Auckland's heritage suffers the death of a thousand careless cuts

by Fiona Rae / 18 February, 2012
Heritage houses in Auckland continue to be demolished, despite a promise from Len Brown.

The catastrophic event in Christchurch last year ought to have radically changed the way we view our urban heritage. Sadly, it has not. In Auckland, the city's links to its past continue to suffer a death of a thousand careless cuts. If anything, the southern experience seems to have reinforced a dangerously narrow view of just what is valuable in our urban history.

Heritage, in that view, is solely about architectural aesthetics. Buildings, to escape the developer's bulldozer, have to be of unquestioned architectural merit. That is the theory, anyway. It is clearly an elastic measure that, in 2006, did not prevent the gracious landmark 1913 Remuera mansion "Coolangatta" being smashed to kindling in just 19 minutes. Auckland City Council could have saved that building, but a slim majority of its members – driven by what seems to have been mansion envy – thought otherwise.

Then last year three Spanish mission villas in St Heliers met the same fate. Essential to the neighbourhood character, argued the residents; a bunch of worthless wrecks, said the experts, and the villas bit the dust. That, of course, was the old, unreconstructed Auckland administration. Things would be better under the new, and the newly elected mayor, Len Brown, promised the St Heliers fiasco would "never happen again". That was then and now is now and a 130-year-old cottage in Freemans Bay is about to join Auckland's mountain of heritage rubble.

It is exactly the same row repeated. Local residents argue that the cottage is an irreplaceable link with their suburb's past. Experts claim it is in a ruinous state beyond repair. The interesting twist to this all-too-familiar Auckland story is that the council's own heritage planner, who would not recommend demolition, was replaced at the 11th hour by an external consultant who would. Coincidently, he was the same planner involved in the St Heliers villa demolitions.

Summing up, the council's chief executive declared "there was an element of judgment and subjectivity to applications to demolish pre-1940 houses in the Residential I zone". That raises the question of what that judgment and subjectivity is based on, and which is given the greater weight. Sadly, it misses what seems to be the essential point in heritage protection. The fundamental thing to be considered is not architectural merit – more often than not a matter of "subjectivity" as much as "judgment" – but context.

What was destroyed in Christchurch was not only a raft of great old buildings but also the city's historical context; all those lesser structures that could not make a case for survival on architectural values alone, but when taken together provided the unique built fabric of Christchurch. The Freemans Bay cottage has no architectural values that will shine in some retirement home for old houses. Where it is, it ties that gentrifying suburb to its past. Heritage is about context and continuity – part of that subtle grid of meaning that makes place much more than just a street address.
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