David Burdon: On the Importance of Heritage Conservation

The National Trust (NSW)’s Director of Conservation, David Burdon, delivered a moving speech at the National Trust Heritage Awards 2021 about the importance of heritage conservation. He finished with a call for a manifesto for the protection of heritage together with progress.

You can watch David’s speech on YouTube, or read the transcript below.

The National Trust Heritage Awards is all about recognising and celebrating our heritage and what it means to us today, and so I too would like to acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders both past and present.

I would also like to extend my thanks to the Minister and the Chair of the Heritage Council for their attendance, and acknowledge their ongoing contribution towards today’s event and heritage in NSW.

It is wonderful to see such a good turnout today, and I thank you all for once again supporting this event. I think we all missed it last year when it was rather suddenly cancelled, however in this age of COVID we have, in many areas of our lives, undertaken a re-assessment of our priorities. It has provided a time to think and reflect, and in many people’s cases it has been an opportunity to re-assess the importance of our built and natural environment. Our parks have never been busier, our sun-filled streets never more important. It has also provided an opportunity for businesses and organisations with the chance to take stock and re-assess how we are going about things – we are re-prioritising our public spaces, and the review of the Heritage Act that the minister has announced affords us an opportunity to look at how we can best protect our heritage for the future.

But one of the phrases that has stuck with me from this period has been the constant advice that we need to “listen to the experts.” The first time I heard this, I thought – finally! I suppose however, in heritage terms at least, this depends on what our experts say.

I think we need to realise that the threats to our heritage are not new – there always have been ideas and proposals that threaten important places. Sydney’s population was approaching 4 million when Bob Carr famously declared it full in 2000, and now the Department of Planning projects that Greater Sydney’s population will grow to approximately 6.6 million by 2036. No wonder our heritage is under pressure – and this makes it even more important to preserve in a meaningful way for future generations.

There is some comfort in the fact that people before us have led the way. In 1877 the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was established in London. Then, just as now, people were concerned by the proposals to undertake totally insensitive alterations and repairs to their ancient buildings. The founders of that society, led by the likes of William Morris and John Ruskin, were outraged by the defacement of St Alban’s Cathedral that had recently occurred in the name of “restoration” by amateur architect Baron Grimthorpe, who just happened to also be the major donor for the appalling works that replaced much ancient fabric – up to 1000 years old – with his own improved version. It was a call to action.

I love the fact that a key part of their response was to prepare a Manifesto. The Manifesto still guides the work of the SPAB, and in parts it is as fresh today as it was then.

“We think,” said William Morris and Phillip Webb, “that if the present treatment of our ancient buildings be continued, our descendants will find them useless for study and chilling to enthusiasm… in the course of this double process of destruction and addition, the whole surface of the building is necessarily tampered with; so that the appearance of antiquity is taken away from such old parts of the fabric as are left, and there is no laying to rest in the spectator the suspicion of what may have been lost; and in short, a feeble and lifeless forgery is the final result of all the wasted labour.”

The past is the past, and we need to be careful in the way that we treat it. We need to respect that old building, or that old tree. “Stave off decay by daily care” was their mantra, and it continues to make economic, environmental, and conservation sense. Maybe that is why I loved the shortlisted project to repair all of the original windows in the Greenway flats in Kirribilli so much – just repairing windows. Not throwing them all away and replacing them with inferior aluminium because it was easier, but giving another 70 years of life to something that is perfectly serviceable. That project, to me, encapsulates exactly what those early conservationists were promoting all those years ago. It is not about being trapped in time and never changing. It is about maintaining and preserving original, useful, fabric. It is about recognising something that has value.

In Australia, some would argue, we have our own “Manifesto” in the Burra Charter, but how often have we seen that document cited as the guiding force at the start of a heritage report by a consultant, only to wonder where that guidance led them at the end? When the authors of that venerable charter wrote that new work should be discernible from old, I wonder whether they had that insensitively placed glass box in mind, or that adjacent tower as a backdrop to a small house?  It is those controversial projects where we listen to the experts, and where we all have a responsibility. For every horrible heritage outcome, more often than not, there is a heritage report justifying it. Sure, let’s have the discussion, for it is generally those things worth protecting that we find are worth arguing over. We need progress, and we need creative thinking, but sometimes we also just need to say “no – what we have here is good and valuable. We should keep this.” Sometimes, as experts, we just need to give this advice. We need to listen to those experts.

I don’t think I have ever been as depressed in my life as when I was last in New York City, walking through Pennsylvania Street Station with their 9 foot tall underground tunnels lined with acoustic ceiling panels, when I came across the “interpretation” that showed the original waiting room in all of its glory – an internal space 100m long and 46m tall, modelled on the Baths of Diocletian in Rome – demolished to sell air rights in 1963. As Vincent Scully noted, one “used to enter the city like a god, and now scuttled like a rat.” It was a tragedy, and a galvanizing moment for the US conservation movement. Perhaps the editor of the New York Times summed it up best: “any city gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves.”

How fortunate my generation are that our Queen Victoria Building or Myall Lakes did not suffer the same fate before we were born. We simply take these things for granted now. But, as they say, the price of victory is eternal vigilance. The baton has been passed. Maybe we are the designer, the assessor, the client, the National Trust, the public… we all have our role to play in our Australian conservation movement. We are all responsible for shaping the pervading attitude. We can make preservation the norm, not the option.

Every year, these awards show us the best in heritage. They show us how creative approaches to our heritage can be achieved; how we can adaptively re-use existing structures; how our historic buildings and cultural landscapes can inspire the best in contemporary design; and how people can enjoy engaging with historic places and objects in meaningful ways. These projects set the standard, and provide the best examples for others to follow. If these awards can help us change that attitude then they will have achieved their goal. Maybe they can result in a new little manifesto:

Change will come, and so it should,
For just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s good.
So if it is broken, we could simply just mend it,
But when it is good, we should vigorously defend it.

Author

David Burdon

David Burdon is an architect and the Director of Conservation at the National Trust (NSW).

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  1. We need David to help conserve Glenlee or Lugarno Farm located at 80 Boronia Pde Lugarno. Currently subject to a DA which will destroy the original homestead, aboriginal rock carvings and over 200 native trees for high density subdivision for 31 houses.

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