Heritage Unthinking

Photo by sarflondondunc FlickrIt is a sad truth that meaningful human insights frequently evolve into cookie-cutter versions of themselves, are extended beyond their usefulness, and become blunt instruments of status or privilege.

Consider the paradigm academic examples: Freudian psychoanalysis or the worst of feminist philosophy. Or the paradigm planning policy example: heritage protection.

What begins as a legitimate desire to maintain an engagement with our past becomes a hoarding fetish writ large.

And so, the removal of a deteriorating crane that hasn’t operated in more than 15 years would have an “adverse heritage impact”. Cue the concerned voices.

A Department of Defence report proposes scrapping the hammerhead crane at the Garden Island Naval Base – which has dominated the area’s skyline since 1951 – to free up berthing capacity for new ships due to enter service this year.

The report, which closes to public submissions on February 18, also says the 250-tonne dockside crane poses a safety risk and costs $770,000 a year to maintain.

A piece of corroded iron fell 50 metres from the structure in 2007.

So effective has been the lawfare, the badgering from monomaniacs, and its support from the academy and media that politicians of (almost) all types are too afraid to identify the heritage absurd as the absurd.

Too many people in public life have internalised the fallacious and damaging presumptions of the heritage extremists in order to appear concerned; and, of course, to make the noisy and media-savvy protesters go away.

No matter where it is, if something is more than about 30 years old, there’ll be someone trying to lock it up like it’s the heart of classical Rome. It is, sadly, no surprise to see  people arguing to save a falling-down brick wall  on the edge of a football field.

Nothing better demonstrates the irrational and emotional basis of modern politics. Heritage over-concern plays directly to the ressentiment  of those who see any building or development as pernicious profit-making, as something distinct from the “community” rather than contributing to it.

It plays to the vivid insecurities of those who do not feel in control of their lives, and for whom change is a threat, and for whom control over built objects represents a permanence that is otherwise absent.

It plays  to those who want to be seen to be good, regardless of whether the outcome of their actions means we can do less and deliver less. Starting with housing availability and affordability, but extending to both private and public services.

It plays  to those who live in feeling, in the world of the vibe, rather than recognising that progress and change are precisely what have allowed us to be rich enough to consider heritage at all.

And this results in heritage orders on 13 internal struts and a sandstone foundation no-one will ever see, or heritage controls on a verandah added in the 1980s. Too many heritage orders are a symphony of stupidity.

All sense of balance in the heritage argument is gone. It has reached that point where its concepts and application, and the exercise of power associated with it, have well exceeded usefulness or reason.

Our built environment isn’t an opportunity for monomaniacs to create a frozen theme park corresponding to their passions, funded by the taxes of people who share neither the location nor the ideology behind it.

It is a crane. It doesn’t work. Just because it is old doesn’t mean we should pay to keep it. There are, after all, real people with real needs who could use the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to make upper-middle-class heritage activists happy.

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