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The loyalty of a habit

David Hutchison

David Hutchison 2001, 'The loyalty of a habit', Fremantle Studies, 2: 77-84.

Heritage conservation is too often assumed to be essentially a means of encouraging tourism. I argue that, in the first instance, heritage conservation should be for the benefit of the resident community. If this is done well, so that it reflects the values of the community, the tourists will be better served.

I often thought of this concern during my last visit to Europe in 1992. After enjoying my fifth visit to Greece, I joined my wife for eight weeks in France. Each time I return to Greece, I am distressed to see another town or island damaged by insensitive mass tourist developments—although there are some places, such as Molyvos on Lesvos, where the impact has been successfully channelled. Because I am moderately fluent in Modern Greek, I know that there are many Greeks who do not benefit much from these developments and resent the corruption of their community life. In Rethymnon, in Crete, I heard a young Greek friend arguing with a tourist about this damage to his community. The tourist scornfully claimed that my friend would benefit from tourism. My friend said, ‘A little, in the short term, but my family has owned an olive grove for two hundred years’.

I may seem hypocritical in criticising aspects of tourism when I have been a tourist myself, although I prefer to think of myself as a traveller—and will have to stomach the possible response that I am being snobbish. However, when I visit another country, I am primarily interested in its culture and its history, and try to avoid those areas where mass tourism has damaged the local culture.

In France, my wife and I stayed for five weeks in a restored pigonnier on a farm near Villereal in Lot-et-Garonne. Above the pigonnier, on the crest of the ridge, the modern road followed the route of a Roman road. Between the pigonnier and the farmhouse was a track through the woods to the tiny hamlet of Bournel—a segment of the old pilgrimage route to the church of Santiago de Compostella in Spain. While walking one day along the road, we saw a small stone building on the corner of a field, partly overgrown with brambles. On closer inspection, we saw a cockleshell carved in the stone over the door—the symbol of the pilgrims.

We were able to ‘read’—with the help of a book by the French historian Fernand Braudel [2]—the townscapes and landscapes and to appreciate the multifold layering of past and present. In the centre of the nearest town, Villereal, the mediaeval market building was still in use, and many houses survived from early periods. Modern commerce thrived in the town with minimum impact on its fabric.

Some Australians do not value their heritage because it does not have this rich mix and antiquity. However, not all that we value in Europe is any older than Australian heritage. Many of the buildings that we think of as models of Parisian style date from the nineteenth century Second Empire, when Baron Haussmann guided major redevelopment of the city. When you visit some of the intact older areas such as the Place des Vosges or the Marais—the Jewish quarter—you become aware that Haussmann’s work may have destroyed existing heritage areas. If we, in Australia, do not conserve our heritage now, we never will have such a mix of periods in our built heritage.

The heritage movement came relatively late to Australia due, I believe, to two mindsets: belief in the inevitably of development, and a belief in the right of owners to do anything they wish with their property. The first belief probably arises from the relatively short period of European occupation of this continent— two centuries of increasingly rapid change, which accustomed us to demolition and rebuilding.

When the conservation movement began, the Australian community was relatively apathetic; a cultural change was required. The change was slower in respect to the built than to the natural heritage. It should be noted that not all cultures value the built heritage. Simon Leys reminds us that

Chinese architecture is essentially made of perishable and fragile materials; it embodies a sort of ‘in-built obsolescence’; it decays rapidly and required frequent rebuilding. 3

However, this does not mean that the Chinese ignore their heritage. They believe—one scholar has suggested—that ‘eternity should not inhabit the building, it should inhabit the builder. 4 The Chinese, however, have cherished other elements of their heritage.

DH Lawrence admired the Estruscans because they built everything of wood— houses, temples—all save walls for fortification, great gates, bridges and drainage works. So that the Etruscan cities vanished as completely as flowers. 5 Most cultures, however, have built at least some structures intended to last. Even the Estruscans and the Chinese built substantial tombs of stone. The recently discovered ‘army’ of terracotta figures in China were certainly made to last.

Until 1990, built heritage conservation in Western Australia was entrusted to the State Branch of the National Trust, which—despite its limited resources— achieved a great deal both in saving sites and buildings and in educating the public.

The Piggot Inquiry into the National Estate, set up by the Whitlam Government, led to the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission. It also, of course, introduced a new concept: the National Estate. Some states established professionally staffed heritage authorities. Western Australia, however, did not have a Heritage Act or a state Heritage Council until 1990. The Council is not, I believe, adequately funded or staffed. A parliamentary committee, chaired by Phillip Pendal, reviewed the 1990 Act in 1995.

