In the blocked estuary that at present confines the architectural profession, more and more of the struggling marine life are feeding on the restoration business: since commissions for new work have disappeared, the nostalgia boom offers some prospect of survival. Other species have also grown new limbs on this diet. Heritage groups around Australia employ historians, archaeologists, geographers and bureaucrats. Architectural publications are booming, from the small city ‘Sketchbook’ to the scholarly survey. They tell us what to look at and where to find it; what we had before it was demolished; and what to buy and how to restore it. Galleries have started to hold exhibitions on architectural and environmental themes. In the past year or so New South Wales alone has mounted well-documented shows on ‘Mr John Verge’, ‘Colonial Gothick’ and ‘The Villas of Woolloomooloo Hill’ at Elizabeth Bay House, on ‘Sydney Unearthed’ at the Macleay Museum, and on the Newcastle architect Frederick Menkens at Newcastle District Art Gallery and the National Trust gallery in Sydney. ‘Walter Burley Griffin’ and ‘The Art of Gardening in Colonial Australia’ have been touring Australia with the Art Gallery Directors’ Council.
The boom has had many good results. Today a building of even the most modest streetscape or environmental value has vastly more chance of survival than it would have had in the destructive Sixties, and progress from the position in earlier decades is, on the whole, overwhelming. The advance at the popular level can be gauged by comparing two publications intended to assist the modest owner and restorer of an old house. Rob Hillier’s Let’s Buy a Terrace House, published by Ure Smith in 1968, reflected the then fashionable trend of ‘doing up’ (which in practice mainly meant tearing down), while Ian Evans’ recent Restoring Old Houses, published by Macmillan in 1979, is an advocate of the presently fashionable school of ‘stripping down’ or restoring to an ‘authentic’ appearance.
The difference between these two books goes much further than their general attitude to old building stock. Evans’ book is not only of great practical value to the amateur restorer — providing lists of suppliers who will japan floors, marble walls and damp-course basements — but is also an admirable historical guide, using contemporary quotations, photographs and advertisements to illustrate period fashions precisely. With such a manual we can at least expect houses in good condition to stay that way. And if trudging around demolition sites, stripping paint off cedar handrails and skirtings, or commissioning Australia’s sole supplier of period interior ventilators to meet one’s exact needs becomes too exhausting, Evans’ detailed instructions offer the possibility of accurate professional work when the owners finally employ someone to finish the job. The old school advocating demolished walls, white paint, stripped sandstock bricks and gutted woodwork has at last been discredited.
The range of buildings now considered worthy of forming part of our national heritage has also widened amazingly. Back in 1949 a New South Wales committee of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects published a typescript list of historic buildings in the state divided into four categories. Those classed A were worthy of preservation ‘at whatever the cost’. It was recommended that B buildings be kept. C were ‘architecturally interesting’ but preservation was ‘not essential’. Still, if they were to be demolished they ought first to be recorded and photographed. The D category comprised ‘buildings which have been considered, but which have been rejected as having little or no architectural merit’. Twenty-four buildings managed to get into class A and twenty-six into class B. Most of them were, of course, Georgian in style; William Wardell’s St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Sydney, designed in 1865, was the most youthful building on the A list. Camden Park House (recently one of the stars of My Brilliant Career) was predictably given top rating: ‘If nothing else in Australia is saved, this house must be’.
A couple of the members of this committee are still with us, and must long have regretted their foolhardiness in daring to define the worthless as well as the worthy. The despised D category listed sixty buildings, including the General Post Office, the Mint Building, the New South Wales Club and the Lands Office in Sydney; Experiment Farm Cottage at Parramatta (now owned by the National Trust); ‘Horsley’ at Liverpool; Newington House at Silverwater (‘debased beyond hope of restoration’); and the early Anglican churches at Ryde, Mulgoa, Richmond, Campbelltown, Rossmore, Port Macquarie and Berrima. Except for those buildings obediently destroyed, every building on the D list now forms part of our officially proclaimed National Estate. At the end of 1979 this ·numbered about 7,000 items throughout Australia, although that includes Aboriginal sites, natural areas and historic sites as well as historic buildings. (‘Anything that can’t be easily moved’, to quote an authoritative source.)
