A couple of weeks ago Robertsons’ House in Oaks Estate was awarded full heritage status by the ACT Heritage Council. Constructed in stages in 1912 by Richard and Mary Robertson, who used makeshift building materials such as iron off-cuts, kerosene tins, bush poles, weather boards and packing case board, the house is the ACT’s last surviving example of a worker’s shanty.
It’s an important part of Canberra’s history and a worthy addition to the heritage list, which is why it was so disappointing to hear about the lack of care given to the building. If it is important enough to be heritage listed, surely it is important enough to be properly looked after. Instead, the building has apparently become a frequent haunt of drug addicts who view it as a good place to shoot up.
The ACT Government has plans to put a sharps disposal bin on the site, in the hopes that drug addicts won’t leave their dirty needles strewn all over the verandah and grounds, but that seems to be a rather lackadaisical response. Rather than give the impression that it’s okay to do drugs there as long as you clean up after yourself, wouldn’t it be better to send the message that you shouldn’t do drugs there at all?
Taking proper care of the historic site would be a big step in the right direction. You might have heard of the Broken Window Theory. Basically, it suggests that a well-maintained and clean environment sends the signal that certain behaviour isn’t tolerated there. On the other hand, a run-down and poorly maintained environment sends the opposite message. Say you have a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are left that way, chances are vandals will break a few more windows. Eventually people may cause further damage, break in and become squatters, or in the case of Robertsons’ House, start getting high on the front porch.
Now, we’re not saying that taking proper care of Robertsons’ House will stop delinquent activity. All we are saying is that giving the heritage listed building the respect and care it deserves might encourage others to do the same.
While we’re on the topic of heritage listed buildings, we should say something about the controversial decision to protect the run-down public housing development in Dickson. We definitely see the value in protecting Canberra’s historic landmarks, but do the Dickson Flats really fit into that category? Ken Taylor obviously thinks so – in a recent article in the Canberra Times he blasted the building’s critics (of which there are many), saying they hold “a blinkered, uninformed and reactionary misinformed view of what heritage is”.
According to Mr Taylor, heritage has nothing to do with aesthetics – which basically sounds like he is admitting the buildings are ugly, but wants us to protect them anyway. He argues the buildings should be conserved because there are “human beings for whom the buildings hold memories”, but you can say that about anything – you can even say that about porta-potties (although they only ever hold bad memories). Does this mean we should never replace anything? That would be ridiculous.
The truth is, any form of architecture that is ugly to begin with, doesn’t by virtue of time become more attractive, increase in sentimental value or become worthy of protection just because it is there. Bad enough the buildings are a major eyesore visitors to our city have to drive past, but they are also unsuitable for people to live in, are riddled with asbestos and will cost a significant amount of taxpayer money to bring up to standard. They are also standing in the way of a development project that could provide homes for hundreds of people. Surely the benefits to society, along with the site’s purported historical value, should be properly weighed when determining whether a building is given heritage status – and if it falls short, then we give Miley a call so we can pave the way for something more worthwhile.