This committee’s report advocates financial compensation for owners for potential loss of value if a heritage order is placed on their properties. I am not aware of any state that offers financial compensation, which is very difficult to assess. Most owners can be compensated in other ways: by grants for conservation or restoration work, by planning offsets, by reduction in local authority rates, etc. However, local authorities need to guard against allowing concessions, which are sometimes too generous and can lead, for example, to incremental increase in building densities. In any case, studies have shown that heritage classification more often than not leads to increased property value. I argue that, if an owner wishes to be compensated for loss, he or she should offer to transfer to the community part at least of any increase in value due to heritage classification.

However, property rights are limited. For example, if a new building is proposed, planning restrictions apply to protect the amenity of neighbours. Owners do not have an unbridled right to do whatever they wish with property. We need to educate owners of heritage properties—many already do—to accept that they are, in effect, trustees as well as owners.

I am sure that anyone who owns a great work of art appreciates that he or she is, in effect, such a trustee and would not alter that work of art in any way. Buildings, of course, have to be used and adapted; but adaptation for use is allowed, provided it conforms to heritage conservation principles. However, this remains the most difficult area of heritage conservation.

The Pendal report also advocates categorising heritage places as having local, national or international significance. There is some merit in such categories, but I fear that it too often leads to the assumption that the locally significant is less important than anything of national or international significance. The historian Peter Read has written passionately about local significance.

Are local places important? How can assessors or friends gauge the significance of a place to people who may scarcely realise its value to them until that place is threatened? How, when a loved place is destroyed, should dispossessed people receive emotional support  loved sites are worth preserving because of the intense pain, which their destruction may cause to the inhabitants of those places. 6

Indeed, local attachment may be more important than national or international significance; attachment is usually strongest to the nearest things.

Globalisation and economic rationalism may act against heritage conservation—the conservation of local places in particular. Local is virtually irrelevant to globalisation. Economic rationalists rarely find value in heritage, even though it may have economic benefits. Too often, the only value placed on heritage is its exploitation for tourism and this is sometimes destructive to its true value.

I am concerned about some trends in Fremantle. The well-devised planning policies are not always now adhered to, although this situation is complicated because appeals to the Minister for Planning against heritage orders are often upheld.

My close involvement with Fremantle began in 1970 when I joined the staff of the Western Australian Museum as its first Curator of History. My first task was to develop displays for the Fremantle Museum, housed in part of the Old Asylum. This was one of the projects that triggered greater awareness of the rich heritage of the city.

My wife and I are participants in the changes to the community of Fremantle; we are part of the gentrification process. We moved to the city because it was one of the few places in Western Australia where we could enjoy an inner suburban lifestyle in an ethnically and socially mixed community, as well as the relatively well-preserved heritage fabric of the city, with its human scale, and the mix of housing, business and industry. This mix may be at risk from unsympathetic tourist development. Good things have happened. The excellent, minimally intrusive, restoration of West End buildings for Notre Dame University shows what can be done to enable a new function.

There is now a critical issue about development of the waterfront. The waterfront is not controlled by the city, but by government departments and authorities. The proposed development may see a part of Victoria Quay become a tourist precinct. The draft plan showed that a ferry harbour would destroy the site of Tom Edwards’ martyrdom on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1919.

The West End of Fremantle declined when the passenger liners ceased to operate and modern cargo handling was introduced, but we are told that the Inner Harbour will not reach its capacity for about two decades. If it is allowed to run down, there might be serious consequences for the fabric and community of Fremantle.

The staging of the America’s Cup accelerated change. Many of the changes were beneficial: improved infrastructure and some successful conservation projects, including the Town Hall, the Moore’s Building and the Union Stores. There was also a lot of tarting up, including painting over limestone walls and brick quoins—a process which is visual vandalism as well as poor conservation practice. Small changes like this can accumulate into significant loss. Increased rents caused—or accelerated—the closure of some shops in Market Street; they were replaced with tourist shops.

One result was an example of large-scale facadism—although I prefer the term coined by an American heritage consultant, fasodomy. One of the most important and intact precincts in the city is—or was—Phillimore Place, the widened end of Phillimore Street at the entrance to the harbour. Nearly all the buildings surrounding the ‘Place’ were built on land reclaimed for the harbour within a decade of the opening of it. The Falk Building, formerly a warehouse at the western end, is an important element but is now a mere facade. The Federal Government, as a contribution to preparations for the staging of the Cup, provided funds to relocate Federal Departments in a new building. The Falk Building and heritage buildings nearby were gutted and a new building was erected behind the facades, which are propped up by steel girders.

