The Age: Why it’s time to think beyond our obsession with property prices

The Age published the following article on 12 September 2020. Author: Ben Pobjie

Anthony Burke (right) with a couple transforming their 1950s house on Restoration Australia. CREDIT:ABC

The new presenter of Restoration Australia, architect Professor Anthony Burke, wants you to see another side of home renovation shows.

Q: You’re one of those unusual TV personalities who had a useful skill but went into television anyway: how is it that you became the new host of Restoration Australia?

A: It was serendipity, like most of these things. I was getting a bit of a rep for giving lectures around town, and in 2012 a colleague and I were appointed the directors for the Venice Biennale architecture pavilion. So that was a big deal and we got a lot of press at that time. And as a consequence of that we were asked to do a TEDx talk. I think a few people saw that and started to sort of poke around: “How would you feel about doing a bit more of this type of thing? What about a bit of TV?” That’s how it started – but it took from 2012 to 2020 before anything landed, so it was a long incubation period.

As an academic, is there an element of performance in the role anyway, which can be translated to the screen?

I think so, and I think some academics are just natural presenters. I like to make the distinction between a “normal professor”, if I can put it that way, and a public intellectual, where the role is as much about communicating what you know as an expert to those who are not experts. And that’s where I see myself: I think that’s a really wonderful place to be, and that’s how I approach the show. I feel like no one wants a lecture from Anthony, but maybe if I can open a little door to something a little deeper, a little more broad, in each episode, then that’s great. If it’s intriguing to people, I feel like that’s more people interested in architecture and that’s a win.

Do you feel that in Australia there’s a lack of knowledge about our architectural heritage?

The short answer is yes. I think what’s been really interesting, to take a step back and observe it from a distance, is we’ve had our fair share of home renovation programs. You know the ones I’m talking about. I think even in the way we read about architecture in the papers, it’s all about real-estate property prices. So in that sense we’ve been schooling up on a re-engagement, or a contemporary engagement, with architecture, but it’s come from this very commercial, very property-driven point of view. Which is very legitimate: people’s houses are their biggest investment and all that.

So what are we missing?

The thing that’s gone missing though is not the house, but the “why” of it all. Why do we do it like this, why do we live like this, why this design and not another one? And that’s the difference, that’s what’s missing. But what I’ve noticed the most is speaking to public audiences, you only have to scratch the surface a little bit and there are so many people who are really interested in the topic area: they just haven’t been invited into the tent yet. And if you can make that offering they’re very willing to come across the line and want to know more.

As the host of the show, do you get close to the owners of the properties, or do you keep more detached?

This is the biggest surprise for me: I thought it was going to be all about architecture, because that’s what I do. But meeting the homeowners, they were all in their own way – it probably sounds a bit naff to say it – but I so enjoyed meeting all of them, and they are all so different.

But they clearly share one passion in common.

I guess the one thing that unites them all is that they are differently passionate about what they’re doing. I was not prepared for their level of enthusiasm. They’re not home renovators: these are people who feel they’re making a small but significant contribution to Australian culture and Australian heritage. There’s a responsibility that they take very seriously, and I think that is really fantastic. Of course the show is about architecture and our built heritage and how we’re going to bring it back to life and there’s lots to say on that subject, but the one thing I’ve been really enthused by is the relationships with the homeowners.

How difficult is it to bring an old house back to life without losing what’s so special about it in the first place?

It is difficult, it is a real commitment to make, and inevitably with every project of this kind you get to the point where a decision has to be made: do I go the easy way or the hard way? It’s like, I know the right thing to do is the hardest thing to do. It’s a dollar decision perhaps, or a convenience decision, or the classic “I don’t want my house to look like a museum”. It’s those sorts of things which the homeowners are skirting around. That’s the point where the rubber hits the road – and everyone reaches that point.

Restoration Australia (season 4) premiered on ABC on September 26 at 7.40pm.

The full episode is available on ABC iView – click on the button below.