Without protection, some structures may soon become gaping holes in our heritage stock and our historical understanding of New Zealand, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Christine McCarthy. 

Last year, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni wrote about Rome’s use of corporate munificence to fund the restoration of cultural heritage, warning that this new reliance “could set up a dynamic by which only the most famous landmarks get face-lifts, because they generate the publicity that donors want. Income inequality: the monumental version”. 

In New Zealand, corporate funding of heritage restoration of public buildings is rare. But while a local equivalent of Italian shoemaker Tod Bulgari splashing out US$30 million to joosh up the Colosseum is difficult to find, the heritage inequalities Bruni speaks of are not.  

In our country, certain kinds of historic buildings are prioritised in terms of protection, regardless of their relative heritage worth. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, for example, are much better represented in council heritage lists than buildings that are 50, 60 or even 70 years old. 

Such mid-twentieth-century buildings are usually modernist – an architectural style that appears plain in comparison with earlier structures. In public heritage debates, these buildings are sometimes challenged as “ugly”, suggesting “the look” of heritage is often prioritised over other qualities, and that our common view of heritage resides strongly in the applied decoration and architectural detailing more typical of colonial buildings. 

But there is another inequality that perverts our system of heritage protection. Council lists are only one mechanism we have to protect heritage buildings. Heritage covenants and heritage orders are others. The heritage covenant is often used. It involves an owner who wants heritage protection for their building and works with Heritage New Zealand to achieve this. These are the easy heritage wins. Heritage orders are a different kettle of fish.

They are a tool that reserves land for heritage purposes under the Resource Management Act (RMA), independent of whether or not an owner supports this. 

Consequently, heritage orders may arise in less collaborative circumstances, when a landowner does not want heritage protection over their land, regardless of demonstrated heritage value. Unlike covenants, which are regularly used by Heritage New Zealand, it is over 20 years since heritage orders were proactively applied for and granted, and this is a missed opportunity. 

A mix of modern architectural heritage and lack of landowner support for heritage protection is perhaps the toughest challenge for New Zealand’s heritage system today – even for buildings recognised by Heritage New Zealand as having Category I historic places status. Under the RMA, Heritage New Zealand is charged with protecting specific historic places.

 It is Heritage New Zealand’s job to ensure an appropriate range of heritage is recognised and protected. While much good work is done using heritage covenants, this is the low hanging fruit. 

The tougher challenges very often end up in an increasingly large “too hard” basket – with the majority quickly turned to demolition dust. This leads to significant destruction of specific types of heritage structures, which may soon become gaping holes in our heritage stock and our historical understanding of New Zealand. 

An important question, then, is who will ultimately look after these unloved ugly ducklings? Who will ensure the best of these buildings are saved and not demolished? When factors other than heritage, such as legislative convenience and how things look, determine what is saved, are our heritage authorities really doing the job they were established for? 

Bruni criticises the ivory colours of corporate-sponsored monument restoration and failure of public investment in less iconic parts of the urban environments. Likewise we should strive to be more even-handed in protection of our heritage estate. Currently the Ministry of Culture and Heritage is reviewing the system. 

Ensuring a good range of the ugly ducklings of New Zealand heritage are protected needs to be high up its to-do list.

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