Nowadays experts are more likely to be fighting to save a disused mine, slab cottage, ‘Federation’ terrace, or Art Deco crematorium than even bothering to glance at our Stately Homes or Ancient Buildings. Possibly the most scholarly and authoritative book published in the recent deluge is that by Miles Lewis of Melbourne University’s Architecture School. It is called Victorian Primitive (Greenhouse Publication, Melbourne 1977), and it discusses — to list them in order of chapter headings — thatch, sods, bark, wattle and daub, logs and slabs, adobe or clay lump, cob, pisé and half-timbering. Most of the examples mentioned which employ these techniques are huts: the most lavish buildings in the book are a (demolished) pisé church and a two-storeyed Gothic folly of 1847, Bear’s Castle’ at Yan Yean, made of cob. Yet the background, sources and materials for all Lewis’s examples rate a fuller discussion than has yet been given to many of our grandest monuments. Perhaps one is told rather more about pisé in ancient Rome than one wants to know, but Lewis still sets a standard that ought to affect every architectural historian in the country.
The chief contender for my pinnacle publication in ‘category A’, emanating from Sydney University, is Judy Birmingham, Ian Jack and Denise Jeans’ more lavishly produced but equally ‘vernacular’ volume, Australian Pioneer Technology — Sites and Relics (Heinemann Educational Australia, 1979), the first of two advertised books on the hitherto invisible topic of our industrial archaeology. This first volume mainly discusses primary industries, including gold, iron and steel, ‘Sheep, Cattle and Maritime Industries’, and ‘Grapes, Hops, Olives, Tobacco and Timber’, while the proposed Volume Two will concentrate on manufacturing industries, like mills, potteries, the transport industry, and country towns ‘as a revealing group of artifacts’.
Almost anything about such neglected material would have been worth publishing, although personally I faced the prospect of dozens of disused drains, mines and kilns with a stronger sense of duty than enthusiasm. The feeling was entirely unwarranted. A surprising number of individual objects, like the engine houses at Kadina and Lithgow, Tathra Wharf, and the early Coal Mines Station on the Tasman Peninsula, clearly belong in the same league as Camden Park House. One can understand the growing band of enthusiasts who find in the Lithgow industrial scenery at dusk a sublimity that John Martin might have envied, even if the people of Lithgow would really prefer supermarkets on their sites.
But such romanticism and monument-spotting is simply an incidental by-product of the book. The authors are not presenting industrial objects as competitors for a modern Book of Beauties, but recreating the total environment of our nineteenth century industries. Their visual and documentary context of men, machines and buildings reveals an alternative — or rather, complementary — set of foundations underpinning the development of Australia. Minerals, machinery and maltings are as vital to the fabric of our past as grand houses or cathedrals.
On a more stylistic note. one might also observe that the sole architectural subject that has so far appeared in the modest Sun-Academy paperback series under the general editorship of Cedric Flower is Ross Thorne’s Picture Palace Architecture in Australia and New Zealand (1976) — another reliable and intelligent guide to a formerly despised subject.
The trend away from the old and stately to the more recent or more simply ‘vernacular’, from the single monument to the general environment, has also had an effect on the coffee-table ‘Historic Heritage’ books published by the National Trust of Australia in conjunction with Cassell Australia. Historic Houses (1974), Historic Homesteads I and II (1969 and 1976), and Historic Public Buildings (1971) have given way to two volumes of Historic Places (1978 and 1979). The latest volume of Places has a chapter on Arltunga Mine in the Northern Territory, a photograph of a 1975 church on Rottnest Island, and ‘then and now’ photographs of the main street at Maldon in Victoria, with uncomplimentary remarks about the latter. Of course, most of the chapters still discuss more picturesquely ‘historic’ places, like Balmain, Goulburn or Ross, but the industrial, recent and architecturally unpretentious have at least been discovered. With such a newly-opened lode the National Trust could keep producing volumes of Historic Places for ever.
