In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.
There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.
Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.
I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.
One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.
People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.
Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.
There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images.
But having said all that, if old buildings really touched us deeply and viscerally, then why were they still being demolished as recently as the 1970s with hardly a word of protest from any but a minority of architects and “radicals”? The loss of so many glorious old buildings in Melbourne can’t just be put down to greedy and crude developers. The fact is few people at the time cared. The spirit of the times was to look ahead, not backwards. The love of things old and rare might not be “in the blood” of most people.
Perhaps the zeitgeist now is to give greater value to the past and that’s why we value what’s left of our old stock. Some of it might be ordinary by the architectural standards of its day, but we seem to value old buildings for a range of reasons. It is interesting to ponder if future generations will sustain the value we give to old buildings.
What’s also intriguing is why there’s evidently so little demand from the public for new buildings to look like old ones – to have elaborate decoration or even (say) classical and figurative references. That’s a theme I’d like to return to shortly.
H/T — more on Melbourne Town Hall Chambers at Melbourne Curious.