Scholarly Contribution to Database/Website

The Work of Memory and Maintenance

Soon-Tzu Speechley

Published : 2021


If decay is inevitable, so too is the work of memory and maintenance – things the public can take into their own hands.

Funding Acknowledgements

Architectural historians generally work with a degree of distance – both spatial and temporal – from their subjects. Sometimes, the buildings we study no longer exist, and we are forced to delve into building plans, postcards, and newspapers to better understand them. For most of my PhD, I was several thousand kilometres away from the buildings I studied, and I refreshed my memory of places through the photographs I took during my fieldwork in Malaysia and Singapore. By contrast, heritage practice often lacks the luxury of distance. While heritage is popularly (mis)understood as the work of preserving things in aspic, in reality it is a constant battle: of historical interpretation, and against time and the elements. Heritage is, broadly speaking, the struggle for maintenance. While many historical sites have made a virtue of the pandemic, opening up new ways of understanding places online, the reality of decay is always there. Termites bore into timber beams, paint delaminates, and ground salts seep into bricks and crystallise, turning them to dust. While places like Venice have experienced a reprieve from the relentless onslaught of tourism and its concomitant wear and tear during the pandemic, entropy remains a constant. During the height of Melbourne’s lockdown last year, public health measures confined me within a five-kilometre radius of my home. The daily window for exercise forced me to intimately acquaint myself with the streets in this narrowly circumscribed world, and I tried to break the monotony of lockdown by tracing new paths before curfew within these shrinking borders. Through these walks, I watched the process of decay up close. A short walk north of my flat, on a street of grand Victorian mansions, a century-old weatherboard house is slowly caving in on itself. Its roof-ridge, once straight, now sags under its own weight, reminding me of the swallowtail roofs of Hokkien temples back home. The local council has repeatedly denied the owners a demolition permit, with one councillor suggesting the owners was were carrying out demolition by neglect. A short walk south from my doorstep is another story of neglect. The Hoffmann Brickworks in Brunswick, a gentrified inner suburb of Melbourne, is an extensive reminder of the area’s industrial past. It is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register as a site of state-level significance. In these prolific brickworks, much of the surrounding city was fashioned. The site was sold and redeveloped in the 1990s, with various historic buildings adapted for residential and commercial use, and new infill buildings constructed between. Parts of the brickworks, however, have remained vacant for years, succumbing to a series of fires and collapses since the site’s initial redevelopment. In 2020, developers put forward an application to demolish these buildings for another apartment tower. Even in lockdown, development pressures – like decay – remain a constant. The National Trust has objected to the proposal, arguing that ‘the significance of the place lies in the collection and cumulative whole of the retained buildings and their context’. Local residents have also banded together in an effort to save the old brickworks, putting forward their own vision of this contested site. If decay is inevitable, so too is the work of memory and maintenance – things the public can take into their own hands. It is not just architectural fabric that is susceptible to rot. Earlier this year, historians in Australia railed against the severe underfunding of the National Archives of Australia. Starved of the funds it urgently needs to preserve the nation’s collective memory, the National Archives was forced to resort to crowdfunding to digitise records that are slowly disintegrating, or stored on media that are rapidly becoming obsolete. Australia runs the very real risk of forgetting itself. In an age of austerity, as government funding dries up, we are all tasked with the job of preserving and remembering. A few weeks ago, I walked past the brickworks again. Sheets of corrugated metal dangle loosely between battered brick in the old pressing shed. A tattered roof reveals cloudless blue skies. I wonder if this building will soon be a memory. Who will remember it?