The appropriate welcome to give to this large, lovely and prolific series seems to me to be the inscrutable oriental sound of one hand clapping. The books certainly make money for everyone involved — except the authors and photographers, who are not paid. At the launching of Volume One of Historic Places (by no less an authority than the Prime Minister of Australia) it was announced that the series had already put $170,000 into the coffers of the Trust, and by the time Volume Two had emerged Trust royalties had reached $250,000. The books have been reasonably priced at $25.00 a volume, and presentation is splendid. Our best photographers and historians are commissioned, and the format obviously has great popular appeal. The books are inevitably listed as standard works for the specialist because virtually nothing else exists on these subjects.
On the other hand (as reviewers are so fond of saying) there are flaws. The Publications Committee has insisted that scholarly appendages like notes, indexes and bibliographies put people off; so do plans, diagrams and comparative or technical architectural analyses. It is possible to find a little erudite enjoyment discovering how the more academic, or less sloppy, contributors manage to incorporate these desiderata into their texts without appearing to contravene the ground rules, and a few plans have crept into the latest volumes, but the books still suffer from their general absence. Too many of the chapters have always tended to be a summary of the history of the place with unrelated pretty pictures. Comments about designers, subsequent additions, restorations and vandalisms are usually minimal, and unquestioning obeisance to the taste and judgement of all owners past and present is obligatory. The photographs are the architecture, the text is the history; together, it is piously hoped, the result is architectural history.
The real danger in this approach is that it is contagious. The National Trust imprint suggests that this is how architectural history should be written. If only the naïve might be thought susceptible to this imprimatur it ought to be noted that their ranks already include a bishop and some journalists.
Bishop T. T. Reed’s Historic Churches of Australia (Macmillan Australia, 1978) is really a very naughty book. Its size, format, typeface and title have been deliberately chosen to echo exactly the National Trust series so that the unwary customer will be enticed into buying it as one of the series. It generally sits among their ‘Historic’ ranks in bookshops, and has the same absence of scholarly and architectural material and a similar profusion of pretty pictures to charm the innocent.
I suppose it is unrealistic to blame a bishop if his book on churches concentrates on the ecclesiastical at the expense of the architectural. Reed clearly knows more about who preached at the opening of the church than what the building looked like on that momentous day. Virtually all his architectural information has been culled from the files of the National Trusts in the various states, and hence is very varied in its accuracy and interest. He should, in any case, have acknowledged this indebtedness a little more precisely and fully. It is not very encouraging to the large band of voluntary compilers of this information to have their material cannibalised for someone else’s book with no more than an occasional thank-you footnote to the Director. The Victorian Trust was extremely annoyed when Historic Churches appeared (rumours of court proceedings echoed around Australia for some time), and I know that several researchers and photographers in NSW are now attempting to retain some control over the copyright of their work. One should probably place more blame on Macmillan’s as publishers.
Other firms have done better, architecturally speaking, although I don’t know how successful their books have been financially. Heinemann’s Australian Pioneer Technology is certainly the most original of them, but Lansdowne’s Australian Colonial Architecture (1978), written by Philip Cox and Clive Lucas and illustrated with 543 black and white plates, is also a worthy effort. Moreover, the best material here discusses our grand houses, although over a third of the book is given over to ‘vernacular’ architecture in keeping with present trends. Australian Colonial Architecture retails at a hefty $45.00 but is worth buying for the illustrations alone. Their quality is extraordinarily varied, ranging from excellent photographs by one of our leading professional architectural photographers, Wesley Stacey, to murky reproductions taken from any old book or National Trust file that could provide them. But their pictorial comprehensiveness is outstanding. For the first time in a major publication Australian colonial architecture is placed in an international context, and comparative examples from Britain, India and America have been appropriately selected to emphasise our dependence on overseas sources. John Verge’s grand 1835 saloon at Elizabeth Bay House (which adorns the cover and for which Lucas was restoration architect) is compared with Sir Robert Taylor’s stair at Sharpham in Devon built c. 1770; a chimney-piece in Northumberland is compared with one at Fernhill, Mulgoa; and specific English pattern-book sources for local buildings are identified. If such comparisons confirm the provincialism of colonial Australia, the also show its competence and its range.
