Should we save buildings just because they’re old?

The recent action and discussion regarding saving the O’Reilly’s Bonded Stores complex in Brisbane has got me thinking. Firstly, I am absolutely elated that there are so many people like me, who value Brisbane’s architectural history and appreciate early Brisbane streetscapes such as the one on Margaret Street. But it has also got me pondering the question: should we keep a building just because it’s old?

O’Reilly’s Bonded Stores, Margaret Street, Brisbane (photo from

I have discussed previously what I define as “heritage” (see post here), and for me, age has little to do with it. It is about what is important to a community and what we want to pass on to the next generations. However, in heritage best practice, you are generally taught to identify representative and significant examples. Let’s use the Queensland Heritage Register as an example. The criteria for listing on the Queensland Heritage Register is designed to capture a large range of demonstrative examples of places which are important for different reasons, not one of which is purely age. In fact, age need not play a part at all, in theory there is nothing stopping a building built in 2014 being added to the register. This selection of places for inclusion on the heritage register is ultimately decided by a panel of people, the Queensland Heritage Council, who assess whether each nominated place meets the criteria for listing, as outlined in the Queensland Heritage Act 1992. The members of the Queensland Heritage Council are not all heritage experts. In fact, some have no heritage qualifications at all and others can be from sectors which often make uneasy bed partners with heritage, such as politics or the construction industry. In some ways the heritage listing criteria is itself rather elitist, in that it is biased towards conserving a selection of intact, representative buildings which best reflect the criteria. But what about the buildings that fall outside these prime examples? Those which have been altered and adapted over their long history and are no longer “purist” examples of their original form or use, or are in a derelict state, but are old (by Brisbane standards)? Also, are these accepted criteria even important to the average member of the heritage-loving public? Would they prefer to just see all surviving buildings over a certain age conserved, regardless of their condition or potential for ongoing habitation and use? If this is the case, do we need to expand the criteria for listing? After all, isn’t it the people who should decide what parts of their history are or aren’t conserved?

The Bonded Stores complex is an interesting example. Yes, they’re old, but as a consequence, parts of the interior of these buildings have been significantly altered to adapt them to new uses. This is particularly true during its conversion to car parking, which is when I believe large interior ramps were installed for vehicle access between levels and into the adjacent building. Also, sections of it are in pretty bad condition, including the main spans of the roof, which have allowed a lot of water ingress. Now, I agree, neither alteration or poor condition on their own warrant demolition of the building, both can be reversed and fixed in theory. However, the expense involved in this is enormous, certainly far beyond the reach of any heritage or history organisation or individual who may be keen to take on the challenge. Also, even if the building could be restored, ideally a suitable use must be found for it, which is sympathetic to the building and its past. A problem with finding a new use for many older buildings is that they don’t even come close to meeting current building codes for safety, fire prevention or disabled access and during any major restoration they would have to be highly modified to do so. This can be overcome, and there are certainly many successful precedents, but of course these alterations increase the already prohibitive expense. No matter what use is found for it, it is unlikely it will ever make enough money to cover what was spent on repairs and perhaps not even enough to cover its ongoing upkeep. Additionally, construction of new high rise buildings in the CBD, particularly those that can accommodate a large number of people, are always going to be looked on favourably by the Brisbane City Council and the QLD Government because they are a much more efficient use of space and, much more importantly, they generate large amounts of revenue. I know, I know, I can hear what you’re saying: heritage and financial profit should be mutually exclusive and the other, non monetary benefits should be considered with just as high a priority. I couldn’t agree more, but unfortunately, this is not how the world operates, particularly not in government or the real estate development sector.

Wow, things were getting a bit depressing there, so I threw this pic in to lighten the mood

So, even if the Bonded Stores are saved (which unfortunately I personally believe is unlikely, given development approval has already been granted, and this assessment process would have included the standard opportunity for public objections), what to do with it then? It would likely continue to sit there, empty and deteriorating for many years to come. Again, in my opinion, that is still preferential to demolition, but I can also see the other side of the argument too. If I owned the land and had the potential to make millions of dollars off it by demolishing a building that is effectively in an unusable condition and building a new one, or SPENDING millions to restore a building and never see a penny of that money back, even as someone who is pro-conservation, it seems a no-brainer. A compromise would be to just keep the Margaret Street elevation and build behind it, but then we are back to the “facadism” of the past and there are other examples in Brisbane, which in my opinion are tokenistic and dismal failures. Keeping the facades only and building high rises behind them does nothing to retain physical evidence of the historical use of the building or important streetscapes. Also, if the Bonded Stores buildings are heritage listed and the demolition and construction approval retracted, I imagine a rather large amount of compensation would have to be paid to the developers when a multimillion dollar block of land suddenly plummets to effectively nothing. What government or council in their right mind would willingly do that?

Oaks Aurora Tower, Queen Street, Brisbane. The facade of an old building is retained, but looks ridiculous overshadowed by the tower. Also, any evidence of the use of the building in its interior is completely lost.

Unfortunately, I have no answer to any of these conundrums and this is starting to sound like a bit of a rant, but one thing that I believe needs to be remedied is the eleventh hour fights to save buildings. Don’t get me wrong, they are absolutely essential and I applaud and support those who are behind them! What I am getting at is that they are a reflection that the current methods for public notification of proposed development are insufficient.  For the public notification periods which form part of the development assessment process for any building work or proposed change of use/density on a site (and therefore provide opportunities for objecting to them) to be effective, the majority of the public actually need to know about them. Unless you physically walk past the site on a regular basis so you can see the notification sign, or trawl through the Brisbane City Council online development applications daily, this is unlikely to happen. Perhaps, given the apparent importance placed on age alone, for buildings over a certain vintage, it should be mandatory that any proposed demolition is much more highly publicised to the general population. This would then enable earlier intervention to retain buildings.

Ultimately, whether or not buildings should be deemed of heritage significance just based on age, is irrelevant. The  outcry over the Bonded Stores would seem to demonstrate that the broad public wants to know about, and have a say in, proposed demolition of old buildings, whether they are “officially” deemed to be of  historical significance through listing on a heritage register or not.

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