Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review Episode 5 Emmaville

The Abu Simbel complex continues to pervade Australian heritage conservation –i.e. if it is in the way of development, just move it to higher ground.

Episode 5 spends an inordinate amount of time on the false hope that Emmaville could be the lost Banjo Paterson birthplace (but I thought we didn't celebrate our hero's birthplaces). A cursory examination of easily accessible records supports the majority view that Banjo was born at the main Narrambla homestead "8 chains north east of the memorial" erected for the purpose in 1947. At least one account confirms its location on land donated by a Lane decedent (the same owners when Paterson was born) and that the house was already demolished by 1946. The unveiling was done by Banjo's widow. Elsewhere the story of Emmaville can be traced through later owners including James Farrell, after whom the road it is on is named. Having had first hand experience of a number of internecine historical society squabbles, I know to leave them alone, and that it is rare for there to be a logical assessment of historical and archaeological evidence in such cases. The producers of the series evidently researched Paterson’s origins "but were happy to keep his exact birthplace a mystery".

The artificial conflict between the birthplace rivals is matched by the fight between memorial rivals, with the big statue people and the big hat shaped pergola people arguing it out in council. There might also be some subtle conspiracy theorist here to, with the main instigator being the mysterious Rotary Club. The artificial urgency created by the need to 'rescue' the building provides the drama but left me wondering what was the story about the development causing the problem in the first place.

Some background on where the Emmaville/Patterson connection came from would have been good (sounded like just wishful thinking), and also why, what is clearly an important prefabricated timber building, went un-noticed in either the Orange Heritage Study, the council's LEP, or the previous historical accounts of the district. Even if it is not Banjo's birthplace, an important early house still has integrity despite being a sorry ruin. But what happened to the little outbuilding?, why is the chimney truncated?, and have they reversed the front? Similarly there are some fascinating elements to the building itself – the combination of imported Oregon? prefab – similar to the Fryerstown Weslyan Hall, nominally dated to the early 1870s. The pile of bricks left from Templer's Mill near the real Narrabla homestead, was described as "a classified historic building which should be preserved" in 1968, so one wonders who blew it up in 1971 and why. 

This is another case where the archaeology is pretty obvious, as evident in the ABC's photos, and Reg's comment that they will carry out archaeological investigations to solve the issue. Too late probably for whatever was under or around Emmaville in its original location. I don't always think there needs to be a team of experts to run these things and annoy the locals, but a Conservation Management Plan and archaeological assessment could have made an important contribution. At least they might have gotten the iron brand right, while Miles Lewis has suggested some possible American manufacturers such as W H Wrigley and William Elford, and even if viewers are not concerned about the difference between tongue and groove, 'v joint' and the more correct horizontal quirked bead boards, it doesn't hurt to get it right. It was a shame Peter Kirschner couldn’t narrate the entire episode. He seemed far more knowledgeable.

Graeme Blundell pointed out the highly pleasurable camera movements, "placing each property exquisitely in the landscape, moving from ground level and soaring above the build, the lenses and focus changed remotely, …, creating a new highly cinematic aesthetic for property TV". – but we are probably coming to expect this since the ubiquity of the use of drones for everything from real estate adds to filming your snow trip. Blundell also catches the idea in "aspirational property evangelism". Whether we like it or not, the will probably end up steering the way restoration is done. Already it is being used by real estate journalists as a benchmark.

Banjo Paterson Parks can be found all over the place Lynbrook, Ipswich, Gladesville, Jindabyne and Yass. I liked the big hat idea, but an online pole seems to have brought them back to their senses so the hat is off now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Restoration Australia - quick review Episode 4, Gervasoni farm

Sibella was struggling this time to get Marnie and Dale to fight; for all the discomfort that taking on such a project and lifestyle involved, they seemed pretty level headed and calm. When the show was announced by Richard Finlayson back in November 2014, the line was: "stylist Sibella Court follows a group of Aussie battlers who are working to restore some amazing Australian heritage buildings in RESTORATION AUSTRALIA". So the participants were labelled and stereotyped from the start.

The antagonist this time was the poor council building permit officer. At least four times we are told how the work is being held up by slow council approval. The "Piss off heritage people" was given plenty of prominence. A shame really, since the show was a lost opportunity for bringing parties together. Preserving and re-using old buildings has to be a compromise between conservation and change, something evident in every choice that each of the restorers in this show make. Perpetuating the conflict myth only serves to further distort public views. A case in point is Reimund Zunde's photostory on Vince. On the surface it seems to be a proud old man surrounded by his family history, but look deeper and the photos speak of insularity, superstition and decay. He was greatly dishonoured in this show. Lisa G. has also filled us in on the dynamite myth. The only damage I could see looked pretty much like water had undermined the wall after the adjoining roof collapsed.

