Tim Ross – Demolition on Repeat

As each new generation responds to its time and defines an identity through their built form, the inevitable tension between what is lost to make way for the new only amplifies. Many captured only through a photographic lens, Tim Ross joins the discussion of how countless iconic architectural feats will exist in documented memory only, and what we can do about it.


Baillieu House, Sorrento, 1958. Images by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects

Shaped by a desire to be recognised globally as progressive, while heavily under the influence of our youth as a nation, the tousle between preservation and demolition is a familiar tale for many Australians. Amongst a landscape of relatively recent architectural lineage, therein lies a matched depth and storied past in the spaces that have shaped where we live. It is the voices of impassioned advocates for conservation that are paving a path to ensure their enduring relevance. Known for enlivening the dialogue and celebration of Modernism, Tim Ross offers insight into the need to preserve our built past, often buildings designed by Australian post-war era architects such as Robin Boyd, Kevin Borland, Bernie Joyce, Roy Grounds, et al, together with a unique photographic collection by architects Guilford Bell and Graham Fisher of houses their practice designed, preserved in print due to their respective ill-fated demolitions.

With time, layers of lived experience add richness to our homes and subsequently, our experience within those spaces, and it would seem counterproductive to then erase them. And yet we do. In discussing potential motives for prioritising restoration, Tim says, “The sustainability issue is pretty evident and self-explanatory, but ultimately our buildings tell our stories; they are the vessels for our memories. We need buildings from all moments in time to tell us where we have come from and to inspire us in the future.” As design draws from the past and with little remaining in some cases, photographic records play an integral part of piecing their stories together, notes Tim, “It’s so important because they are the clearest, easiest to understand snapshot of the past. One photo captures a million words.”

The connection to place underpins our want to create and how we develop relationships with buildings, but it is also the stories behind the place that inspire an attachment. Tim believes Australians are inherently connected with an architectural heritage of certain eras, and can undoubtedly appreciate them, but adds, “That doesn’t stop us from destroying things.” He says, “It’s important to understand why we do demolish, and the answer is that we have always done it. We are obsessed with updating things, we love to renovate and that’s most evidently seen in our love of Bunnings.” He attributes the connection to constantly improving back to our recent history and says, “We were determined to show the world that we weren’t a backwater and modernising is the most demonstrative way of doing that. It amazes me that in America and Europe you can walk into a restaurant where you went as a kid and return as an adult and it looks exactly the same. That doesn’t happen often here.”


Baillieu House, Sorrento, 1958. Images by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects


Baillieu House, Sorrento, 1958. Images by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects


Baillieu House, Sorrento, 1958. Images by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects

While the many layers of history, and their subsequent eras reflect differences in technological exploration, access to materiality and crafted details, each add their own important part to play as part of the greater whole. While a large part of Tim’s work pivots around the heralding of the Modernist movement, he acknowledges that even that period was responsible for its share of destruction. “Modernisms dirty secret in Australia is that many of our iconic buildings of the middle of the last century came at the expense of heritage buildings. Our skyscrapers didn’t come up out of the rubble of war, they came from the spoils of a wrecking ball. In fact, it was the post-war building boom that led to the heritage movement that protected things like our rows of terrace houses.”

It can feel like a perpetual and recurring cycle to assume the current plight for preservation is in any way new. A want to preserve and retain historical built remnants is as much part of transferring knowledge through trans-generational storytelling as the keeping of archived records. Tim says, “People rallied against modernism and wanted to hold on to the past. The irony is that we are often calling for modernist buildings to be saved which sit on the site of demolished heritage buildings.” He adds, “Buildings find their time and Modernist buildings are coming into their own and people are starting to think about them in terms of saving them and appreciating them. Victorian and Edwardian buildings benefited from things like the Bicentenary which helped elevate the importance of the past.”

It may feel as though the lessons haven’t been learned, as the sequence of destroy-rebuild repeats itself, Tim however, offers a solution. In pondering a way forward, he says, “It’s all about legislation and regulation. Incentives in rates and tax for owning and up keeping heritage buildings and heritage protection. That will change everything.”


House by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects


Darling House, Mount Eliza by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects

Words by Bronwyn Marshall and Images by Guilford Bell & Graham Fisher Architects

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