Torch the House! Gough Whitlam’s Ngara.

Whitlam's Ngara (Age)
Whitlam’s Ngara (Age)

No Australian Federal Government did more for urban heritage than Gough Whitlam’s. Yet his childhood home, called Ngara, faces demolition any day now, at the tail end of an urban heritage conflict. A few weeks ago the Heritage Council of Victoria decided that Ngara was not of state heritage significance. Located in the inner eastern suburb of Kew, the house was built by Whitlam’s grandfather. Whitlam was born there and lived there for 18 months. For the heritage council, this was an insufficient basis to require preservation. The saga over Ngara is not entirely over. The local Boroondara Council might intervene this month with a heritage overlay.

Already nine months have been spent determining whether this house should be preserved. This prolonged uncertainty for not only the owner of the house, but also Melburnians and Australians, about what can and cannot be considered urban heritage conjures the heritage debates of the Whitlam era.

Along with his “Minister for Cities” Tom Uren, from the late 1960s Whitlam wanted to bring to an end the destruction wrought upon Australian cities. Since World War II, inner suburbs in Melbourne and Sydney had been declared slums and then cleared in the name of progress. The scars of this era are present in our cities today. In place of thousands of people’s homes now stand those grey concrete towers; today, arguably modernist heritage. Sydneysider Uren wrote into the Sydney Morning Herald in 1971 that ‘As I strolled through the city the very heart of it seemed to be torn out.’ Local communities in inner city neighborhoods such as Carlton, Surry Hills, North Melbourne and Glebe formed resident action groups (RAGs) to save their suburbs.

Whitlam & Uren (News Corp Collection, 1972)

Whitlam and Uren believed successive federal, state and local governments, architects, planners and developers had failed the Australian city by not creating cities for people. For them, heritage was a way to return cities to the people. In early 1973 the Whitlam Government launched the Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate. It received an unexpected 650 submissions including over 200 about cities. Government departments, national trusts, RAGs, universities, architects, planners and many others made submissions. Uren basically agreed with the report’s recommendation that public and private property owners must always treat heritage as a foremost concern. As a committed Fabian socialist, he favoured government acquisition. The practical outcome of the inquiry was a modest yet independent Australian Heritage Commission; watered down by the Fraser Government, dismantled by the Howard Government.

The Whitlam Government expanded how Australians conceived of heritage. After Whitlam and the national estate, heritage belonged to us all. Anything we want to keep might be heritage. This was an exceptionally broad way of conceiving of heritage. It meant not only architects or historians could identify heritage, but also that people must have a say too. Not until later did the Australian heritage industry emerge. The Whitlam Government had popularised urban heritage and made it about people. The era of systematic urban destruction had come to an end.

With Ngara, there is a conflict between Whitlam’s vision of heritage and the subsequent heritage system. For Whitlam and Uren, almost anything might be heritage and so should be preserved – such as places like Ngara. This is unrealistic in the neoliberal city where pasts are eradicated in the name of progress, where ‘heritage’ is often a last check before eradication. So heritage conflict inevitably ensues.

The heritage argument for saving Ngara is that Whitlam was such a significant prime minister that his childhood home must be saved. After all, he was born there. The argument against is that Australia has never venerated notable people by preserving their homes. Not even Donald Bradman’s home is state heritage listed in NSW. Unlike in the United States where, for instance, many presidential homes are preserved as house museums.

Whitlam in Melbourne (with urban heritage!), 3 December 1975 (Age)

The heritage system sidesteps those broader issues. Instead of asking whether or not Australia or Victoria should preserve homes of significant figures, the issue instead becomes an assessment of Whitlam’s ‘association’ to the house against heritage criteria. For the heritage council, the ‘special association between Whitlam and the place’ was inadequate. If that connection had been stronger, would the house have been saved? Perhaps. If Whitlam had built the house himself, preferably with his own hands, it’s likely the house would have been preserved. Only Boroondara Council can now ‘save Ngara’. Boroondara will assess Ngara against different, local heritage planning guidelines.

Australia and Victoria arguably have one of the best heritage systems in the world. Yet any legislative heritage system is, in Foucauldian terms, a governmentally, a regulatory system, which has its inherent issues. My PhD takes a critical perspective to explore these troublesome and often irresolvable issues. Put in positive terms: What might a utopian heritage system, like that proposed by Uren, look like? Certainly different than the one that is dealing with Ngara.

All in all, the heritage of Ngara cannot be considered in the ways Whitlam and Uren advanced. Has the cult of American political leadership not washed up upon our shores? Whitlam was the most presidential of Australian prime ministers. The idea of a national estate was borrowed from President John F. Kennedy, whose childhood home is preserved. Is Whitlam different to other Australian political leaders, different enough that his home should be treated differently? Or are the homes of notable people simply something we do not and never will keep in Australia? The Whitlam Government’s utopian vision for heritage reminds us that something which might have been unthinkingly demolished yesterday could be considered as heritage tomorrow.

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  1. Hi James,

    You might have seen that the council narrowly voted to preserve Ngara.

    I think there is a stronger irony in the Ngara saga. The Uren/Whitlam heritage concepts were hijacked by the entrenched establishment they sought to disrupt.

    The arguments about lack of ongoing association, or Australia’s indifference to our hero’s birthplaces are specious, based on a predetermined outcome – that only the places that serve the elite’s power and status agenda should be preserved. The same result is seen in union heritage, industrial and workers’ places, anything to do with protest and dissent. It is in the nature of heritage to do this – we apply aesthetics to the places of high status and power, then set up systems to perpetuate these symbols. It is no surprise that heritage councils are dominated by architect,s lawyers, developers and planners.

    all the best and where can I read you thesis?


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