The Eye of the Fish

August 9, 2010

Heritage Schmeritage

Disappointingly, discussion about Mayor Kerry’s first salvo into the next local body campaign seems to have dried up already. We can still keep on having that conversation – but in the mean time – just what exactly is going on with heritage at the moment? There’s something rather odd going on, and I really don’t quite understand it.

Firstly, the government decides to effectively emasculate the Historic Places Trust, by reviewing the HPT Act, and getting rid of all the volunteers. To quote from the Government secret Cabinet Briefing document:

“To resolve these issues, I propose to amend the HPA to:
disestablish Branch Committees
remove from NZHPT’s Board the three positions elected by NZHPT’s membership”

While that may make a lot of sense to the bean-counters and policy-wonks, the Branch Committees are run by volunteers, normally older people with a lot of local knowledge built up over a number of years, and with time on their hands that they are happy to give freely with. But while it may be correct that over 80% of the HPT’s total funding of $15m comes from the Gov, and only $640k comes from the 23,000 strong membership subscriptions, it still seems a pretty rash decision to axe the only way the volunteers can contribute.

How is one central body going to gather information on, provide local feedback on, and keep the wheels running all over the country? The little old silver-haired men and women up and down our heritage sites are likely to feel far less enthusiastic about putting their hours in for a government ministry, than for what they thought of as their own organisation. The re-organisation will have the undoubted effect of driving the volunteers away, perhaps to join up with somewhere they are appreciated.

Yet, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage (or, as Orwell would have had it, MiniCult), plaintively hopes that the silverheads don’t run away at the prospect. Once more, I quote:

“There is a risk that community involvement in heritage issues will decrease once Branch Committees are disestablished. I consider, however, that the proposals in this paper create opportunities for heritage advocates either to form new, independent heritage groups, or to increase involvement in existing groups.”

The issue seems to be that some of those uppity local branch members dared to have opinions of their own, and to disagree with the head office – or, worse still, to have the temerity to think different from MiniCult itself. Off with their heads, cried the Queen of Hearts! (or, Chris Finlayson in this case).

I wonder what event set all that off?

On a (related?) matter, last week Wellington City Council’s Strategy and Policy Committee decided:

“to move away from a blanket ‘heritage area’ term for Wellington’s oldest suburb, and look at examining each aspect of its character and heritage to form the basis of a District Plan change. A Plan change will be ready for public notification next year…..

Through the review, Council officers will work on a ‘place-based’ plan and design guidelines for Thorndon which will ultimately feed into the framework for the proposed District Plan change. Place-based plans look at the character of an area and also the desired future character of an area. This determines the planning standards for the location and shape of new buildings in that area.

Cr Foster says it’s important that the review won’t just be about regulations, but about how to help building owners. It aims to improve heritage consent processes, the advice and information given to owners of heritage properties, and eligibility criteria for the Built Heritage Incentive Fund.

“It’s important to remember that we protect heritage and streetscape for the benefit of all Wellingtonians, so we should recognise that by supporting the owners of heritage properties.”

Well, it does need a shake up – and of course un-strengthened heritage buildings will get a real shake up in the next ‘big one’, so do please keep us all in the loop please Mr Foster. Even if most (all?) of the heritage staff have left the Council in the mean time. The Council has, just recently, been proposing a whole lot more buildings in the suburban shopping centres of Wellington are noted as being ‘Heritage’, some of which obviously are, and some of which must surely be raising some eyebrows about their inclusion.

But what is most extraordinary of all on the heritage front this weekend, was the front page grumblings and mutterings of Ian Athfield complaining that some bugger is / has listed his house as Heritage without his agreement. A man’s House is his Castle! Both Athfield, and John Buck (owner of an Ath House in Hawkes Bay) seem to be protesting long and loud that they are being hard done by on the Heritage front. Update: Both photos here courtesy of the fantastic resource of New Zealand architecture that is the DayOut website (many thanks!), which has a photo, quick feature on, and directions to much of NZ’s architectural heritage.

They’re protesting about the fact that their houses are interesting – presumably they would have been happier if the house was dull, dumb, and boring, just like almost every other suburban tract house? Would they be at all happy if someone knocked down their house one weekend without asking? (well, yes, to demolish Ath’s place over a single weekend would take a small atom bomb at least to demolish that one….). Buck is protesting that he can’t chose to paint the house any colour he wants to (to help him out there, we’ve included an alternative colour scheme for consideration.

Hmmm… I’m not really sure that is an improvement.

Yet, curiously, the Dom Post notes that Mr Athfield is a Board Member of the HPT. And indeed he is – and the only architect on the board. That’s the same Mr Athfield who loudly proclaims that we’re building today the heritage of tomorrow.

