Jack Dyer Stand Punt Road Oval

There is a permanent feeling in the pit of the stomach that every heritage activist goes around with. It comes from the double whammy of knowing that most battles you fight, you’re going to lose, and the knowledge of how much that’s going to hurt.

In other areas of social and economic policy you can live to fight another day. But heritage battle losses involve the irreversible destruction of something you believe to be irreplaceable, and it hurts — not least because of the keen awareness that many other people are happy to tell you, in response to such pleas, that they couldn’t give a damn, and to get a life.

Thus it was earlier this month when the Richmond Football Club’s renewed plans for a $60 million redevelopment of the Punt Road oval were announced. The plan involves demolishing what has been known in recent decades as the “Jack Dyer” stand — and replacing it with something that, among other things, is easier to put corporate boxes in.

The name, in honour of the Richmond legend who played from 1931-1949, actually disguises the stand’s heritage. It dates from 1914, and is one of the last of the great Melbourne Aussie rules stands, built when the game was starting to become not only the dominant code in Melbourne, but the spirit of the city. (This was not a foregone conclusion; as Ian Syson notes in his recently published book The Game That Never HappenedAussie Rules only triumphed because a great proportion of Melbourne’s soccer players died on Flanders Field, and the game never recovered from their loss.)

By any measure, the Jack Dyer stand is an architectural masterpiece: a mix of brick, iron and wood finishing which shows the skills of master craftsmen of the era at their best. It commands a presence over Punt Road, where the very south eastern tip of Melbourne proper meets Richmond. Though now modified (it was once an open-air stand), it expresses the democratic roots of the game. People born in the 1840s and 1850s probably stood in that stand and barracked.

The Jack Dyer stand is going off at Punt Road! #AFLGF

Posted by SEN 1116 on Thursday, 28 September 2017

The questioning of demolishing something like this shouldn’t even arise. Richmond Football Club should simply be respectful enough of their own history for it to be out of the question and to find ways to increase capacity at the ground. But once suggested, the answer — from the government’s planning minister, Richard Wynne, member for, erm, Richmond — should be an immediate “no”.

That should be from both a general perspective and a progressive perspective as well. The general perspective is that we are now losing our history at a very rapid clip, as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane become full Pacific Rim cities, rather than state capitals of a post-imperial outpost. Sydney and Brisbane, in their centres, are largely destroyed. Melbourne isn’t, and is worth fighting every inch for. That’s particularly so because what replaces the well-fashioned architecture of the past is the machine architecture of the present. There’s scope for great contemporary architecture. Trouble is, we don’t usually get it.

There’s more to it in than that, of course. The concreteness of history matters, which is why we preserve otherwise unremarkable buildings where important events happened. The sheer fact of presence — of those buildings having hosted generations of people, all now dead — matters, as some ineffable imprint of them. With more and more stuff up for being ploughed under, we should be aware of one thing above all: the sites of power and authority — the parliaments, courts and cathedrals — remain, while vast amounts of what made up the best parts of people’s lives vanish without trace.

Why absolutely and immediately rule out the destruction of the Jack Dyer stand? Because working people built it; because people of all classes gathered within it for more than a century; because we would not get its like again; because, quite aside from that as a simple and absolute human good, well just look at the goddamn thing. What sort of insidious nihilism believes that such a thing should be swept away?

It is one building, but it stands, or falls, for the way we live now. So, with the stomach cramping at the thought of the fight, and the awareness that one day soon we’ll see the wrecking ball float through it, you gather yourself for another struggle for what one cannot but feel is the very spirit of the city, the country; the very guts of the place.