Heritage lip service

CARL PAYNE graduated as an architect in 1974, travelled overseas, and then moved to Fremantle in 1977. He was active in the Fremantle Society in the late 70s and 80s, and was acting president for a spell. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED, he argues that the proposed redevelopment of the Manning Buildings pays lip-service to heritage conservation.

I THANK Fremantle councillor Ingrid Waltham for assisting me in previous council dealings.

However, I was alarmed to read her statements about the council’s planning committee approving the Manning Buildings redevelopment. She said: “There’s still a lot of work to be done”. I took this to mean a satisfactory result would be achieved.

She then said she’s a bit torn by the verandah issue; that she loves to see heritage protected but doesn’t believe it should be imposed if it affects a building’s functionality.

Her comments took me back to the 70s and 80s, before a kind of truce was achieved. Wholesale heritage loss was averted. It’s now supported by legislation and improved planning schemes. This is a good thing, but it leads to complacency; to a notion that the war was won. The current Manning Buildings redevelopment proposal proves that it wasn’t.

The Manning Buildings show we pay lip-service to heritage conservation. It’s rare for a heritage architect to do a large redevelopment, because the game in Fremantle – all of WA – is to get around the heritage issues.

An elected official – part of a process to protect what makes Fremantle what it is – is making statements which literally mean that heritage protection should not be imposed if this affects the building’s owner. This approach is counter to the proper and orderly conservation of Fremantle.

I hear the “damn leftie, it’s my private property“ response. If Ingrid and the rest of the planning committee are in full support of this private-property ideal, let them say so. I doubt they all are. Knowing some, my feeling is they genuinely want the best for the Fremantle community; for the city itself.

Good heritage legislation provides a stable foundation; it defends the “essence of a place”. It offers generous tax-concessions, grants and bonuses to property owners when they develop with strong conservation values. There are examples in similar cities all over the capitalist world of creative responses that could apply to Fremantle. Private owners are not dictated to. They are part of a unified approach, with real advantages for them as well. We need to be truly progressive; and not simply rely on an outdated development model.

The Manning Buildings are the most dominant example in Fremantle of buildings of this style and importance. They occupy extensive frontages to Market, High and William Streets, with a presence on Paddy Troy Lane. They are a substantial piece of inter-connected Fremantle property; opposite the Town Hall and forming a partial boundary to the Kings Square redevelopment.

Good restoration

Council may say, “we have achieved a better result than we started with”, but with developers just trying to get away with all they can, the community must continually fight for more.

This silly system places total reliance on the skill, judgement, experience and preferences of councillors who happen to occupy council at the time of any development proposal.

This is no way to run one of the most important and intact 19th century streetscape cities in Australia. Councillors need to be supported, informed and educated by legislative certainty and muscle.

Good restoration demands as little change as possible. The planning committee heritage report makes very relevant points. But actions of councillors are not consistent with the Burra Charter ideals in the report.

I’ve heard Cr Waltham’s statement many times, but mostly from those who, unlike Ingrid, don’t especially “love to see heritage protected”. It’s galling to hear them from one who professes to love heritage.

The council minutes say: “Detailed drawings of the decorative posts should be provided.” Architect John Kirkness has researched details for accurate reconstruction of the verandahs. Council should demand these details be part of the approval; and John should receive reward for his work. Is heritage not worth paying for?

The minutes speak about the internal timber stairs: “There are a small number of authentic staircases in original condition…proposed to retain one or two of them if possible.”

One or two? If possible?

Developer’s response? “Sorry, wasn’t possible. Computer says ‘No’.”

The internal staircases are important period detailing; the language that tells the story of the buildings. The staircases should influence the planning, and not be discarded so that the planning can proceed without them. The approach is totally arse-about.

The verandah job may achieve the correct detailing accuracy, but there’s zero guarantees. What percentage of authenticity remains if the re-constructed verandah is a cliché approximation? A major streetscape failure drops the figure to say 65 per cent.

A large section of the courtyard is taken by a new basement carpark road. No well-managed historic city anywhere in the world would allow this to happen! The best experiences in old towns are finding tucked-away courtyards and back lanes. We are filling these up in Fremantle with over-development. This is not urban consolidation, this is urban exploitation. We easily hit 50 per cent at this point.

50 per cent – a bare pass – makes it easy for a future owner to say: “These buildings have lost their 3D-heritage value. They are a façade only. We should bowl ‘em over; build something really good!”

“You make a good point,” says council. Don’t laugh, it’s happened before.

Finally, consider this from the minutes: “The applicant is encouraged to consider carefully removing acrylic paint and any cement render from the building to allow the walls to breathe.

This practice is not only an aesthetic recommendation but will reduce the rate of deterioration of the wall and improve the longevity of the original building fabric.”

This type of essential detail should be mandatory for a heritage building; written into the conditions as a requirement, not as an encouragement.

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