Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A sentimental victory

I found a book showcasing my home town, Melbourne, in a second-hand bookshop on the weekend.

Published in 1968 it is full of glorious photos of the Victorian era architecture of the inner suburbs, with Carlton featuring strongly.

So I was taken aback when I read the text accompanying the photos. The authors described the inner suburbs as follows,

In districts eventually destined for rebuilding the great majority of present-day residents still live in time-expired houses made habitable and, indeed, often presentable by renovation.

The argument that inner suburban areas must be rebuilt to provide residential accommodation for a much greater proportion of the population is patently true. The metropolitan sprawl cannot go on much longer ...

Central Melbourne - the city of the first hundred years is vanishing. It had much that was quaint and charming, but it was uneconomic and therefore an anachronism. Sentiment may yet preserve some of its buildings as curiosities, but they will never again much influence its atmosphere.

Such a dry economic rationalism! The love of place and heritage and gracious architecture is recognised only as sentimentality. The future belongs, it is claimed, to the more impersonal, objective requirements of scientific planning.

And initially history seemed to prove the authors right. A small part of Carlton was, indeed, demolished and replaced with modern, high-rise Housing Commission towers.

But "sentiment" was not so easily vanquished. Today, the Housing Commission area is considered a blot on the landscape, and the old Victorian terraces of the inner suburbs have soared in value. There are still many sections of the inner suburbs where the historic atmosphere has been largely preserved.

Ironically, it is the extraordinarily dry and technocratic views of the authors which now seem quaintly anachronistic rather than the Victorian terraces.

It's good to reflect that something relating more to the soul has proved stronger than an empty rationalism. I have often walked such inner suburban streets and felt connected to the historic character, and felt pride in what my own ancestors created, and enjoyed the pre-modern architectural design, with its emphasis on elegance and charm.

It seems I was not alone in valuing such things.


  1. Historic architecture has had, not only a style, but a sense of craftsmanship & longevity. It was "built to last".

    In today's lifestyle, the only thing sacred is money. If it costs too much to maintain something historical, then replacing it with a newer model is commonplace. This is true for almost anything in life. (Our rainforrest, buildings, partners, marriages, etc.)

    I respect the 'values' of the past that had groundings in 'security'. Our fathers bought cars that would 'last'. Our cars & houses would stay in the family for generations & have a value based on more than 'money'. We valued our LIFE partners well beyond their physical 'attractiveness' or sex drives.

    With this pervading modern mentality, I cannot understand why people seem 'mistified' with why their lives lack meaning. Why they cannot 'settle-down'. Why they are unhappy.

    It makes sense to me.



  2. Bobby, an interesting comment.

    I agree that much earlier architecture was built to last - not only in terms of solidity, but in the effort and care which went into creating attractive public spaces.

    This is especially true in Melbourne in some of the suburbs built in Victorian and Edwardian times, such as Malvern or Camberwell.

    It's as if the people in that era were willing to look beyond themselves, to what they bequeathed for future generations.

    I think there's been a shift in which some people now think "As long as it stays OK while I'm around, the future can deal with itself".

    If you have this attitude, then you probably won't care as much if architecture is made plain or boring or shoddy or functionalist, because its value ceases once you're not around anyway.

    So you're likely to get good architecture in a culture in which people think they have some kind of connection to future generations.