Oh, what a tangled web. One man’s Heritage is another man’s Castle. Or, as a Dictionary might put it, Heritage can mean:

“1. something inherited at birth, such as personal characteristics, status, and possessions
2. anything that has been transmitted from the past or handed down by tradition
3. the evidence of the past, such as historical sites, buildings, and the unspoilt natural environment, considered collectively as the inheritance of present-day society
4. something that is reserved for a particular person or group or the outcome of an action, way of life, etc: the sea was their heritage ; the heritage of violence
5. law any property, esp land, that by law has descended or may descend to an heir
6. Bible
a. the Israelites regarded as belonging inalienably to God
b. the land of Canaan regarded as God’s gift to the Israelites”

You see, I think that’s where it is getting confused. Forget the Canaanites and the Israelites for a second. Its not just about your heritage. Its about our heritage as well. Some properties are so fantastic that we consider them part of our lives as well, the “collective inheritance of present-day society.” A heritage listing isn’t taking anything away from a heritage building owner. It is just saying: we think your building is so special that we want to recognise that for all the rest of us. And what is so wrong about that?

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It seems that Mr Buck is still smarting from the ribbing his neighbours gave him some 30 years ago when he built his house. At the time, if I recall correctly, the house was plastered grey, and then painted with a black waterproof sealer coat, to keep the rain out. Neighbours kicked up a stink about this outlandish shaped house, and its evil black appearance…. Rumour has it that he left it black for a lot longer than necessary, just so as to wind the neighbours up – and, when he eventually painted it the current white colour, they also instantly fell in love with it (in comparison to the black, anyway).

It is a really lovely house – especially the way it sits up there in the vines. Not sure the pink really helps it along though. Perhaps a more autumnal russet colour of late season vine leaves, or the green flush of new season’s Coleraine on the bough would look just as good as the white though?

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The problem with a heritage listing is the perception that it is a slippery slope to district plan listing (where actual protection is real, kind of), or a heritage order. This has certainly been the experience for the Bucks (and I have a lot of sympathy for them – aside from private property rights, they actually commissioned this work, thus they are as responsible for the design as Athfield. Any changes they may want to make should be viewed as part of the buildings heritage – not an effacement of (whether hot pink or not).

Athfield’s house is a little differenet, in that I would hope that any protection would acknolwedge the specific value of that ‘building’, and protect that quality (at least while Athfield is alive – but then, it is so schizophrenic anyway, that subsequent post-Athfield additions aren’t really going to detract, are they…?). Why would we want to stop this creeping malaise from taking over Khandallah, and perhaps all of Wellington, creating a vast labrynthine local DIY version of an arcologyesque megastructure…?).

I don’t know what’s happening at NZHPT, but I do know that it is supposed to be an independent entity that the Minister has limited powers of direction over (well, at least in terms of heritage matters, where the Minister may not give any direction). This independence is important, and I don’t know what effect getting disestablishing the Board positions and branch committees would do for that, but I don’t share your position on the inevitability that it WILL drive vlounteer support away – you either feel passionate about protecting heritage, or you don’t…

And finally, the proposed WCC heritage area changes bring our heritage protection into line with other cities, e.g. Melbourne, and provide more specific and perhaps relevant controls to developments in heritage areas. There needs to be, however, proper distinction between ‘character’ and ‘heritage’ designated areas, and the controls that govern them.

I also look forward to the imminent designation of Strathmore as a heritage area, recognising that for ‘heritage’ to be a valid concept, it needs to extend beyond 19th and early 20th century building styles… Churton park is also a pretty important heritage area for the domestic building of its era, and so on…

Yes, the whole concept of heritage is quite ridiculous….

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“…NZHPT, but I do know that it is supposed to be an independent entity that the Minister has limited powers of direction over (well, at least in terms of heritage matters, where the Minister may not give any direction). This independence is important….”

My reading of this change is: no longer. In future, there will be no volunteers. There will also be little or no independence (it will be part of the Ministry of Cults, with approx 100 employees, presumably all heritage specialists).

Actually, what am I saying? “presumably all heritage specialists”? there are next to no Builders or Architects in the Department of Building and Housing, so its grossly presumptuous of me to think that there would be a majority of trained heritage people in the Heritage section of the Ministry…

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…or, on the other hand, the changes will strengthen heritage advocacy by allowing NZHPT to retain its statutory authority, and not have this undermined by community activists with a narrower view of the overall national strategy (and one is definitely needed in the funding environment NZ heritage is placed in). The messy vitality of community involvement in statutory bodies is all well and good, but not if it renders that body ineffective.

