“Cities are organisms, not objects in need of completion”: Lessons in living heritage, from Tokyo to Adelaide

Tokyo: grown, not planned. Image: Getty.

When you think about Japan, you probably think of cherry blossom, kimonos, sashimi, sumo, gardens, bathhouses, neon lights or space-age toilets. What you might not think about is the rich and complex layering in Japanese cities.But, for issues of heritage and conservation, Australia's architects, urban planners and policymakers could learn a lot from Japan.

Tokyo is a city that most visitors remember as being bustling, if not overwhelming, in every sense of the word. The pace is frenetic. People are packed together like sardines.

But, at the human scale, Tokyo has an incredibly rich layering of experiences. The towers of Shinjuku sit alongside the tightly packed informal streets that inspired the movie Bladerunner. Tourist meccas and shopping malls co-exist with open street markets and questionable boutiques. Pockets of traditional houses sit in a strange tension with the megastructures of the heaving metropolis.

The complexity of Tokyo has emerged organically; it could not have been designed. Master planning has a place, because a city needs structures and guidelines for development. But, like planting a seed instead of designing the flower, accepting that cities can evolve organically means that they won’t bow to the will of a single architect or reflect just one moment in time.

The constant state of flux denies the singular and encourages the pastiche. Working in flux requires a shift to thinking of cities as organisms rather than as objects in need of completion. This shift allows each generation to add their chapter to the story, rather than constantly trying to “finish” it.


Progress vs heritage

Adelaide is in many ways the opposite of an organic city. It was planned according to a regimented grid that permits little deviance. However, it has organically retained many heritage buildings and a range of architectural styles.

While we might like to think of this as deliberate: much of this preservation arguably happened as a result of South Australia’s comparatively slow economic growth.

The phenomenon of buildings being protected by economic rationalism rather than cultural idealism is amplified in Japan. Many of Japan’s most interesting urban areas are full of seemingly mismatched buildings, which combine to tell a complex story of their place.

While these areas are now celebrated for their diversity and historical significance, many remain because of cancelled construction projects (during the economic contraction of the 1990s) rather than a deliberate preservation agenda.

Economic growth is not necessarily bad for heritage, and Adelaide doesn’t need another State Bank collapse. But historically slow growth has left the city with a built environment of incredible cultural value.

Adelaide’s North Terrace strip is an obvious example of this. Yet, much like Melbourne in neighbouring Victoria, the South Australian capital is starting to see the value of some of its “less beautiful” parts. The transformation of unloved buildings into thriving small bars demonstrates how buildings of little economic value can have immense urban and cultural value.

While economic hardship largely explains why Adelaide’s North Terrace (pictured here circa 1940) has been well preserved, it is now treasured as the city’s living heritage. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking in terms of living heritage

Instead of ascribing value to buildings simply because they are old or rundown, we need to develop a way of assessing and understanding value. “Living heritage” is a concept that encourages us to think more deeply about the value of buildings through the contribution they make to their surroundings.

Since Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and called it art, we have understood that objects are defined by their surroundings as much as by their own design. In a living heritage evaluation, the role of a building in defining and anchoring its context can be as important as its stylistic details.

Buildings normally represent a single moment in time, but the urban environments around them continually evolve. If we understand the contribution a building is making to the story of its surroundings, we can make decisions that go beyond preserving historical facades to foster opportunities to protect, and add to, the stories and layers of the past.

To take this concept further, we could considering whether the ardent preservation of streetscapes as museum pieces is actually holding back the development of cultural identity. Perhaps rather than trying to freeze parts of our cities as examples of the past, we could look at supporting appropriately designed (and scaled) new developments. If done well, these interventions build on and enhance the cultural narrative of place.

Heritage will always be a complex issue, but our understanding needs to go beyond aesthetics to consider cultural (and environmental) dimensions. Contemporary architectural interventions are challenging for any urban area.

But if carefully crafted, good architecture can create an abstract continuity that adds a new layer to the story of a place without compromising its identity and integrity.The Conversation

Aaron Davis is doing a PhD in architecture at the University of South Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Why exactly do Britain’s rail services to the cities of the South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.

In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precari


ous. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.