes of old houses in standard suburbia has grown over my life: I was brought up in one, lived in many others, and worked on hundreds in my professional life. I never met an old house that couldn’t be improved with a thorough going-over, without the limitations of ‘heritage’.

Far worse, I sense that the drastic overuse of heritage rules to limit improvements to individual suburban houses is distracting from protecting the real heritage values in our major buildings. The ‘paving of paradise’ continues unabated - witness the destruction of the DCM’s award-winning hall at the Australian War Memorial. Private makeovers pale in the light of that public vandalism.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Heritage - it’s worse than you thought. Tone on Tuesday 173. 1 August 2023 (week 31).

Long columns are Tone on Tuesday. Short shots are in A&D Another Thing every Friday.

You can contact TW at [email protected]