In the soon to be scenario, community activists can return to the community, where they can arguably be more effective than creating internal ructions that further weaken NZHPT… (some will, of course, choose to work with NZHPT as de facto branch committees I suspect). In this way the community activists can feel free to argue for the retention of this or that locally important building without jeopardising the bigger picture…

My reading of the OIA documents is that otherwise the Trust retains its independence (except, importantly, all Board members are appointed by the Minister). They retain the existing 100 staff members (minus the one Board placing I guess), and its role and functions remain completely independent from MCH. In fact, the Cabinet committee that signed off on this explicitly notes that: “NZHPT is an autonomous Crown entity…”

I don’t really think that anything sinister right-wing plot is being unfolded here…

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Like m-d, I am not so concerned about the direction of the HPT. My understanding is that the changes should enable the former branch committees to be reconstituted as stand-alone (fee-levying) bodies as vociferous in their opposition to head office dictats as they choose. I also agree that many of the people who were sufficiently motivated to participate in the old system will be at least as likely to do so in future.

I am less cheerful about the reality of heritage definition. As the householder of a bit of Aro Valley Modernism (thanks Maurice Patience), I have had some experience of the people who do participate. Inspired by the valuation miracle that was 1990s Thorndon and a smattering of Green Party funk, the community committee seems to aspire to a regime in which it is a crime to build anything, but a capital crime to build anything without a finial. Their kind of heritage seems to be caught in a specific timeframe and the aesthetic of those David McGill / Grant Tilly books you can still find on the bottom shelf in the Ferret Bookstore. In fact, the heritage of the Valley includes uncomfortable truths like outdoor dunnies, overcrowding and sunless damp as well as threatened values like openness to immigrants, affordability for low income earners and political activism.

In a way it is encouraging to see the preservationist scope extending to encompass a baby boomer tract of nostalgia, and funny when it snares boomer enfants terribles like Athfield and John Buck. But it’s still about prettiness, it seems. Can’t we find a vocabulary to talk about urban heritage which doesn’t come down to the likes and dislikes of people with time on their hands?

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It’s all about balance. Too little heritage protection, and we end up with the cheesy nouveau-riche shoeboxes in Auckland. Too much heritage protection, and a city ends up as a living museum, like Paris.

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starkive – of course, you could be talking about us as well, when you say:
“the likes and dislikes of people with time on their hands?”

not that I’m a silver haired old volunteer silverfish yet….

and Deepred – fantastic link, thanks – I’ve been reading their comments page this morning

10 - 08 - 10

It should also be noted that the Trust have been charged by the Minister to provide assistance and support to the former branches in their transition to becoming more independent local organisations – that is to say they are not being completely abandoned or shut out of the ‘system’…

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It would be nice to have an acknowledgement for the photos!

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My personal view on heritage preservation is to do with my perception of buildings. When one starts talking about lifespan of 50+ years it’s easy to start thinking of a building as a static snapshot of particular arrangement of materials in space and time. But buildings are living, forever changing creatures. I think heritage preservation rules should acknowledge that.

For example, depending on the historical importance of the building, a rule could say that 75% of the building, including certain nominated features, must not be changed in the next 25 years. After that the percentage might drop using some sort of scale and reevaluation; and so on. The percentage that is allowed to be changed should try to marry the previously old with the new in some interesting way that befits the heritage.

What do you think of that?


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Dayout – my apology for the omission – credit now included near photos – you guys have a great resource there!

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tomek – my own personal experience with heritage people is that they are normally quite amenable to the practicalities of needing to let a building change and evolve over time. All adds to the rich tapestry of time, as they say.

I think one of the more ironic heritage rulings though are teh ones involving buildings like Lloyds of London, and the Pompidou Centre, both of which were designed to be flexible, changeable, adaptive to the needs of the time etc. Both now listed, and in theory therefore not changeable.

But, like Athfield’s house, as long as the change is done in keeping with the rest of the building, I don’t think the heritage people would either a) object, or b) have a leg to stand on if they did.

60 MPa
11 - 08 - 10

Tomek, I would get depressed if I thought that anything I built would only last 50 years. I’d expect 100 out of it at least.
I know that we are all done for in the heat death of the universe eventually but may I be allowed to cling to some sliver of permanence, however illusory?

BTW-if points get awarded for arcane phraseology, I vote m-d for “arcologyesque”

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plenty more where that came from…

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PS –

I say ‘arcologyesque’ as my Athfield-inspired vision could be argued to address some of the basic principles of arcologies, even if the formal typology is would be something quite ‘other’ to Soleri’s vision…

Our local example would certainly allow a much higher degree of user-produced individuality, even though it would undoubtedly be less efficient…

But, of course, there are so many rules and regulations (including heritage) that prevent society from evolving to what it might be…