Eastern Freeway deserves its place on Heritage Victoria’s register

Eastern Freeway deserves its place on Heritage Victoria’s register

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The state opposition’s planning spokesman, Tim Smith, says: “It’s a dirty great big freeway – how does that warrant heritage protection?” Especially, he says, when “beautiful heritage homes in established suburbs” are being demolished every month.

Heritage Victoria’s executive director, Steven Avery, says the Eastern Freeway, built between 1972 and 1977, marked a turning point in road building in Victoria, with the design reflecting a concern for the natural environment as well as the driver experience – a move away from the “cost and efficiency” approach.

“It is a fine, intact, influential and pivotal example of a freeway,” Avery wrote in his recommendation.

The freeway is also a reminder of the protests against freeways in general and the impact of the Eastern on Fitzroy and Collingwood in particular that accompanied its announcement and construction.

A demonstration against the building of the Eastern Freeway in 1977. Credit:Fairfax

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In his 1986 movie True Stories, David Byrne described freeways as the cathedrals of the 20th century. He may have been thinking about how the upward sweep of flyovers and spaghetti junctions draws our gaze to the heavens, just like the vaulted ceilings of Europe’s great medieval churches, or the way that the construction of a freeway, like the building of a church, transcends any individual’s work to become a collective monument to human endeavour.

They are also the places where we gather to worship the private car in the purest expression of its speed and mobility – and nowhere more so than in Australia.

Melbourne’s urban character was established by the Hoddle grid, a rational street plan that spread across the undulating topography for the first century of the city’s growth and generated an inner-urban landscape built on similar grids of high streets and local streets linked by trams and railways. The grid was the skeleton of the city from the 19th century until the 1950s.

But the suburbs where most people live sprang up when we turned from public to private transport and started constructing freeways in the 1960s, and laid down a new skeleton for Melbourne: one that cuts through, over and sometimes under the landscape and stretches the city to new limits.

Whether that’s a sustainable model in a zero-carbon future remains to be seen. Some people might imagine freeways falling into disuse, or becoming giant bicycle highways. I suspect they will just be clogged with electric cars fuelled by enormous solar and wind farms.

Freeways, like them or not, have made Melbourne what it is. If heritage is about more than what the taste of a particular moment considers beautiful and stretches to recognising what has made a city, the Eastern deserves to be right there on the register.

Matt Holden is a Melbourne writer.

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