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Stanhope / Why the Northbourne flats have to stay

The Australian News and Information Bureau’s 1963 photo of Northbourne Avenue flats. Photo National Library of Australia
The Australian News and Information Bureau’s 1963 photo of Northbourne Avenue flats. Photo National Library of Australia
THE debate about the quality of the built heritage on Northbourne Avenue and the importance or otherwise of its preservation suggests a degree of confusion within certain quarters, including the Legislative Assembly, about heritage values.

jon stanhope
Jon Stanhope
To the extent that there is some heat and urgency in the debate it has been generated almost entirely by the apparent importance of the future redevelopment of Northbourne Avenue, including the area of extensive public housing within the precinct, to the business case supporting light rail.

The business case relies heavily on the economic stimulus, which it is assumed light rail will generate in its corridor, especially along Northbourne Avenue. This may be an issue in itself but it also raises questions about how we compute the “value” of heritage and perhaps even the extent to which an economic value has or should be attributed to the heritage within the corridor.

The same question can also be asked about the overall amenity of the avenue, for example the open spaces incorporated into the public housing and the magnificent avenues of trees growing between Civic and the showground which will be removed to make way for the tram.

I am not familiar with the detail of the business case for the light rail project but I assume it gives detailed consideration to the values, including perhaps even an attributed economic value, of the heritage that will be lost and the amenity which will disappear when the light rail is built and the anticipated development occurs.

This begs the question of what is heritage, how it is assessed and why is it important.

Our heritage is aspects of the past that have contributed to society in some significant way and which, because of this contribution, should be preserved. The contribution can be aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or even spiritual value for past, present or even future generations.

Buildings are a large part of a continuum of history and the retention and preservation of buildings is very important in telling the story of our history, lifestyle, taste and custom. There are, of course, a range of criteria set down and accepted for establishing our heritage and assessing its significance. These include creative achievement, innovation in design, techniques in construction and rarity of style.

Max Dupain’s 1962 photo of the Northbourne Housing complex.
Max Dupain’s 1962 photo of the Northbourne Housing complex.
These criteria, when applied to the Northbourne Housing Precinct,reveal just how significant a part of our heritage it is. These flats were an extremely important part of Canberra’s public housing development post World War II, especially in the early years of the NCDC and in a time of rapid expansion of Canberra.

This precinct was one of the largest, earliest and most innovative of the NCDC and reflects its determination to provide public housing which at the time reflected best practice in planning and design.

The flats were innovative in the planning and mix of housing types and landscape qualities. The planning reflected the Radburn Planning Principles, which involved the separation of motor vehicles and pedestrian access and involved a composition of buildings and spaces which had not been previously attempted in Canberra.

The location and statement of the housing at the entry to Canberra was a deliberate and important attempt by the NCDC in the 1960s to portray Canberra as a modern and innovative city that was being developed to world standards. The architect of the flats is Sydney Ancher, a leading exponent of the Post War Modernist style of architecture and recognised nationally for the Northbourne Housing Precinct.

Taste and customs change but there are aspects of our history including the suite of public housing in Northbourne Avenue that are unique, show innovation for the time and were initiated, designed and built by people of significant reputation and by the NCDC, who together were instrumental in setting Canberra on the path to its place among the most outstanding planned cities in the world.

The fact that some of us may not find the Northbourne flats attractive or architecturally appealing or of any apparent value in no way diminishes the inherent heritage significance of the buildings.

It is critical that we preserve our heritage including the Northbourne Housing Precinct. It would be a major loss to Canberra if the housing or a majority of it was demolished to facilitate the redevelopment of the land in order to validate the business case for light rail.

I cannot imagine the Government would proceed with the project if the business case was so fragile as to require the destruction along the route of irreplaceable heritage. On that basis, I would hope that the merits of retaining the housing will be considered separately from the needs of the light rail project.

Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented  Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly. He is also a member of the National Trust (ACT).


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