Melbourne is a great city. It was lucky enough to be incredibly wealthy in its formative years, at a time when urban thinking was more about pomposity and making an impression than the wellbeing of its citizens.
The incongruity of the scale and grandeur of some of our more wedding cake Victorian monuments sitting in dusty or muddy streets must have been amusing for visitors from the motherland. Fortunately, those wide, muddy tracks, with grand names such as “Royal Parade,” set this city up with bones particularly suited to creating great urban scale.
Melbourne’s wealth of course dried up in the 1890s, which was paralleled in the 1990s. In both centuries, the boom had fundamentally changed the face of the city. The 1880s turned us into one of the world’s great Victorian cities, the 1980s saw dozens of high rises appear within the Hoddle Grid. Big investment and change followed by a big bust.
In both of these busts, Melbourne was more affected than other Australian capital cities for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here. What I think is important is the psychological impact of a bust, and how this can have a really positive impact on a city.
Melbourne in the early 90s was in economic turmoil. The loss of jobs, heavy state government cuts, the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria, the Pyramid Building Society. Interest rates were at 18 percent. Melbourne was depressed in the day, and dull at night. Vacancy rates in the glut of new towers were at record highs. Talk of the day had Brisbane overtaking Melbourne as Australia’s second largest city sometime in the early 21st century.
Over the next twenty years, a remarkable transformation occurred in this city. Urban life and food culture diversified and flourished. Melbourne was open beyond 9-5. Apartments sprang up in older empty buildings. A real estate glut meant that back alley spaces were affordable for small business, artists and creatives. Liquor license deregulation led to Melbourne’s famed bar scene.
This change was in part curated by the City of Melbourne. I say “curated” because I think that is one of the great distinctions that really turned this city around. It was done in a way where a number of urban policies were all designed to drive a certain type of urbanity. Postcode 3000, urban lane way renewal, vertical lane ways to reinvigorate upper levels of older buildings – all of these were City of Melbourne initiatives. Add this to an urban fabric with larger blocks and a capillary-like lane way network and you have a good canvas for urban renewal.
Part of the transformation of Melbourne can be put down to these factors, but I think a greater part could be down to what occurs culturally when a city goes through a major downturn and shake up. It’s a bit like breaking up from a long term relationship. Yes, it’s traumatic and no one wants to go through it, but it does give you that sense of “anything is possible”. After all, what’s left to lose?
The city that was once the butt of jokes from the north has now become the urban model to copy. Brisbane speaks of Melbourne bars, Sydney and Perth are building lane ways. Sydney has recently changed its liquor laws so you can finally go into a bar and not have to deal with old ladies playing pokies. Even Denver is using Melbourne as a model for urban renewal. But Melbourne is more than the 32 blocks within the Hoddle Grid.
Driving someone back from the airport is a case in point. You pass half a century of government urban policy. We have Bolte’s commission flats, a deterministic take on fixing the “poor people” problem by demolishing great swathes of what would now be prime real estate. Kennett gave us flashy monuments that were more about symbols of Melbourne as a place to do business; Bracks and Brumby gave us new waterside residential and commercial neighbourhoods modelled on the Gold Coast.
From an urban point of view (perhaps with the exclusion of one very large building on the south bank of the river), Kennett’s legacy is the greatest in terms of the architectural endowment on this city as design was at the forefront. Denton Corker Marshall built a number of great buildings in Melbourne at that time that are still fresh and current. With other governments, design seemed to come second in the early years to social policy, the later years to the dollar.
We now have a large scale opportunity for another government to show its urban credentials – Fisherman’s Bend. While there is talk of affordable housing and community being part of a masterplan (both important), I think the real opportunity here is in urban form. Rather than open slather with apartment towers, what about a 6 - 8 storey height limit and some rules about building to the perimeter? This way the form, scale and proportion of the streets could be crafted in a way to make them friendly to people, without dictating what the building will look like. It also allows the city to evolve based on need over the years – a crucial thing in the development of any city. This model has worked in cities from Barcelona to Berlin and created compact and dense urban form that is amazingly livable. Compare some of the newer areas off Barcelona’s Avenue Diagonal with Southbank and this argument becomes very compelling. The amazing thing is, the density of both typologies is about the same.
The irony is, we don’t need to go as far as Barcelona for inspiration. Before the 1960s, our own CBD was built and controlled along these lines. Low enough so the sun shone in the streets, but dense enough for critical mass. It also assisted with one other crucial thing. It allowed the city to grow and change within a framework. This is crucial, because great cities evolve, they are not built.
Byron George and partner Ryan Russell are directors of Russell & George, a design and architecture practice with offices in Melbourne and Rome.
Main image by: John McKenzie.