Big Yellow Taxi

Riding to work, my route takes in the magnificent Bay trail. Coming through St Kilda this morning, an empty large concrete slab caught my eye. The iconic century old Stokehouse Restaurant burnt down earlier in the year. The word iconic is important here. It wasn’t a particularly architecturally worthy building (according to the architects). It wasn’t even a pretty building (although it wasn’t bland or offensive either). However, it was an established part of the Melbourne community, with excellent food and service, and atmosphere. Weddings, engagements, divorces, birthdays, business deals, reunifications, awards, graduations, first (and last) dates, all celebrated in an unassuming space.

In the aftermath, a debate was had (raged is too strong a word) as to whether the building should be rebuilt as it was, or should a new building replace it. The architects and the restaurateurs wanted a new building. I get a bit annoyed with architects in these circumstances, as I feel that many of them don’t understand the human processes going on here, what the community wants, and tend to be dismissive. (Some also can imagine themselves up on stage receiving the Architectural Gold medal). Many community members wanted it rebuilt. As the building was owned by the local council, it all became complicated.

A community consultation process was held, although I use the words lightly, as the scope of the consultation was that rebuilding a replica building was ruled out of scope. So immediately, it was clear, that the wishes of some community members would be ignored. Anyway a design has been developed, and now we have an empty concrete slab.

While this is all very small scale in the scheme of things, it did get me trigger me thinking again about the value of icons to communities. These are the buildings and shapes that form our mental maps, that we know are there as we ride along, on our left, just past the lifesaving club. When they are gone, a hole opens up. Like the Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, …” These mental maps help us create a sense of place, which I have written about previously. They may trigger memories (good, bad or indifferent), or they may simply fill the space in our consciousness, like the superstructure of the bridge you drive over and don’t really notice is there supporting your passage.

These buildings and spaces don’t become iconic because we think they should be, or a critic says they are. It is the same way that an album cannot become an instant classic (there is a tautology), or a football player a champion. All these terms require the investment of time, and the investiture of stories and events.

It is interesting as it also implies a hierarchy of value or merit. As I mentioned before the Stokehouse had little architectural merit. As one of the architects sniffed “it’s changed a lot since it was built anyway” as if that was one reason not to rebuild it. I read recently that there is not one original stone left in the Pont Neuf in Paris. Were it to collapse, I suspect it would be rebuilt as is, as it is higher up the architectural and historical merit food chain. How do we place value on these intangible feelings, the processes that take place inside the building.

So in a recovery context, to build or rebuild? That is the question. Christchurch is going through this debate with the cathedral, with the archdiocese not in a position financially to rebuild the cathedral. Yet, part of the community is prepared to go to the highest court in the land to have the cathedral rebuilt. Who gets a say? In our case, it was managed by the local council, but people came from all over Melbourne to visit the Stokehouse. Should they have a say? In Christchurch’s case, the cathedral was Christchurch. All the tourist trinkets featured the cathedral. So is it bigger than CHCH.

When the St Kilda pier café burnt down, the same debate raged over whether it should be rebuilt. The decision was taken to rebuild the façade as it was. I would have to say, that I am glad that they did rebuild it. The pier café anchors my ride to and from work, as it represents a turning point, by the time I reach it on the way home, I have switched off, and on the way to work I start to switch on and organise the day in my head. The period that it wasn’t part of my mental map, it felt very empty. One day they raised up the façade, and as I rode around that corner, I felt like all was good again, I was anchored.

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