Peter Watts (Emeritus Director, Historic Houses Trust of NSW) once noted that “the long marriage of the Queenslanders (Eleanor) Joan Kerr (nee Lyndon, 1938–2004) and (William) James Semple Kerr, from 1960–2004, created two halves of a very complete whole – drawing strength from each other and developing complementary professional expertise”. Just as Joan Kerr was a true public intellectual in art and architectural history, so was Jim Kerr on conservation planning; both were erudite, authoritative, generous and inspiring.
In the 1960s Jim worked for Qantas, first in Geneva in 1963 and then London, where he and Joan both enrolled in a history of art course run by Nikolaus Pevsner at Birkbeck College. The Kerrs returned to Australia in 1968 settling in Cremorne, and in 1972 Jim chose to leave Qantas, changing his professional direction towards issues of the built heritage. In 1974 Jim undertook a doctorate at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at the University of York in the UK, and the Kerrs returned intermittently to York and were much influenced by the intellectual stimulus they had found in Europe.
The 1970s bore the fruits of the ‘It’s Time’ Whitlam Government and new energy was directed towards protecting the national estate. There were union Green Bans, the National Trust flourished, and the Australian Heritage Commission was established in 1975 followed by the NSW Heritage Council in 1977. Jim became Deputy Director of the National Trust and later – after an academic sojourn in York – a Deputy Director of the Australian Heritage Commission. From 1982, he practised as a pre-eminent heritage adviser.
Jim had a major role as convenor of the working group that developed the Australian conservation charter known as the Burra Charter, and was convenor of the Coordination of Papers Working Group (COPWOG) that prepared the guidelines to the charter. In recalling the early history of the Burra Charter in an article written in 1983, Jim underplayed his role. The charter and the guidelines are testimony to his skill in bringing out the best in the committee members in an atmosphere of goodwill.
In the field of caring for significant places, what is it that Jim did to make us, his colleagues, admire and respect him so deeply? Most notable is his authorship of The Conservation Plan, which outlines processes for managing change in places of cultural significance. It is a guide written with great clarity following the intentions of the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter. The introduction explains that “Conservation and development are not mutually exclusive objectives; they should, and can, be part of a single planning process. Developments do not take place in a vacuum but at an existing place, in existing surroundings.” The plan begins with “understanding the place” and the policies flow from that understanding. His conservation plans for major heritage sites around Australia remain exemplary, while The Conservation Plan is nationally and internationally admired and used.
Perhaps the most complex of his many conservation plans was for the much loved but somewhat challenging Sydney Opera House. Jim’s A Plan for the Sydney Opera House and its Site first appeared in 1993, with a revised edition 10 years later. Jim states that “most of the difficult issues concerned the appropriate treatment of the work of [Jorn] Utzon and [Peter] Hall”. His solution to those complex, sometimes passionate, tensions was critical to the successful case made for World Heritage listing of the property, which occurred in 2007. He considered his conservation plan for the Sydney Opera House to be “probably about as good as I got”.
Joan Domicelj, Meredith Walker
and Elizabeth Vines