Saturday, 4 April 2015

[Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay] Tower Heist

The distant Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower (r) and the four transmission towers atop Mount Dandenong (l). Potent symbols of Marvellous Melbourne's technological strides in the mid-twentieth century. 

These are strange days.

Usually NIMBYs would tie themselves in knots to saddle useless structures with a "heritage overlay". They would burden an empty, decaying turn-of-the-century koi pond with one if it meant preserving the "amenity" of the surrounding suburbia.

Thinking of building apartments close to transport infrastructure? THINK AGAIN! How dare you destroy our suburbs by placing higher density dwellings in sensible locations that can handle the increase in residents. I have lived here all my life in 23 Oak Tree Grove Crescent for the past 407 years and I raised my fifteen children, twenty-seven grandchildren and 2,031 great-grandchildren right here and in the park and we had fun and ice creams and a night at the pictures cost only 1p and there weren't Asians, now you want to bring more of them here??! Outrage!! 

Thus it is with some amusement on my part that the good burghers of Surrey Hills have fallen prey to their favourite planning ploy. They "can't believe" it's not butter the "ugly", "unsightly" "obscene" "eyesore" that is the Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower could soon be subject to a heritage overlay.

The tower is part of a group of "controversial" heritage overlays - including the Burvale Hotel and former ATV-0 Studios - proposed by the City of Whitehorse.

Why the angst? Well, the tower is "ugly", of course. It's "obscene", an "eyesore", a "horror" and it "stinks". Words one might expect to hear from a 7-year-old describing a smaller sibling who just defecated in their pants, but not from the doctors and doctor's spouses of Surrey Hills who have presumably undergone some sort of education, most likely at the taxpayer's expense. What is about modernity these people hate so much? Well, in fairness, at least they're consistent - they hated the tower from the beginning.

Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay Tower (detail)
When the Postmaster-General's Department first proposed the tower in 1961, it was badly needed. The rapid growth of high-rise buildings in the CBD (after the abolition of height limits) meant the existing transmission mast at the City West Telephone Exchange was no longer effective. Sensibly slated for one of metropolitan Melbourne's highest points, the tower would relay signals for broadcast and telecommunications to and from the CBD and all around the state.

Predictably, residents were against it. Like all good NIMBYs, they weren't against development per se, just the one that was (completely coincidentally) planned adjacent to them. The Residents' Protest Committee, formed to fume at the PMG's Department, was even kind enough to suggest an alternative site in Blackburn. All love and care, these guys. The NIMBY journal of record, The Age fumed about the tower as well, reporting it to be an "eyesore". This is a role they continue to perform with aplomb to this day.

When residents couldn't persuade the PMG to redesign or relocate the tower, the next decades were spent finding new ways to demonise it. When it was under construction, residents claimed tools had fallen from the tower into their backyard. This was found to be baseless.

Residents also claimed the tower interfered with TV reception. Yes, that's right, a tower built to improve television and radio was alleged to have made television reception worse. This, again, was found to be baseless.

Radiation later became the catch-all boogey man, with the children apparently at greater risk of cancer, superhuman abilities and other live-threatening placebos illnesses. Again, a wonderful story lacking any evidence.

By now, I'm surprised "concerned" residents haven't developed symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome, gigantism and hysterical pregnancy...but I digress.

The tower's design suited its purpose and the telecommunications need for it was great, so the PMG pushed ahead. There it has stood for more than five decades; an eastern suburban icon symbolising Melbourne's new technological age.

All too often, people have a reflex response to things they don't like: "it's ugly", "it's an eyesore", but this does not make the tower any less worth of protection. Heritage isn't just about aesthetics or even age. Heritage takes into account many different values: cultural, historical, social etc.,  and applies protection accordingly.

The tower is part of a group of post-war buildings and structures under heritage consideration, not because of aesthetics, but because of the role they have played in the community. The tower symbolises Melbourne's leap into the twentieth century where modern technology began to make the world a much smaller place.

Without this tower, Melbourne's telecommunications services would have suffered greatly (a symptom of the removal of CBD height limits) and the entire state's communication infrastructure severely constrained. This tower is Marvellous Melbourne, an era when the city broke out of its naval-gazing parochialism and started getting. shit. done. This is why this "eyesore" finds itself on the list of potential heritage overlays.

Today we (and everyone at Lost Melbourne) bemoan the loss of many of the world's finest examples of Victorian architecture in Melbourne throughout the 1950s and 60s. Lovers of architecture can all list favourite buildings which were lost during an era of modernisation (Federal Coffee Palace anyone?).

But now we are at risk of committing the same crime if we consider post-war architecture and structures expendable. Unfortunately, it's started already, with approval given for the demolition of the former National Mutual Plaza and in the past couple of days, the Dallas Brooks Hall. Don't be hating on these buildings just because they're "ugly".

Dear residents in the vicinity of the Communications Relay Tower: Don't be like the residents of Heathrow complaining about aircraft noise. If you dislike it, you probably shouldn't have moved into an area where the tower announced its presence long, long, long before you arrived.

If you have lived in the area for less than 50 years, then its your own fault. Bugger off somewhere else. I'll gladly buy your house at what I assume is a reduced value due to tower amenity and gaze lovingly at it every day knowing it helped transform Melbourne into the great city it is today.

Further Reading

Heritage Study of Surrey Hills Telecommunications Relay TowerBuilt Heritage, 2014

"Face-Lift for P.M.G. Tower Site" 1962, January 22, p.9

"P.M.G. at Site" 1961, The Age, August 23, p.7

"P.M.G. Tower 'Most Prominent Eyesore'" 1961, The Age, August 11, p.6

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