However, I object to the structure and terminology of the book, which is divided into three sections — ‘Vernacular’, ‘High-style’ and ‘Colonial Revival’. The first two are neither attractive nor accurate, and the ‘Colonial Revival’ in Australia owed as much to America, England and the Mediterranean as it did to inspiration from local early colonial examples, as Conrad Hamann has proved in ‘Nationalism and Reform in Australian Architecture 1880-1920’, published in Historical Studies vol. 18, no. 72 (April 1979). Examples in the ‘Vernacular’ chapter, as the authors themselves point out, clearly derived from elsewhere in their style and fabric. Perhaps one could say that the veranda’d bungalow — deriving from India — began a vernacular tradition in Australia, but that is not the same thing as specifically attributing vernacular qualities and possible Aboriginal inspiration to bark huts — a derivation that would have surprised the early American settlers or ancient Greeks who also built them. ‘High-style’ is just silly.
Various alternatives could be proposed, like ‘functional’ and ‘decorative’, or ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’. The trouble with all such labels is that, like ‘capitalist’ and worker’, one can easily cite paradigm cases but the great bulk in Australia hovers somewhere around the middle. The typological approach normal in architectural writing in England since Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s History of Building Types (Thames and Hudson, 1976) would surely have been more rewarding, even if it means we again prove ourselves provincial by following overseas models. The ‘vernacular’ and ‘high style’ dichotomy, in any case, derives from Professor Brunskill’s more justifiable ‘vernacular’ and ‘polite’ antithesis — justifiable because England really has centuries of peculiarly local traditions and materials to build on and with. Even ‘high-style’ has been imported from America via Peter Blake.
Both Cox and Lucas are practising restoration architects, and hence practically involved with the buildings they are discussing. Clearly this has been beneficial for their book as it gives them an unusual appreciation of details such as mouldings, windows, chimney-pieces, doors, fanlights and the other multiple clues to a building’s date and quality. One assumes that the reverse also applies, that this impressive and exhaustive knowledge of colonial architecture throughout Australia is of great value when the authors are faced with evaluating and preserving one of the species. The inherent danger is that they, and to an even greater degree, other less knowledgeable architects, will be seduced by the presumed original to the detriment of the extant.
Whenever any Australian architectural enthusiast hears that a building is about to be ‘restored’, the immediate response is to rush off and photograph it before it is converted to a travesty of its ‘authentic’ original appearance. A real improvement of the restored over the unrestored occurs in about one case in every hundred. I should add that this one case is frequently the work of Clive Lucas; Elizabeth Bay House, Clarendon in Tasmania with its reconstructed columns, and Hannibal Hume’s cottage at Cooma have all been re-animated rather than rebuilt. His firm, Fisher Lucas, has even been called in to report on other men’s too violent scrappings, strippings and renewings made in the furious pursuit of authenticity: for example at Lancer Barracks at Parramatta, now a garish shadow of its former self.
One hundred and three years ago in England William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (‘Anti-Scrape’) as a protest against the then current architectural penchant for destroying the continuous history of a building in the quest for the building as it was, or even as it might or ought to have been. Morris’s example, unfortunately, was one that was not taken up in the Antipodes and still has not been, despite the promising existence of an Australian committee of ICOMOS (The International Council of Monuments and Sites), founded in 1976.
