Protecting the Eastern Freeway, and what it can tell us about heritage

The Victorian Labour government’s recommendation to grant heritage status to the first stage of the Eastern Freeway (from Hoddle Street to Bulleen Road) brings heritage as social concept into interesting focus, while the debate on its merits underscores the unfashionable humanism of heritage itself.

The announcement aroused predictable responses, with the Herald Sun mocking the idea as an elitist conceptual fantasy, while The Age ran more positive and considered opinion pieces. From the progressive standpoint, heritage should represent a form of conservatism we can all get behind. Legislating to protect culturally and historically important places and objects for the purpose of public appreciation seems vital. When private ownership is seen as the be-all, the idea of public space itself, and the possibility that even privately owned places can be protected for public appreciation, is a healthy anachronism.

Furthermore, being as we are in the midst of a loneliness-inducing epidemic, encouraging the common appreciation of valued places allows us all to link to (and, in time, question) shared histories and identities. Heritage protects spaces to make us feel more human.

Heritage is also about education. It’s about foregrounding the fact a structure is special in a way that doesn’t involve brand or commodification but rather things that are much harder to communicate, like history and aesthetics. It’s about helping people appreciate what they might otherwise drive past every day.

In his 2019 philosophical hit, This Life, Martin Hagglund talks at length about the novelist Karl Ove Knaussgard’s philosophy of attachment and attention, and in particular his deliberate effort to move away from nihilism or indifferent rejection of your immediate surrounds in favour of focusing and ‘attaching’ the gaze to what you see and deal with every day, Specifically:

Knaussgard’s writing develops a careful attention to the time and place where he finds himself … the aim is to slow down the experience of temporality, to dilate moments of time and linger in their qualities. This movement does not yield a stable present but, on the contrary, a stronger sense of how the present moment is ceasing to be and has to be held in memory, as it opens onto a future that exceeds it. By instilling this sense of transience, Knaussgard seeks to awake his own attention and the attention of his readers. He wants to counteract habit: to prevent himself from taking his life for granted and see the world anew.

The urban spaces that surround most of us can become habitual dead spaces if we are not ever prompted to ‘hold them in memory’. Heritage, at its best, can be that prompt. Most of us ignore the little signs that describe the heritage value of particular objects, but at least we know they are there –that there are still arms of representative government that exist to awaken our attention to the meaning of the past in the present.

Conservation of public spaces prevents commercial encroachment and overdevelopment, but this works both ways: heritage can just as easily be weaponised by groups of committed and well-funded neighbours to ensure the impossibility of large-scale residential developments closer to centres of employment. While this might guarantee the lifestyle appeal of inner suburbs recast as country villages, it also contributes to the environmental disaster of suburban sprawl, as well as ensuring more and more people have even less access to sites of public education and engagement.

In sum, there are humanistic benefits to heritage, but it is also a concept that can be exploited for the purpose of ossification and stasis, and for the maintenance of a type of privilege that should be challenged, not set behind glass. The Freeway recommendation exemplifies these paradoxes.

It is not unprecedented for roads in Victoria to enjoy heritage protection, but they are the predictable candidates – St Kilda Road, Royal Parade, the Great Ocean Road and a few rural Avenues of Honour. These roads have superficial appeal that is readily appreciable given the types of aesthetic and cultural understanding we were all brought up with: that any architecture honouring the war dead is untouchable, and that that our most revered roads are usually dead straight and luxurious, having been planted out with non-native colonial signifiers, such as English Elms. The Great Ocean Road, insofar as it allows for outrageously beautiful views, also signifies the domination by an army of returned servicemen over an untameable landscape: it goes to colonial grit and toil.

Ask people about these roads and they generally don’t just know about them, but they can also tell you why they are beautiful. Ask people about the Eastern Freeway, and they will tell you it is a nightmare to use at peak hour.

That’s about it. If the Freeway has any aesthetic appeal, you would prefer not to have time to see it. Freeways are meant as flowing spaces in the public imagination. They are a way of skipping engagement with suburban spaces that would otherwise just get in your way.

The heritage recommendation demands we understand it differently, and in a number of fascinating ways.

First, in terms of aesthetics and design. The Eastern was one of the first Melbourne freeways not designed on the cheap: deliberate measures were taken to make the freeway more appealing and impressive. The verge landscaping was carefully planned. In an almost avant-garde move, roadside rock cuttings were deliberately left exposed and not concreted over. As any geologist will tell you, freeway construction is a boon for geomorphic knowledge – the Hoddle Street to Bulleen Road stretch is fascinating for the fact the subsurface goes from granite to mudstone and sandstone. The mud and sandstone cuttings are particularly dramatic in their striations, whose colours are said to have later inspired the colour and design of the interior of Hamer Hall.

Each pedestrian and road bridge incorporated into the freeway was architecturally designed, sometimes in dramatically flying concrete (the Belford Street bridge is the most impressive example). Commercial signage over the freeway is non-existent, except once you hit the Hoddle Street bridge. This is in stark contrast to a freeway like the Tullamarine, which positively compels new visitors to Melbourne to shop (and gamble) as much as possible. The needlepoint lights running down the centre median were also unique for freeways in the state.