A look at the Heritage Study citation shows some discrepancies with the way the show describes the place. No mention of Granny's House or a Blacksmith, and the real estate listing suggests Granny's house is earlier than the big house. As Lisa suggested, it would be useful to update the citation and statement of significance. Site descriptions are sparse and I can't find the HV permit, but looking at some photos, it seems there were details of history, fabric and potential archaeology that might not have been given the study they deserved. The best-practice approach would be a Conservation Plan, but what happens when the battler can't afford best practice, and the heritage people would rather see anything done rather than inevitable decay. Some heritage might just be considered sacrificial, either because its state of decay and the economics mean that no one will ever front up the repair cost, or that if someone is crazy enough to do something with it, they should be given all possible leeway, because otherwise it would just crumble to dust.

One irony is that if it were to crumble, it would probably become more obviously an archaeological site, and so the level of scientific rigour and excavation would be more likely to be applied. For example the nearby "Former Gervasoni Farm Building Ruins" are on the inventory, but not the register H7723-1165. I saw archaeology everywhere in the show, but the "3-400mm of crap" in the basement floor seems to have just been dug out and dumped.  I guess it is in a secondary depositional context now.

Another irony of course is that as the place is more lived in, with the accoutrements of modern comfort, it will be less picturesque. The subtle patina of age and "ruin aesthetic" that attracts people to it now will be diminished. The old chestnut about distinguishing between what is old and the' definitely new' results in the PWD toolshed extension while the new layers over the existing iron roof have distorted the original proportions.

There is a well understood aesthetic appreciate often applied to such projects in Europe – in fact whole real estate companies devoted to selling ruins for reconstruction and restoration. I will give Marnie and Dale time and the benefit of the doubt, but the concrete slabs, tin sheds and penchant for pushing walls around with screw jacks doesn't fill me with confidence that my own heritage aesthetic will be satisfied.

Speaking of screw jacks or acrow props, I would say that one good reason for the "bossy bureaucrats" permits and heritage red tape is to protect the restorer's from themselves.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Restoration Australia - quick review Episode 3, Harrington Street Hobart

Episode 3 sees Haydn and Penny on a 20 year Sisyphean task  to restore an 1840s Hobart shop.

This time the baddie was the Tasmanian Heritage Council wanting to delist the building and leave it to the whims of future avaricious developers. But Haydn and Penny, well Haydn alone really, was going to fight for it. The unsung heroes of heritage are the people who stubbornly hang on to a dilapidated old shack despite all the criticism, and in so doing, give it some breathing space until public attitudes, government regulations or market forces come round to recognising it is worth keeping permanently. 

The bigger heritage story, however, – of the proposed massive reduction in the number of places protected under the Tasmania Heritage Register - was lost in the ungenerous main themes of the story – Haydn takes forever to do things and never finishes a project, and Penny resents it and so they bicker – a heritage soapy. But under the guise of "Reviewing the integrity of the Tasmanian Heritage Register" a Tasmanian government directive is to cut the list by a third. Was the chair of the Heritage Council, Dianne Snowden herself, in hardhat, steelcaps and fluros, to put a more friendly face on the policy that has led to some severe criticism?

In a contradictory bit of omission, probably because it does not fit the struggle narrative, there is no mention of the $13000 grant for works to the building from the Heritage Conservation Funding Program, deadlines for spending of which have been extended.

Haydn and Penny must have a pretty strong relationship to weather the restoration struggles (as Sibella portrayed them). The obsessive theme comes through again however, with a bit of Anglo-Australian American Pickers thrown in for good measure. There is a fair bit of emphasis on the psychological damage of "doing the hard way" such as cutting and dressing replacement timber from scratch, hand plastering  (again) and shingling, and not enough on the personal achievement and aesthetic satisfaction.

Again, not wishing to labour the comparison with Grand Designs, the implications of personality, motivations and relationships don't always help inform the building story. Or they are just too simplistic - for example, the narrative puts the line that the place was nearly destroyed by fire and the project set back years, because Haydn took too long to set things right. When the reality is that care for our history is not always accompanied by the means to protect it. The oft-repeated rule is that a project can be quick, or cheap, or high quality, and sometimes a combination of two, but never all three.

I found a hint that there was some archaeology associated with this site, which helped date it. Nick Brodie, (described by Andrew Zacharek as "historian and archaeologist and Hobart's answer to the Time Team") evidently  dug into archives and under floor deposits to determine the age of the building, its builder and dated artefacts from its industrial history.