It seems to me that the fundamental problem with restoration architects is that they cannot bear to leave a building looking old, shabby and untidy. That it was all three when they began work is usually deplored and obliterated. An aesthetic appreciation course on the attributes of the aged should be a first priority in the new graduate course in the conservation of the built environment at the University of New South Wales, which began this year and is the first such course in Australia.
The fact that a building is old is often the major reason for keeping it: for example, Cadman’s Cottage, claimed to be the oldest building in Sydney, or Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta, the oldest building in Australia. Cadman’s Cottage was submitted to restoration in 1973, and if it burned out tomorrow it would not lose a single shingle or stick of wood that predated this restoration. Elizabeth Farm is undergoing its facelift now. It has all the attributes of age and it ought to keep them. The restorer’s job is merely to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate further, and to make it safe for visitors. Yet even this role, when lip service is paid to it, is capable of wide interpretation. Elizabeth Farm, for instance, has its early shingles — or at least some of them — hidden under its second roof, which is of galvanised iron and dates from 1880. At first it was proposed to pull the lot off and put a new shingled roof on the building to make it as it originally was! This plea for ‘authenticity’ was backed up by the argument that the present roof was unsafe, an argument that is not easy to refute without specialist and intimate knowledge of the fabric. Then, after a certain amount of protest, it was discovered that the roof was not so unsafe after all. It now seems it will be repaired and retained.
Treatments exist which allow even very decayed bearers to resume their load-bearing role, and weak spots can be patched. But the conjunction of new and old work generally looks obvious — and so it should. Elizabeth Farm should look like the oldest building in Australia after it has been restored. It should not look exactly as it might have looked to Elizabeth and John Macarthur in 1793, 1828, 1834, or any other date arbitrarily chosen.
The reason that architects tend to restore to a set date is obvious, particularly if the building is to become a house museum. One would not be grateful to Mr Lucas for leaving the multiple partitions in Elizabeth Bay House which had been installed when the house was divided into flats in 1941. Owners patiently replacing bits of cornices in their Federation bungalows should not be discouraged. Sometimes the new has to give way to reveal the old. On the other hand. the old ought to be there to be revealed. Ripping out all the window frames of an 1820s building because they date from the 1880s and installing one’s hypothesis of the original windows is far less commendable.
One can also go too far in justifying new work in terms of extant evidence. Sir George Gilbert Scott (Morris’s major reason for founding SPAB or Anti-Scrape) was notorious for finding a little blocked-up window or a single column in his favourite Decorated Gothic style and restoring an entire church to conform to it, regardless of the rest of the fabric. This is still happening in a minor way, but as a favourite and lucrative hobby of Australian architects is suing for libel, I confine myself to an example that was in another country — and besides the wretch is dead.
At Sydney’s Mint Building, a wing of the old Rum Hospital, the present restoration architects have destroyed the pleasantly enclosed ends of the side verandahs to get the building back to what it was in Governor Macquarie’s day. In the process they have also removed all the stone columns on the verandahs that actually were there originally, and replaced them with machine-turned facsimiles. These are far more precise than the originals, and make nonsense of Francis Greenway’s complaints of their inaccuracy. The justification is that of structural necessity. The old columns, despite having lasted 169 years, would have collapsed if left as they were, all set off their beds. Stonework which has been set off its bed usually deteriorates rapidly within a few years; these were most exceptional. But even if some of the Mint columns really needed to be replaced because they were physically dangerous, why the lot? The reason, I believe, is that the old looked shabby, the new would have looked obvious, and the ensemble would have looked messy. A few years ago some genuine columns were discovered under the floor of the twin NSW Parliament Building, which had come from its sides when the Legislative Council Chamber was erected in 1845. If the Mint architects had accepted the attributes of age, these could surely have been used for replacements.