Try noticing these design choices next time you drive east and the five lanes on each side fan out in front of you: the lack of ads, the subtlety of the needle lights, combined with the verge landscaping and the exposed rock faces, all create the impression of a pastoral valley being experienced at speed.

To the extent the heritage recommendation compels us to understand an ostensibly moribund public utility in an original way, it is valuable. However, the recommendation is also inherently problematic, both in ways that it is up front about, and in ways it doesn’t mention.

Most galling is that one of the reasons cited in support of heritage protection is that the construction of the freeway itself was fiercely opposed throughout the design and construction period –roughly through the early to late 1970s. The extension of Alexandra Parade into what became the beginning of the Freeway was fought for years by local councils in Fitzroy and Collingwood, as well as by various citizen action groups.

Car-wreck barricades and longstanding protest camps were established around what was then the terminus of Alexandra Parade to prevent any further incursion of the Freeway into residential areas. Melway Maps of the Parade pre-Freeway look almost quaint – the inner city effectively ends at the end of the Parade, with the sprawling (and at that point untrammeled) Yarra Bend green wedge designation stretching beyond. You can see why the local residents wanted that sanctity protected.

The protests were partly successful: the Freeway was altered to end at Hoddle Street so as to preserve Alexandra Parade. In reality, this did little in the long run for the amenity of the area. It is odd to think now that Alexandra Parade as a ‘parade’, given that classification is generally reserved for public promenades with good pedestrian access. Although Alexandra Parade retains its large grassed medians (where many of the protests took place), the street as a whole is now an unwelcoming, smoky mini-freeway itself, and large parts of the median are used as car parks.

It is bemusing to think a progressive state government would want to celebrate the heritage of – and to effectively protect in perpetuity – a structure that many people never wanted to be built.

The recommendation’s celebration of the Freeway’s aesthetic qualities also distracts from the brutal realities of its construction. The verge landscaping might be celebrated, but it was, in effect, already there, as the opening stages of the freeway cut directly through Yarra Bend Park.

Construction of the Freeway was a ‘cataclysmic’ event in the history of Yarra Bend. As Ken Duxbury documents in Landscape Australia, nothing so disruptive had occurred in the area since a volcanic eruption approximately eight hundred thousand years prior. The Freeway also cut through an Indigenous burial ground, and the course of the Yarra itself had to be realigned. This realignment occurred right near the confluence of Merri Creek and the Yarra, an area of vital importance to the Wurundjeri.

This was all necessary because the Freeway itself was enormous in its design: constructed with five lanes on each side and a huge grassed median (which has since, inexplicably, never been utilised as the Doncaster train line), it was future-proofed against further protests. Like a lot of modern freeways, it was constructed so as to become a kind of urban fait accompli. A mode of fast transport that we could never think ourselves as doing without. A structure that tramples geographical reality such that the thought of blasting it out of existence (and regenerating Yarra Bend in the process) can never really be contemplated.

It also pays to consider why the Freeway needed to be designed differently to previous major roadways. Freeways were not a popular idea in Australia through and up until the mid-20th century. Governments sought to spend as little as possible on roads that were not popular with public. The Whitlam government was elected in part on a promise of opposition to any further federal freeway funding.

Against this background, it could be argued that the aesthetic and practical ambitions of the Eastern Freeway were a complete success – despite opposition during construction, the Freeway became a watershed for commuter convenience and a smoother driving experience. The Eastern effectively made freeways more popular and more politically possible: since the 1970s, Melbourne has seen an explosion in freeway development under both progressive and conservative state governments. By recognising the heritage value of the Eastern’s design, one is also making permanent the political motivation of that design.

It remains to be seen whether the heritage recommendation is actually accepted. The document is strongly argued and convincing, although some opponents suggest that the government is using the heritage process for its own ends. Granting heritage status to the Eastern might make it easier to secure approval for its extension or for the creation of the East-West tunnel.

I think one has the right to be sceptical. Wouldn’t we be better off turning down the recommendation and allowing for the possibility that, one day, the Eastern might be torn up? Why would we want to recognise the design success of a structure that made suburban sprawl and environmental degradation more feasible and convenient in the public mind?

Even accepting that heritage protection might be weaponised for political purposes, however, it remains the case that it is one of the more humanising tools at the state’s current legislative disposal. It is humanising because it is rare these days that the public is ever given breathing space to treat the everyday as art. As Jenny Odell writes in How to do Nothing, being invited to pay ‘sustained attention’ to something can be the ‘seed of responsibility’. In the case of the Eastern Freeway, it can open our eyes to why a public utility is original and interesting, but it can also reaffirm that structure’s contribution to ‘ongoing patterns of cultural and ecological devastation’ that surround us every day. In that respect, if the state government was cynical enough to protect the heritage of freeway for ulterior ends, inviting us all to reflect on what the Eastern actually represents may not have been the smartest move.


Image: Long Zheng, Wikimedia Commons

William Fox

William Fox is a poet from Naarm/Melbourne. His work has appeared previously in Overland, as well in Meanjin, Island, Southerly, and The Best Australian Poems series of books. His debut collection will be released by Rabbit in late 2022.

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