Often, when areas are heritage listed, conservation and restoration cause a change in the social mix. The Rocks in Sydney used to be a picturesque— although slummy and degraded—area. We all remember Jack Mundey’s efforts to save it from development. I know that buildings, if saved, have to be used; but the use should be as close as possible to the original. The conservation and restoration of the buildings in the area were completed to high standards; but it is mainly occupied now by more wealthy residents, and has a number of tourist-oriented boutiques and eating-houses. I am tired of visiting heritage areas in Australia that have nearly the same suite of boutiques. There is no sense of locality or regionalism in many of our heritage areas.

I do not suggest that all heritage areas in Australia are like this, or that all such areas are always successful in Europe. For example, it was a pity that the old markets of Les Halles, in Paris, were demolished to make way for a modern development. However, in France as in other European countries, much of the old fabric survived to the stage where demolition, or major alteration, has become almost unthinkable.

Another major problem—beyond the scope of this article—is the design of new buildings within a heritage precinct. Too often, the new building is either a new style, which is insensitive to the materials and scale of other buildings in the precinct, or is a kitsch imitation. It is possible to place a modern building successfully in a heritage precinct. The new entrance building for the Louvre in Paris, designed, by I M Pei works brilliantly. The Musee d’Orsay is an excellent example of successful, sensitive adaptation of a grand railway station for use as an art gallery.

A statement by Peter Read helped me to understand how far we still have to go to effect the cultural change to which I refer. He comments that Australians have a better-developed discourse about conservation of natural heritage than they have about conservation of built heritage.

Compared to the rich and complex aesthetic of wild country bequeathed to us by nineteenth-century Romanticism, Australians have no adequate discourse to conceive, describe and hence defend our apparently ordinary homes and suburbs from speculators and freeway builders. We have the words and feelings but not the rationalist context into which our expressions of meaning can be understood by planners and assessors. 7

I recently read a seminal essay by Eric Hobsbawm. 8 Hobsbawm—an unabashed Marxist historian-—is, however, conservative in his rejection of the relativistic view of history by post-modernists. He does concede, as most historians do, that history—-the written record, not the past itself—is partly a construct, but that it must be based on a framework of established facts. In this essay he argues that the attempt to restore a lost past cannot literally succeed, except in trivial forms (such as the restoration of ruined buildings). I might cavil at the use of the word ‘trivial’ in that quotation, but I think he is using it relatively, to argue that the total milieu of the past cannot be restored. We would agree and no heritage expert would argue that the conservation or restoration of a building does more than preserve part of the material fabric of that past. That act of preservation can have, however, important social consequences, as Peter Read so eloquently argues. Hobsbawm, himself, recognises this:

The relationship between effective and symbolic restoration may indeed be complex, and both elements may always be present. The literal restoration of the fabric of parliament on which Winston Churchill insisted could be justified on effective grounds, that is the preservation of an architectural scheme which favoured a particular pattern of parliamentary politics, debate and ambience essential to the functioning of the British political system. Nevertheless, like the earlier choice of the neo-gothic style for the buildings, it also suggests a strong symbolic element, perhaps even a form of magic which, by restoring a small but emotionally charged past or a lost past, somehow restores the whole. 9

Although I have argued that heritage conservation should not be principally for tourism, tourists will, of course, enjoy visiting a heritage area. Conservation or restoration of that area should be, in the first instance, for the community. Tourists —coming as guests of that community—will then be able to enjoy a more genuine experience.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote eloquently, in the first of his Duino Elegies, of the value of heritage to a local community:

Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take
into our vision; there remains for us yesterday’s street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left. 10

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
21 November 1999


1. A version of this paper was published in Tirra Lirra, 9, 4, Spring 1999, illustrated with the author’s photographs.

2. Fernand Braudel, The identity of France: vol I, History and environment, Fontana, London, 1989

3. Simon Leys, ‘The Chinese attitude towards the past’, in The angel & the octopus: collected essays 1983-1998, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 1999, p 8

4. ibid

5. D H Lawrence, Etruscan Places, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1950, p 20

6. Peter Read, Returning to nothing: the meaning of lost places, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp 196-197

7. ibid p 146

8. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The sense of the past’ in On History, Abacus, London, 1998

9. ibid p 20

10. Rainer Maria Rilke, The selected poetry (translated Stephen Mitchell)  Picador, London, 1987

[The quotation from the first Duineser Elegie in the original German:

Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich
wiedersähen; es bleibt uns die Straße von gestern
und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.]

Garry Gillard | New: 1 August, 2017 | Now: 16 August, 2017