Dunedin's inheritance still being degraded

Artbeat column no 459 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 19.10.09

Is facadism a good solution for Dunedin? Is facadism ever a good solution? For that matter what is facadism? These questions were discussed a little at the hearings over whether to keep the protected facades of the buildings at 372 to 392 Princes Street and 11 Stafford Street. They certainly weren’t answered there. They deserve serious attention.

A community may wish to preserve its built environment for several reasons but the two principal ones are historic and aesthetic. The protections at Princes and Stafford Streets were given for primarily aesthetic reasons – they’re part of a “townscape” precinct. But it turns out they also have historic significance which would make them eligible to become a “heritage” precinct.

Be that as it may, if you have a building the community wishes to preserve for either or both of these reasons is it worth protecting just the façade? The answer is maybe, either because it is only the façade which is of aesthetic or historic distinction or, more commonly, because that is all it is feasible to protect for a combination of economic and political reasons.

This latter upsets some purists. They feel that if you can’t have all that is desirable it isn’t worth bothering with anything less. But that is objectively mistaken. While the façade is less than the whole it still retains its appearance and some of the historically significant substance.

It has been said, and I agree, that in Dunedin, too often facades are protected when really the whole building should be. Again the buildings at Princes and Stafford Streets are a case in point because on closer investigation it turned out they have more aesthetic and historic significance than was realised at the time their facades were protected. This is important and a reason why the city council should be a lot more active getting whole buildings researched and protected. But it doesn’t follow that it isn’t worth protecting just facades, which it sometimes is for the reasons mentioned.

That being so what are the best options when confronted with an owner who wants to make significant changes? The possibilities include: 1. maintain the whole building as it is; 2. restore the whole building to some previous state; 3. demolish the building but keep the façade; 4. demolish the building and the façade and replace them with a replica.

From a preservationist point of view 1 recommends itself if the present state of the building represents its optimal aesthetic/historic state. 2 will be best if there is a former state that is optimal. If those aren’t available for political/economic reasons then 3 has merit. But there are variations on 3 which Councillor Richard Walls inquired about during the hearings over the Princes and Stafford Street buildings.

In Auckland the façade of the old Queen Street Bank of New Zealand building has been preserved but behind and above it there now towers a skyscraper which greatly modifies the appearance of that part of the street. I suppose it was worth keeping the old façade but the result is not very happy. By contrast the old Mollison’s Building on the corner of George and Frederick Streets has been rebuilt behind its facades but at least that structure matches them and doesn’t tower over them. That is certainly better, though not optimal.

4 is the least desirable option from the preservationist view but may still be worthwhile, especially where there is a wider context worthy of preservation. Something like that was attempted when the old State Cinema on George Street was demolished. (Pascoes the Jewellers is now on the site.) But the replacement façade is not a replica, but a pastiche – a poor approximation.  The original was three storeys high. This is two and visibly empty behind the first floor. It is so poor it should be replaced with something better – more like the original. But a gaping hole or a discordant replacement – single storey in a bowdlerised modernist style for example - would have been even worse.

Dunedin’s urban fabric is now diseased with gaping holes where there used to be more or less attractive and historically significant buildings. There are also too many incongruous and poor replacements of such structures. The result is in many places a picture of a city in sad decay.

While the considerations behind each decision may be complicated the order of merit is really simple and objective. Our problem is we have something rather special but still too few of our own people recognise its merits. We are in a race against time as we continue to degrade that inheritance before realising the exceptional quality of what we’ve got. We still think we can afford to lose lesser buildings because we don’t see their role in the larger picture. We badly need to improve our decision-making. Facadism should be a part of that. But only a part.

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