Heritage protection for commission housing?

Sirius_blocks

The Sirius apartment complex has been called a ‘brutalist eyesore’, but the Heritage Council is seeking to have it listed by the State Heritage Register

 

That’s it – Australia is now officially heritage crazy.

In Sydney, the Heritage Council is eyeing off an old and precious building: a 1978 public housing monstrosity. A heritage system designed to protect the magnificent buildings of yesteryear now includes 1970s commission housing blocks.

Only last week, a similar story appeared in the UK Evening Standard. A 1998 British library – denounced as ‘one of the ugliest buildings in the world’ when built – is now protected under Grade I listed status.

Any logical consistency of heritage listings seems to have been thrown out the window. Although the line between ‘to heritage list’ or ‘not to heritage list’ remains blurry, we are certainly travelling in the wrong direction. It seems almost any claim for protection will be awarded.

Regulators must understand the long term costs of these property rights intrusions. But the costs are not felt today, they are felt in the future.

An excellent article by Jim Epstein at Reason recently explored what New York City would look like if the Landmarks Act had been passed in 1865, not 1965. It is likely we would have a Jazz Club in place of the Empire State Building:

Consider Henry Hardenbergh’s original Waldorf-Astoria, an architectural masterpiece and Manhattan’s leading luxury hotel. If the Landmarks Commission had been around in the Jazz Age, surely it would have protected this great structure – and then it never could have been torn down to build the Empire State Building, which occupies the exact same spot.

Maintaining the status quo is not costless – heritage overlays are a handbrake on progress. Freezing our cities for whatever is vogue often results in lower population densities, a greater urban sprawl, and stifling of architectural design.

At a time when Australian cities are beginning to burst at the seams, our eyes should not be focused on preserving every facet of the past, but in generating a prosperous future.

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