Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Melbourne wins from ground up
E. M. FARRELLY E. M. Farrelly was chairman of the first Australian Award for Urban Design jury.
TWO weeks, two big gongs for Australian urban architecture applauding such wildly different attitudes as to make you wonder where we’re coming from. Or going to.
Melbourne took out the inaugural Australia Award for Urban Design for 11 years of the patient fettling and burnishing that has revivified the city centre a decade in front of our other CBDs. It was hard team yakka. No stars, much elbow grease, strong result.
Ten days on – today, in fact – Harry Seidler, OBE, receives in London one of the profession’s brightest glories, the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal, in recognition of a lifetime’s towering aloofness and buildings to match.
Melbourne’s urban design award is no signal for Sydney-siders to resume, even temporarily, the periodic flagellation over our bargain-basement street furniture and grotty sidewalks, Melbourne’s depressinglybeautiful bluestone notwithstanding. But it is an opportunity to reflect. How come we have all the money, but they have the livable city?
Melbourne has only one Seidler tower. This was not in itself instrumental in their Australia Award success – as chairman of the jury, I cross my heart. Fact is, though, that Seidler is being commended by the Monarch, even as we speak, for his crusading role in precisely the kind of Modernist urban thinking which has dominated Sydney’s last 40 years, leaving this city now well behind the eight ball, in quality terms.
All right, I’ll explain. Urban design is about culture and cultural change. About examining the impact of our values on our cities, then improving the cities by tweaking, amending, shifting the values as implicated. How long, for instance, can we seriously go on complaining about the smog, the traffic and the ozone layer – yet demanding more freeways, more parking, more freedom to live as though every little Vegemite had an inalienable right to commute by car, and hang the consequences.
Like the gun issue, these are societal questions. They make urban design absolutely a public art, and a political one. They also take urban design far from the old Romantic-Modernist tradition of the individual genius, on which architecture as a metier is still largely founded, and which Seidler in particular embodies. Urban design, by contrast, requires a much more careful, collective, consultative mindset. So far, so nineties.
For years now, while the urban design professionals have chattered and back-patted in comfortable rooms – and for, ahem, a small fee – our cities, out there in reality, have gone on sprawling, ever-huger, grubbier, more chaotic, more dangerous and more precariously perched on the face of the planet. The Australia Award for Urban Design, a Keating initiative subsequently fostered, to its credit, by the Howard Government, is a first step in outing urban design from the professional arena to the public one, where it belongs.
The jury sought projects which offered more than the optional aesthetic garnishing often preferred by developers and governments alike. The winning Melbourne CBD project certainly includes the visuals – the banners and kiosks, the Cafe L’Incontro, the Yarra Bridge and the Elizabeth Street terminus and the joyous street-sproutings of public art, all in quirky Melbourne style. It also involved the patient, year by year, laneway resuscitation and footpath widenings, the Swanston Walk project and the refurbishment of the Queen Victoria Market.
Now, for the first time in a while, Melbourne feels like an enticing, entrancing, sophisticated city again.
Behind all that, though, and making it possible, are some crucial, invisible moves. These include the rippingly successful Postcode 3000 program which, on the basis that residents bring safety, street-life and biodiversity, has found and invented ways of making downtown residential projects irresistible to developers; and the Melbourne City Marketing program has actively sold the city centre, against all the decentralising odds.
Underpinning all this was a 1985 decision to limit building heights in the central retail heart. This was possible only because Melbourne, having led the skyscraper race in Australia until the 1950s, then bowed out, eclipsed – some might say saved – by Sydney’s greater financial magnetism. By 1985, only one building exceeded the retail-core height limit as applied, whereas in Sydney it was already too late. Sydney, by then, had spent a quartercentury eradicating history, obliterating laneways and amalgamating sites, as necessary for the cultivation of skyscrapers.
Seidler wasn’t responsible for this. But with Australia Square (Hamilton Street, Deans Place), MLC (Rowe Street) and Grosvenor, he was very much in the forefront of the charge. Erasure of the old, crooked street pattern and its buildings was a deliberate consequence of Sydney’s skyscrapers. Less foreseeable was the way in which rocketing land values, skyscraper-driven, slowly drove out the small, enriching, street-level uses – the ground layer of poetry stores and delis, the jazz studios and shops selling hand-made paper masks that comprise a city’s cultural humus.
Melbourne’s height limit preserved its laneways and top-lit arcades by reducing the incentive to redevelop; it preserved the city’s small explorable uses by keeping rents affordable. And it preserved sunshine in the streets. Very simple, very effective.
And in consequence, in Melbourne, there is still such a thing as the pleasure of being there, in the streets, looking, walking, sampling, exploring. This is much less true of Sydney. In many ways, the standard Seidler tower, all glitter and sparkle for those within, pretty glum for the ants at street-level, symbolises the Sydney ethos.
This has nothing to do with architectural quality. Seidler is still one of Australia’s best architects, no question. It isn’t even, as some would have it, that he’s strong in the air, weak on the street. It’s deeper again.
It’s a world view thing. Modernism heroicised the individual – individual buildings, individual geniuses; private space, private view, private wealth. Public space was a long way down the list. In Sydney, whether due to our rum background or our gorgeous topography, such thinking is now cultural habit. We don’t much value the collective aspects of civilisation – the fitting-in, good manners stuff.
One of the works cited in Seidler’s RIBA award documents, however, would change this balance, given its druthers. Melbourne, for all its cultivation, has been chosen as the lucky recipient of the world’s tallest tower. Seidler’s design for the Grollo tower is 500 metres (or 120 storeys) – twice the height of Sydney’s MLC. Don’t be fooled by the Melbourne-style decoration on top; this is the same old recipe writ higher, with not the slightest interest in ground level, beyond getting you from car park to lift.
You might think this very old- fashioned, chasing the world’s tallest in the 1990s. But you’d be wrong. The British award jury was itself manned with such venerable modernists as Owen Luder, Michael Manser and Sir Colin Stansfield-Smith. No surprise that they should honour their own – as pointed out by the RIBA’s official journal. Speaking from London (which, like most European cities, banned towers of any sort years go) the Journal said that, although in general “Seidler’s style may be more in tune with a passing generation of nostalgic modernists”, the Grollo project is one of two in which “his philosophy and understanding of the needs of contemporary society is proven to be very much up to date.” So there.
Four illus: Street art …
(clockwise from top left) a sculpture in Swanston Street Walk, the Cafe L’Incontro, also in Swanston Street Walk, the Majorca House apartment conversion, completed under the Postcode 3000 program, and Harry Seidler’s design for the Grollo tower.