University of Melbourne Urban Heritage Conference – Day 1 Wrap-up

Convened by the Australia Institute of Art History, the University of Melbourne is currently hosting an international conference “to explore approaches to the preservation of built heritage, with a focus on Melbourne”. The Advocates have been looking forward to attending, with Paul Roser scheduled to present on Melbourne’s Marvelous Modernism, and we gathered with many heritage luminaries on Monday night at the fabulous Capitol Theatre for the opening lecture by Professor Andrew Saint. Saint spoke of the London experience of planning and conservation, illustrating the challenges of promoting appropriate development in a city with rich architectural and archaeological heritage and 5 UNESCO world heritage sites. Parallels were seen with the Melbourne situation, with urban renewal, for example in the Docklands areas of both cities, posing a particular challenge to planning authorities and developers alike.

Read on for a summary of Day 1.

Tuesday, the first full day of the conference and the “international day”, began with a richly illustrated introduction by preeminent art historian Gerard Vaughan, who presented his view of the evolution of the Victorian city. He lamented the “usually unsuccessful” campaigns led by the National Trust in the 1970s, seen by many as a golden age of conservation. (This was despite the fact that the Trust was pivotal in the passing of the Historic Buildings Act, 1974, the foundation of state heritage legislation, among other wins.) He then called for the establishment of a national heritage fund, an initiative which the Trust has also been lobbying for.

Professor Saint followed with a review of planning history in London, also revisiting the “heroic years of conservation” of the 1970s. Like Melbourne, London favours the promotion of a balance of old and new over wholesale redevelopment (Shanghai) or preservation (Venice). He lamented the fact that “viewing corridors” have become a central tenet of the planning process, arguing that they are not necessarily a successful tool for good conservation outcomes. He highlighted the importance of good design not just of towers, but where they meet the ground at street level. He also spoke of urban renewal and the challenges of adaptive reuse of industrial sites such as the Battersea Power Station. Finally, Professor Saint lamented a perceived absence of young people in the conservation fight, which was echoed by some audience members. This caused some consternation among the Trust Advocates, who have a combined average age of 34, and the discussion quickly moved to the Twitterverse, where Melbourne Heritage Action (a vocal activist group supported by the National Trust) and other “young” professionals discussed their role in the good fight.

The audience then heard from Rupert Mann (co-founder of Melbourne Heritage Action) about the work of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which is advocating for the development of the first generation of planning controls and development guidelines in Myanmar. Mann spoke of advocating for “livability” by promoting the amenity provided by heritage fabric and landscapes to a rapidly growing city. Conference delegates then heard from Matthew Hu Xinyu about conservation challenges in Beijing.

After lunch, Dr Ron van Oers of the UNESCO supported World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for Asia and the Pacific  spoke about the Historic Urban Landscape approach which is being rolled out in a handful of cities around the world including Ballarat. Like other presenters, he spoke of the role of culture and heritage in fostering competitive cities offering a high quality of life, providing an environment for interaction and creativity and enhancing innovation and resilience. He also spoke of the importance of exploring and documenting intangible heritage values, something which is a crucial challenge for the heritage profession more broadly.

Associate Professor Duanfang Lu of the University of Sydney then wrapped up proceedings with a paper about urban heritage in Datong, China, a case study for conservation in the context of China’s rapid urbanisation.

Follow @felixexplody, @anna_foley_ or @paul_roser for live-tweets of the conference proceedings, and check the blog for updates throughout the day.

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