Church

THE INNER WEST COUNCIL has declined to list a church as locally significant on its ‘Schedule 5’ register of items of local heritage, a statutory instrument. It’s interesting for what it reveals about the objects and practices of Australian built heritage.

The Council had commissioned an independent heritage architect to make an assessment of the Churches of Christ building on Marrickville Road (PDF), which is unambiguous: the church is a significant item and meets the thresholds for listing. I agree.

It’s the right outcome in this instance. What is being proposed is a specific community housing proposal, led by the Churches of Christ itself. The Churches of Christ are the objects of the listing, the group most likely to find meaning in the significance of the place: it would have been a layered irony if that group, an evangelical Protestant denomination whose history explicitly rejects established Churches, had a building protected in spite of their wishes.

The Councillors seem to have split beyond lines of Party, with a ‘socialist’ Green, the Labor mayor, and a right-wing Liberal on the pro side, and other Labor and Green councillors on the anti. That reflects the unusual decision, but also the fact that the Councillors were being put in an impossible position, to decide on a listing—whether a place is significant or not—as a proxy for making a decision about whether a specific proposal should go ahead. That’s an event the Heritage Act and its framework are deliberately supposed to prevent occurring.

It is never supposed to happen that anyone has to make a decision about heritage on the basis of any one proposal. Conservation Management Plans, for instance, are forbidden from making specific recommendations for future use, something you’d think a Plan would cover. There is sense though: it’s to stop arguments about virtue or worth of a future project (or worse, its profit margin) from affecting the objective assessment of significance. ‘Write me a Conservation Plan to support my demolition’, every developer would otherwise say, and get. In heritage, a bright professional line is supposed to divide what is significant from what is not.

What does not exist in NSW (or the rest of Australia) is a means to override a heritage listing on social grounds, that is to say about a proposal, yes, it will affect heritage, but it’s worth it. That would be a dangerous power, but in practice the lack of that power has formed our urban places, and for the worse. For twenty or thirty years, as the real estate value of inner urban places have sky-rocketed, its owners have used the heritage system as leverage to prevent development that would be otherwise legal in the planning system, and increased the value of their own stake, at the expense of the future. The Heritage Conservation Area is the typical tool for this, a big broad brush to paint Heritageness, in deep green, cream, and Indian red, over one’s neighbours.

Anyone with eyes can see the effects. There’s a reason people see racism baked into a heritage system that protects suburban built architectural heritage even when its owners don’t want it, but fails to protect the natural and cultural heritage of traditional owners, when they do. I love Federation architecture, particularly its detailed brick and timberwork, and live in a [rented] late Victorian terrace, but can’t avoid the obvious relationship between the moral horror of Australia’s most chauvinist era (the fin de siècle into the 1920s) and our fierce protection of its architecture.

More generally, this failure of the heritage system is a product of Australian form-mindedness, an aspect of our culture which is rule-bound, officious, and obsessed with the appearance of fairness over its reality. We are incapable of having political arguments about worth or virtue in different possible futures, and have looked to ‘heritage’, over the past decades, to justify self-interest. Significance doesn’t simply exist as an inherent, independent quality of places, it’s a part of what we as a community decide to value and pass on, which is the entirety of the places we live in. What we have been doing is protecting the aesthetics of suburbs, with forms to fill out to stop medium density, in the hope that the cheap housing and freewheeling culture of the 1970s will come back—a politics of nostalgic fantasy.

The process was wrong, but the Council got it right. The decision wasn’t significant-or-not, it was between calling a place open for community housing, and to value the presence of new people, or protecting the building, and saying, in paraphrase of the well-known bogan slogan, ‘fuck off, we’re heritage’.

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