The house used as a set in the movie, The Castle
The house used as the main set in the 1997 movie, The Castle, 3 Dagonet St, Strathmore

I still find it hard to believe that some Moonee Valley Councillors are seeking heritage protection for the house used in the filming of The Castle; it sounds like fake news or the sort of satire The Onion might invent.

And yet it’s consistent with the madness that saw Melbourne’s Total Car Park listed on the State Heritage Register on spurious grounds a few years ago (see Architectural merit: has this building got enough to save it?); while Dallas Brooks Hall – scene of decades of concerts, mass meetings and school speech nights attended by hundreds of thousands of Victorians – was demolished with barely a whimper from the heritage community (see Who cares if Dallas Brooks Hall gets demolished?).

But it’s true. reported yesterday Moonee Valley Council’s heritage advisers say the house is historically significant for its “artistic distinction” as the site where “one of the most successful Australian films ever made” was created.

The residence contributes to the understandings of Victoria’s diverse cultural life by embodying cultural nuances portrayed in the film about the land rights movement of the 1980s and 1990s, the Australian battler figure through its protagonist Darryl Kerrigan, as well as about family life in Victoria at the time.

The Guardian got on to the story too. It quoted Councillor Narelle Sharpe, who it says requested the report, saying she was “happy to move the officer’s recommendation that heritage protection is afforded to the site”. Council wrote to the Minister for Planning on 4 November requesting interim protection of the site and last night considered a recommendation to apply a heritage overlay to the property.

In the movie, the fictitious Kerrigan family fought attempts by an adjacent airport to compulsorily acquire their property. In real life, the current owner, Vicki Cosentino, is vigorously opposing the push to protect her house because she wants to redevelop the site with two town houses.

Leaving aside the curious use of the phrase “land rights movement” in the heritage report, I think there are a couple of salient points to make here.

First, the house at 3 Dagonet St doesn’t itself have an important history; it was a movie set. It wasn’t caught up in any real life controversy over compulsory acquisition. There’s little information on the public record indicating the kind of people who lived in it were Kerrigan-style “battlers” (the present owner’s been there since 1993).

Second, The Castle is a movie, not a house. Unlike 3 Dagonet St, the movie does have cultural value; but fortunately it’s in no danger whatsoever of being wiped off the face of the earth. I expect there are tens of thousands of extant DVDs in homes and libraries. Moreover, there’s an infinite supply of digital copies.

In any event, preserving the building would convey very little of the richness and complexity of the movie compared to…the movie itself! You might as well insist Michael Caton should have been prevented by law from ever playing another role for fear it would diminish our appreciation of the invented Darryl Kerrigan.

A key lesson here is the push for heritage protection of buildings constructed in the post-war period is too often about preserving buildings because they look “cool” to a hip contemporary audience – or have “cool” cultural associations – rather than about the sort of deep historical, social or architectural significance that heritage legislation requires. Of course, the social and private costs of protection are almost always ignored; they’re rarely even calculated.

There’s another lesson too. Just preserving a building – usually in some new use unrelated to its main historical use – often tells us very little about the way the building was used over its lifetime. Understanding the social and cultural history of buildings would be achieved more effectively if the “empty shell” were complemented by interpretive media e.g. film (see Can we have an Australian Museum of Architecture (AMOA) please?).

It seems sanity prevailed though. I hear Council last night voted to put an end to the stupidity (yeah, some Councillors were “dreamin”). We don’t need this sort of rubbish undermining the social legitimacy of heritage protection. Now hopefully Ms Cosentino can help increase housing supply by redeveloping her property.