Total House

On Twitter, Trav (@Br_Tr) posted an art print of the Total House car park in Melbourne. It’s a really good looking piece of architectural art, and like all good art, it creates an emotional and intellectual response. Mine, of course, was fury.

The Total House car park was added in 2014 to the Victorian State Heritage Register after a lengthy and interesting battle, fought—-as far as I can tell—-on purely aesthetic grounds; the question of whether the building was ugly or not, or a good example of an architectural style, completely obscured any question of its historical or cultural significance. Ugly buildings, yes, can be of significance. But that’s not the point. It’s brutal, but more than that, it’s physically harmful.

The car park is, of course, a highly intact example of a completely horrible and destructive trend in Australian urban development. Look at it! It’s a remant of the time when very serious people looked at the centre of cities like Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane and said to themselves, let’s get people to drive themselves to work from the suburbs, and we’ll build car parks to replace other structures so that they can do it. In the Total House building the offices on top are set back, almost as an embarrassment to the clean lines of the space left for storage of cars, and the ‘live’ space (apparently a high-class strip club, when the building was built) is underground. This is a trend in urbanism that Australians should want to expunge, as urgently as possible, from our cities.

That a building is significant should not immediately mean it deserves preservation, and it’s a sneaky conflation to suggest that a heritage assessment is anything but the start of that discussion. There are some buildings whose presence and function should make us turn our faces with shame and horror against the past, and inspire us to do something, anything, better with the land space. Urban conservation isn’t museum conservation.

The opening scene of Season Three of The Wire, incidentally, is the greatest literary instance of this cultural heritage argument. Bodie has the better of the dispute, for my money: steel and fucken’ concrete. Steel and fucken’ concrete.

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