You can’t stop progress

The foyer of the Regent Cinema

Not so long ago, Brisbane aspired to be a creative city. Around the turn of the millennium, the ideas of Richard Florida, who argues that fostering the creative elements in a society promotes economic development, were hugely influential in Brisbane. This was how a small city plagued by the tyranny of distance could secure its economic future; by investing in creativity and diversity. How, in such a short-time, have we come to the point where our civic leaders are hiding behind bureaucratic red-tape to give development permission to a project that will all but destroy what remains of one of the few historic cultural venues in our city?

On June 14 the Regent cinema complex closed its doors to make way for a development project that will destroy what is left of the Regent Theatre, one of the few historic cultural venues this state boasts. It’s not even that old: it opened in 1929. But in a country as young as Australia, it is a rarity.

On June 5, I went to see a legendary Brisbane band, Powderfinger, perform their last ever concert in London at the Brixton Academy. Like the Regent Cinema, the Academy opened in 1929. Like the Regent, it has had chequered fortunes over the years. Unlike the Regent, it has benefited from a commitment to preserving both its appearance and its function as a cultural hub. Standing there before its astonishing art deco proscenium arch, witnessing a moment of Australian rock history, I couldn’t help but reflect on the comparisons.

The Brixton Academy is, by London standards, a small venue, with a capacity of just under 5000 when the floor is standing only. It can’t be easy to maintain the venue commercially: the overhead for maintaining the building must be high. And yet, because there has been a commitment to preservation, it has endured.  It has endured in spite of the fall of the fortunes of Brixton itself; indeed for many commentators, it is part of the reason Brixton has survived its periods of blight to become of one the most culturally vibrant areas of London. Much of this is due to the efforts of Simon Parkes, the lessee from 1973 to 1997, who was ‘dedicated to restoring the historic building to its original condition’.

The Academy is widely regarded as one of the best venues in Britain. It has won NME’s award for venue of the year 12 times since 1994 and has also won Music Week’s venue of the year award several times, including in 2009. For a live band performance, they use a raked floor which gives unparalleled views of the stage, but they can also install a flat floor or full seating, and host everything from award ceremonies to club nights.  But what makes Brixton a truly amazing venue is the retention of the original decor from its days as a ‘super-cinema’.

Watching a gig at the Academy is like watching it in the forecourt of a castle in Italy. The proscenium arch is reportedly modelled after Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge. To quote the Theatre Trust’s description, it ‘is framed by octagonal towers linked by an arcade bridge with a central broken-pedimented bay. On either side the architectural treatment extends along the side walls with deep modelling suggesting a Mediterranean townscape of clustered buildings with tiled and domed roofs, balconies, statues in niches, balustraded loggias, Baroque doorways and garden walls, above which rise naturalistically modelled trees.’ Trees, folks. And vines, climbing up the walls. In a music venue.

The juxtaposition of elements is what makes the venue great. Over an elaborately plastered alcove bearing a statue of an ancient knight is a perspex sign featuring  three stick figures holding a fourth stick figure aloft in a red circle with a cross through it: no crowdsurfing, the sign exhorts. For the bands and the fans alike, the combination of the anachronistic decor and the cultural history embedded in the very walls of the venue are hugely stimulating; it’s a sensory mash-up that cannot fail to stir your creative juices.

Much of London’s cultural heritage of this sort is a legacy of Victorian era businessman like Sir Henry Tate, who felt the need to leave a legacy of their success in business by funding colleges, libraries, hospitals and theatres. They have been preserved through a commitment to retaining heritage that maybe only a city blighted by the blitz can have. At around the time the renovations were made to the Regent that have rendered it apparently ineligible for heritage protection, the Academy was mooted to become a petrol station. Thankfully for the bands that have performed there since – a broad spectrum of artists that includes the Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Madonna and Lady Gaga  – the protests against the closure were heard and government and private enterprise have had a shared role in keeping it alive since.

When the Regent closes its doors in advance of state and local government sanctioned demolition (no need for the Deen brothers this time!), Brisbane will lose a piece of its soul. The shiny new theatrette for weekend screenings that will be built will be no replacement for what we are about to lose.

Many Brisbanites live in ignorance of the pleasures that have awaited them just a step from the chaos of the Queen Street Mall, have not been part of the cultural events that have taken place there and so will never miss them. I’d imagine that’s what the authorities are counting on. But if the closure goes ahead, and it now seems inevitable, they will also never benefit from the richness that having such a world-class, historic venue in their midst confers.

The relationship between the Brisbane International Film Festival and the Regent has been responsible for creating cultural history in Brisbane for the last 15 years. The burgeoning film culture in Brisbane that has enabled the diverse range of commercial cinema venues in Brisbane is a legacy of that history. BIFF cultivated our appetite for non-mainstream cinema and the audiences at BIFF screenings persuaded distributors and exhibitors to bring films to the state that would otherwise have been unavailable. Thanks to this symbiotic relationship, Brisbane filmgoers were amongst the first in the world to discover a young actress called Toni Colette, when Muriel’s Wedding opened BIFF. Brisbane’s screening of Shine was one of the few that David Helfgott was able to attend in person.

Earlier this year, the Spierig Brothers film Daybreakers was released in Brisbane. The Spierigs, probably the most successful Queensland filmmakers not to leave the state, are arguably a product of a cultural ecosystem around film that had been growing steadily for the last 20 years, thanks to careful nurturing by the state. They first made a mark when they were in Grade 10 and won an award at the Queensland New Filmmakers Awards. They were a constant presence at BIFF; their cultural heritage is informed by long nights in the Regent, absorbing horror from Eastern Europe and Asia, from every era of film history, and meeting the filmmakers behind the film. Without the Regent and BIFF, would they have stayed at home? Or would they, like so many others, have been lost to Sydney or Melbourne?

I suspect that it’s no coincidence that BIFF is being much reduced at the same time this cultural devastation is being sanctioned. Anyone seeking evidence of the appalling poverty of ambition for Queensland’s cultural future amongst our civic leaders need look no further than Stirling Hinchliffe, who dismissed protests against the closure saying, “We’ve got QPAC, we don’t need to build another one”. Perhaps they are all so dazzled by the glass towers they are building, they can’t see anything else?

Having diverse venues, that have character and spirit and history, is essential to fostering the sort of creative ecosystem that creates world-class acts like Powderfinger. You need the historical to rub up against the experimental, to fuse with the ethnic and cross genres to generate truly original, meaningful art.  But this is not a time where we can rely on wealthy philanthropists to secure our cultural future. We need governments with vision to exert their authority to force business to do so. The Chair of the Queensland Heritage Council, David Eades, excusing his part in enabling this travesty, said that ‘ there was little evidence of the original Regent Theatre in the newer areas’. So: because we have been negligent with our history in the past, it’s OK to continue to do so forever more.

Instead of hiding behind red-tape, why not get creative with it?  Why not enact new laws that make it a requirement for the developers to restore and retain this treasure? Make it better? In the Queensland that had aspirations to something higher, we made it law that every new building project must include expenditure on public art, so why not this?

What this decision ultimately tells us is that in Brisbane, we’re prepared to sacrifice what little cultural history we have in exchange for the short term gain of investment funds.  A city that chooses to protect – and make use of – something just because it is beautiful and has a history of which we are proud is a city that stands for something, a city with soul and spirit.

But a city that sells off its cultural history for a few pieces of gold, stands for nothing. One protester described the plans, which retain the marble staircase and foyer from the original theatre, as ‘a foyer to nowhere’. I hope that it serves as a bitter reminder of what was lost for all the politicians that turned their back on this tiny but important piece of our heritage.

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