Why do we love old buildings so much?

Demolished! - Melbourne Town Hall Chambers, 1968, cnr Swanston and Little Collins (picture by K.J. Halla, State Library). H/T Melbourne Curious

In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.

There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.

Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.

I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.

One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.

People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.

Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images.

But having said all that, if old buildings really touched us deeply and viscerally, then why were they still being demolished as recently as the 1970s with hardly a word of protest from any but a minority of architects and “radicals”? The loss of so many glorious old buildings in Melbourne can’t just be put down to greedy and crude developers. The fact is few people at the time cared. The spirit of the times was to look ahead, not backwards. The love of things old and rare might not be “in the blood” of most people.

Perhaps the zeitgeist now is to give greater value to the past and that’s why we value what’s left of our old stock. Some of it might be ordinary by the architectural standards of its day, but we seem to value old buildings for a range of reasons. It is interesting to ponder if future generations will sustain the value we give to old buildings.

What’s also intriguing is why there’s evidently so little demand from the public for new buildings to look like old ones – to have elaborate decoration or even (say) classical and figurative references. That’s a theme I’d like to return to shortly.

H/T  — more on Melbourne Town Hall Chambers at Melbourne Curious.

4 Comments on “Why do we love old buildings so much?”

  1. rohan says:

    Alan, you have in part answered your own question – just to add a little, before the 1960s there was no such thing as ‘preservation’ for its own sake anywhere in the world, except for ‘ancient monuments’ (cathedrals, palaces etc. in UK and Europe, and historical places such as ‘george Washington slept here’ in the US). The 1950s and 60s particularly were an era where the zeitgeist of modernism held complete sway, that old was bad and new was better, more efficient, not fussy. It was even seen as bad form to respond to or recognise a cities traditional patterns, and tower blocks in plazas rose up in London and Berlin, as well as New York and Melbourne. Sadly this trend fed into a development frenzy that saw much demolished and replaced by pretty low quality mass produced stuff, and it was this bald comparison, as well as the displacement of people from their homes in some cases, and destruction of places that were old and grand (New Yorks Pennsylvania Station for instance) that led to protest and the widespread establishment of heritage preservation legislation. The bald comparison still applies, with people generally still enjoying the complex character and level of detail of pre WWII buildings, both public buildings and houses. New public and most commercial buildings are expected to be of this age, so they are rarely reproductions.

    But there is a demand for new to look like old, mainly in housing – there are plenty of victorian and edwardian-ish houses (but mostly Tuscan- or Georgian-ish) in the new build suburbs (though recently modern-ish has become quite popular, as long as it has a 60s revival feature stone wall). Repros are especially popular as replacement houses in middle suburbs (and there are some fantastic Victorian-esque mansions in Toorak). So architects who design major buildings dont do reproduction, but house builders do – its what people apparently want !

  2. […] – Why do we love old buildings so much? […]

  3. Russell says:

    Personal association might be one reason. When I walk past the old Treasury building (it’s right in the centre of the City and has been empty for the better part of 20 years) I think of my parents who met while working there. Mum told many stories about working in that building (her office actually had a fire place, with log fires in winter, the toilets “built by the convicts” etc etc). And there are all the other buildings visited when my older brothers and sister, and aunts, uncles and grandparents worked in them.

    My first proper job was in Boans – THE department store in Perth, when I was 14. A book was published about Boans last year. It was an old Victorian building which was almost unchanged out the back. And, in the same way that your eye could take in all of the fancy exterior of Boans, working there you were part of the Boans family of employees, having your lunch in the cafeteria, being respectful of the lift operator – who had that job because he had lost a leg in WW1.

    Of course nobody was staring into a computer all day – we all gossiped away and continued yacking on the bus on the way home – there’s nothing like that feeling of camaraderie about today’s workplaces. So to me those old buildings have a familiarity that’s like family – each of those buildings had a real little community of employees. You saw the human history of those buildings in the worn steps and scratched desk tops – almost nothing was new.

    You entered those buildings and you felt you were entering a human place, lots of people about, wooden furniture; compare that to entering a new city building: hard, impersonal, empty, no soul. Of course we love old buildings – they remind us of places where we were known, in earlier times.

  4. Toby Beck says:

    I have often wondered the same question. Amongst the reasons, I would list the following:

    – old (pre-WW2) materials weather much better than new materials, particularly plastic, concrete and steel
    – old building methods were much less machinery intensive, with the result that the buildings are less angled, the walls less even, the rooves less straight etc
    – old buildings tended to use local building materials and rely on local styles, so that buildings did not stand out or jar with the surroundings
    – as labour was relatively cheaper, it was easier to justify labour-intensive decoration such was intricate plaster and wrought iron.

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