Finding the value in heritage

Heritage architecture is ever present in the Bathurst urban landscape, a constant reminder to all of it’s historical significance and sense of place in Australia’s colonial past. We’re currently renovating a locally recognised building of some historical worth to become the new regional head office for integratedDESIGNgroup, so we’re fully invested in heritage preservation and see great value in preserving buildings that help tell an important story for generations to come.

But what value is there in a town wanting to mandate (or not?) the preservation of heritage buildings and what effect does this have on progressive urban planning? What does it take to ensure a town preserves it’s historical narrative in its local architecture?

integratedDESIGNgroup strongly advocates for the preservation of heritage buildings and also aspire to continuous improvement and growth in developing a more sustainable urbanity and community. Both can co-exist in perfect harmony, but in Bathurst, there’s a lack of understanding, compromise and a common vision for how the town should embrace it’s architectural history. What’s needed is universal acceptance of what Bathurst’s purpose really is, it’s historical narrative and positioning. Once we understand and agree on a narrative, we can move forward together, having the best of both heritage preservation and urban growth and development.

Below are some of the challenges impacting on progress and an exploration of possible solutions that’ll help Bathurst achieve the balance needed to preserve it’s heritage buildings.

The political landscape and codified controls

Our experience of the development industry convinces us that rules will only establish the lowest common denominator, and will serve to accelerate us toward it. Bathurst Regional Council (BRC) has demonstrated, at almost every level, its application of codes is very dependent on the political landscape, with both staff and councillors seeking to be responsive, primarily, to their reading of public opinion and preference.

So it would seem to us that seeking to further codify a heritage response will be largely futile in absence of a clear public mandate based on informed public view and a new public passion. This requires leadership and information of a different type than we have managed in the past. A ‘barking dog’ is a futile annoyance, a poodle may be loveable but of little real benefit as a watch dog… perhaps there is a working dog analogy to be investigated. Is there a way the heritage fraternity can become indispensable to the operation of the city, or at least to its leaders?

Bathurst’s heritage is difficult to value because of the inconsistent and schizonphenic nature of the landscape, but it’s this very issue that makes it so unique. Other places preserve unified streets of consistent form, and people easily conceptualise the value of the whole as a collection and superior to the sum of it’s parts. But Bathurst’s seaming ad hoc texture and rich tapestry is less easily discernible and much more difficult to defend. And so our defence of it is ad hoc and indiscernible. We do not adequately communicate why a small cottage in a street is of value, and our defence is too easily dismissed.

Indeed, many of the things we are seeking to defend are themselves in denial of the real heritage value of the places they occupy… often poorly constructed turn of the 20th century bungalows that are themselves misfits within a broader urban vision and value, having replaced the real signifiers of the Oldest Inland Settlement. It can be difficult to argue the value of many of these buildings amongst the broader heritage assets of the nation, unless they are correctly assessed for their part within a continuous 200 year development of a continuously developing settlement vision.

There is growing political support for our heritage, but also fatigue of the battle. The issues have become too personalised on many fronts, and the annoyance at the “barking dog” (a metaphor for the The National Trust and their constant voice of protection)  overwhelms the desire to do the right thing. But most importantly, the ignorance of an agreed objective and trajectory frustrate the public discussion.

Success comes from knowing your town’s story and positioning

We need a clearer narrative of Bathurst’s historic value and a bigger and more robust framework for evaluation. We need to understand ‘place’ as much as we understand ‘object’. We need to understand the trajectory and direction of history as much as valuing the flotsam and jetsam of its wake. We do not truly protect the significant history of Bathurst unless we protect and promote the vision on which the first inland settlement was established. Bathurst is the bridgehead of inland regional development, of (European) ‘civilisation’ of a vast continent. It was planned with the capacity to become a major regional city with a substantive population, anchored by symbols of law and civil order and amenity. It was planned to be ‘filled out’. It was planned to be a defined, populated metropolitan centre supporting surrounding urban villages, not an empty Hub engulfed in suburban sprawl. It was planned capable of providing a mixed use, walkable, liveable environment. It was planned with a keen sense of hierarchy and ‘place’, of topography and vista. It began with a purposeful connection to Sydney and as a brave frontier to the potential of the west.

Our fear is that Council might get mixed messages as to what an appropriate heritage response could be and we don’t think that confusion will be helpful in the current climate. Clarity of narrative and purpose is essential to success and the local people of our town have to believe in it too.

Development economics

Amongst Bathurst Council’s greatest achievements of the past decades has been to preserve the economy of the CBD in tact, resisting formidable pressure to decentralise the economic heart of the city. This has served to maintain property values within the historic hub, preserving life and amenity to sustain and enhance the heritage fabric.

Without this value equation, many more of our artefacts would be at risk. Yet, there remains an underlying value deficit which is also partly due to our regard and treatment of heritage artefacts. There are not the funds available for high value heritage restoration because the development yield is currently more hampered by history and restoration than it is facilitated. The market, and market agents are not yet sophisticated enough to value our assets, and so sales valuations limit the quality of what is constructed in town. This becomes a self perpetuating prophecy and a self defeating trajectory. There is sufficient disposable income within the town and there are enough ‘travelled’ people to appreciate higher quality if it were offered. We need to find a mechanism to cut across the current value equation and to re-value our valuable town. This will provide the economics to enable restoration, preservation and reinstatement. It is achieved, not through codification, but through someone being courageous enough to invest in the predictable, rather than the proven.

Can council be convinced to lead this trend (as the city’s leading developer), or is there another ‘friend of heritage’, or consortium that can be formed to establish the valuation platform from which a new development economy can be launched? Our anecdotal experience suggests this might be the case as Baby Boomers look to centralise their lifestyle and real estate agents try to find ways to meet a market they perceive but can not yet service.

Irrespective, the heritage fraternity needs to make very good friends with the development industry and identify clear mutual understanding and shared objectives. There is a ‘taste’ for the substance and texture of our town and this must be leveraged to the preservation of that heritage.

A lesson we can learn from Nuremberg, Bavaria

Others who have dealt with heritage preservation have had a clear narrative. If we randomly chose Nuremberg as an example, here is a city that has positively embraced all aspects of it’s heritage, at the same time achieved great progress in modern architecture. It’s rich medieval heritage resonates to this day, but they’re confounded by their attachment to the Third Reich and the negative aspects of their past association with it in architectural achievements during the 1930s & 40s. Rather than destroy all evidence of Third Reich architecture, they’ve instead acknowledged the historical significance of such buildings and cleverly integrated them into a modern and contemporary Nuremberg. Value in heritage preservation is a natural bi-product of embracing their city’s history since medieval times and it’s timeline is embodied in architecture at every turn, no matter how good or bad the story.

This narrative is embraced by all. Local government, developers, businesses, historical societies and of course the residents. Without this unity, growth will always be one step forward and two steps back. Strong leadership and vision in Bathurst needs to unite all interested parties if we’re to achieve real value in heritage preservation.

Are you facing the same issues in your local regional town or suburb? Join the conversation and comment on how your town or suburb is learning to live with heritage preservation.

Tony McBurney

Tony McBurney

Tony McBurney is director of integratedDESIGNgroup, an architectural practice founded in Bathurst and grown across offices in North Strathfield and Penrith. The practice has been intimately involved in the regeneration of Sydney’s outer areas and is keenly engaged in a bigger question of Australian regional development. As program chair of the ARDC tony is overseeing this years conference taking a positive view of the transition of regional centres from mining to a “real economy” of engagement in a globally connected society.

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