A building should look old when it is old. There is, as far as I know, no publicly owned building in Australia that, after it has been restored, looks the same as it did before work started, so that it has just been made structurally sound. Of course, if there were such a building nobody would know that the restoration architect had been there; clients like to see something for their money. One still hopes that the beautifully intact Rouse Hill House at Rouse Hill in NSW, recently fallen into public ownership. will be the first of a new preservation breed and not another egotistical ‘restoration’.
The ‘Burra Charter’ recently adopted by ICOMOS (Australia) has attempted to define conservation procedures precisely, so that whatever a builder, owner or architect does to a place can be accurately labelled. Modifying an 1820s cottage to suit modern living conditions without destroying its cultural significance is ‘adaptation’; turning the cottage into a house museum by only removing later accretions would be ‘restoration’; returning it to a known earlier state by rebuilding the roof, windows, doors, or introducing any other material not presently there is ‘reconstruction’; and maintaining the cottage in its existing state and retarding deterioration is ‘preservation’. The charter does not attempt value judgements. In fact, it points out that most conservation work is a combination of all these categories. Still, defining what one is doing is a promising step towards knowing why one is doing it. Some of the muddled thinking about ‘reconstruction’ and ‘reservation’ being identical may now become less common.
The belief that reconstruction is the same as preservation dies hard. Francis Greenway’s Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney is the most recent illustration of this misguided conviction. Every shred of evidence relating to the life of the barracks as district courts has been removed. Every window on the ground floor has been replaced by facsimiles (with dubiously accurate mouldings and modern glass). Walls are being rebuilt or replastered, partitions removed and floorboards replaced.
Yet, almost by accident, this process has revealed an original Greenway interior. While the first two floors are now shells awaiting new uses, the removal of the ceiling from the top floor has exposed a stunning corridor vista of chamfered brick fireplaces cut across by roof beams to form unglazed Georgian fanlight patterns, a superb open timber roof, and barrack rooms of most telling austerity (a genuine ‘restoration’). In this case removal of a layer of the past has revealed a jewel — although this process is normally analogous to peeling an onion. What is mind-boggling is the fact that the restorers now intend to destroy their find with air-conditioning ducts, a lift and modern exhibition partitions. Why deny the public the rare chance to sample the genuine before modern substitutes and additives debase its flavour forever?
Somehow this article has rather lost the note of cautious optimism I originally intended, but the picture is not completely black. Historical surveys of our extant buildings are becoming more numerous, more comprehensive in their subject matter, and more scholarly. ‘Restorations’ of old buildings have given way to more respectful ‘conservation’, and techniques are improving. Compare, for instance, the exact 1970s restoration of Greenway’s St James’ Church, Sydney, with the 1960s restoration of his Windsor church, where something very nasty happened to the base of the cupola. But both involved a lot of renewing rather than keeping: architects still prefer a perfect facsimile to a chipped or worn original and a 1980 reproduction to an 1880 addition. Conservation should mean giving the existing fabric a renewed lease of life, not destroying the past it has had for the purpose of recreating an imaginary original.
I expect the day will come when a Lithgow supermarket is demolished in order to recreate the original mill, obliterated by the vandalism of 1980. Nobody has anticipated such a prospect more appositely than John Ruskin in his Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849:
. . . it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled. Another spirit may be given by another time, and it is then a new building; but the spirit of the dead workman cannot be summoned up, and commanded to direct other hands, and other thoughts. And as for direct and simple copying, it is palpably impossible. What copying can there be of surfaces that have been worn half an inch down? The whole finish of the work was in the half inch that is gone; if you attempt to restore that finish, you do it conjecturally; if you copy what is left, granting fidelity to be possible (and what care. or watchfulness, or cost can secure it?), how is the new work better than the old? There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost; some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought. There can be none in the brute hardness of the new carving . . . Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end.
Image: Auditorium Building: Column Capital and Portion of a Frieze, 1887–89, Adler & Sullivan, architects; American, 1883-1895, Art Institute Chicago