Another developing (but disguised) theme in the show seems to be how narrative complexity gives way to melodrama. Why bother with details and facts when you can just show people arguing, which is how the show unfortunately finishes, despite Sibella's little bit of psychotherapy. The emotive music in the premature climax, doesn't help either, certainly in terms of fitting the images since the building only looks halfway there, rather than the 'incredible' phoenix risen from the ashes.

Good luck to them and hope they get to enjoy their hard work, before going off to rescue the next conservation lost cause.

Restoration Australia - quick review, Episode 2 Woodcot Park Tarraville

Another wonderful couple in Jo and Marcus, who were willing to put common sense out on the back porch and get stuck in. I suspect heritage has a high degree of obsessive compulsive behaviour disguised as attention to detail,  meticulous authenticity and traditional craftsmanship. Archaeology also attracts a similar personality type, what with all those nail typologies and tiny flakes of stone, shame there was not some more overt archaeological references.

The dramatic narrative in this case seems to have mostly revolved around the hard plastering. Would the traditional plaster hold up, will Markus be able to do it himself, will it ever get finished? Then there was the 'incredible' (how many times was that said) authentic detail and traditional craft being lavished on joinery, wallpaper, etc. Who was the 'lady in Melbourne who hand blocks them' Barbara Wilding? A bit of a plug for the practitioners surely wouldn't hurt the ABC's no advertising policy.

I recall there was a National Trust visit to the house about 5-6 years ago. Some of the unique construction details pointed out then included the unusual wall cladding which originally used stretched oil cloth used to simulate stucco. No mention of this, although there was a scene of taking off some later weatherboards. There was also a prefab timber and iron room used as a kitchen,  but I couldn't tell if this was part of the restoration. It might not have been of interest to the general audience, but some of this technical stuff must have an audience out there, after all we get every detail of the metal fatigue of pop-rivets in 'Air Crash Investigation'. Another missed opportunity was the potential use of the John Collins photos in the show's before and after transitions (a sort of slow spreading mould transition – love those digital effects).

Tim Smith's comment about Heritage Victoria being involved was not evident in the show – no troublesome clipboard-wielding heritage bureaucrats to be seen. Did this confuse the narrative, or perhaps the shooting schedule just left them out, but it would have been nice to see a HV permits officer in the picture – putting a human face to the red tape.

There are a few local people who will be greatly cheered to see what Jo and Marcus have done, especially since it was another case of almost too late. So lets celebrate the people who find an obsession that preserves and creates heritage (didn't really need the ghost story though).

In a wonderfully macabre bit of synergy, one media producer has combined the two – heritage conservation and obsessive compulsive cleaners

Restoration Australia - quick review Episode 1 Keith Hall

Saw the show, liked some bits and not others. Overly and artificially dramatic, but that seems to be the way of these shows, and unfortunately the host does not have the intelligent philosophical outlook of Kevin McLeod. A couple of things grated though. The  depiction of advisors as some sort of bogey women, doesn't gel when the site is not on the Heritage Overlay or any other heritage list, and the fearful $50,000 bond and time limits would seem red herrings since such they are regularly placed on building projects to protect the council and ratepayers from shonky practice. I would be confident that the council would be sympathetic to extending both as needed, even with only minimal progress shown. 

While the before and after transitions were interesting, the camera work doesn't have the sophistication of Grand Designs, and really fails to capture the architectural spaces and qualities of the building effectively. The narration and analysis was also unsophisticated, lacking explanation of technical issues. The dramatic music and repetitive narrative distracts from the real qualities clay, the builder has for his project. His pragmatic response to the dormer windows chapter shows how the show's timbre could have been more comfortably directed away from the 'reality TV' fake drama.

 Timing of the visits could have been better. We get a sense of how slow the stonework is to begin with, then suddenly the walls are done, the floors and cleanings are in and the roof timbers are up. I felt like we missed all the exiting parts of the build and were just left with the crooked barge-board event.

Some of the historical background may have been confused. William and John Morrison selected several blocks in the 1880s and 1900s, William Morrison was also a soldier – a Sergeant in 1915 and Lieutenant in 1918  and submitted evidence to the Soldier Settlement Commission – see the Argus 10/8/1925, (or is this William the son?) Brother John also served, while the family retained the farm into the late 1920s at least. How soldier settlement brought the abandonment of the farm is not clear. The Eldorado attractions website calls the place Kelvin Hall.

Even though there were no heritage controls and the appearance of Deb Kemp may have been for effect (someone can put me right here) there were some real heritage issues. Is the surrounding decking appropriate? Does the big shed overwhelm the house? Was the big tree dead and did it have to go? Was there an underfloor archaeological deposit being dug out, and is that where Morrison's chisel came from?

But good on Clay and Narelle for recovering a building that would otherwise have slowly disappeared.

And it won its timeslot and beat the Spelling Bee in the ratings

Gibbons & Masters Patent Brick