Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Sydney v Melbourne
Our two biggest cities are like sisters … but sisters with markedly different personalities: Melbourne, of course, is the staid bluestocking and Sydney, let’s face it, is the tart. Still, if that is the case, why does their architecture tell another story? Elizabeth Farrelly investigates.
So i’m on this plane, i open the paper and an image catches my eye. For an instant I think, “Omigod, what a coincidence, a page two news story on Melbourne architecture just as I’m preparing to write about it.” But it isn’t a picture of Melbourne architecture. It’s a picture of Concepción, Chile, after the biggest earthquake in half a century, with all its bits at odd angles and nothing parallel. Nothing fitting. My mistake but, entre nous, an easy one to make.
The question that’s in my head, then, the overriding question about this town beneath, in whose candied frockery you can still smell the dust of the ’56 Olympics, is this: how did we arrive at the strange paradox whereby blingy, airhead Sydney pursues an architecture of near-classical restraint while Melbourne, the well-mannered, nerdy younger sibling, garbs up with a gaiety that teeters (or perhaps totters) near total abandon? What, if anything, does it mean?
It is four decades since the fashion for busted-up buildings established postmodernism as a mannerist unpicking of the classical modern, just as Michelangelo and his mates had unpicked the renaissance to form the baroque, or as a flock of Major Mitchells unpicks a Scots pine.
Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi started it back in 1959, with his
unbuilt east-coast beach house, all skew-whiff and trapezoidal to buggery. Then, in 1971, SITE peeled the wall off that brick-box showroom for the Best Products Co in Richmond, Virginia; Hans Hollein ripped open his marble-fronted Vienna jeweller’s shop in 1972 and, in ’78, Frank Gehry put his own house in a cocktail shaker and built what fell, everything topsy-turvy and crooked, right there on a Santa Monica backblock. Architects catch images like colds, and the wonky look quickly spread.
Equally infectious, visually, was the widely televised 1972 dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe social-housing towers in downtown St Louis, Missouri. Less than 20 years old, this vast development had been designed to remedy inner-city slums by Minoru Yamasaki (who was even then designing the World Trade Centre towers, their yet more violent end still far in the future). Now the world watched, mesmerised, as Pruitt-Igoe was blown to smithereens, an acknowledged social catastrophe. To architects everywhere, the implosions signalled the death of the modern movement.
Then it was on. For a few minutes – a decade, give or take – everything that came off the drawing board had to be broken, bent, sliced, twisted, cracked, strewn or shattered. If it wasn’t deformed, it wasn’t, you know, interesting. This was teen rebellion, in its way; architecture’s punk. So it was probably inevitable that, after a bit, everyone would stop doing it. Everyone, that is, except Graz, Austria, where they’d always been a bit weird, and Melbourne, where they’d always been very polite, actually. As the rest of the world outgrew postmodern wackiness through the 1990s, these places just kept on doing it.
Why them in particular? Perhaps because punk depends on propriety; moneyed propriety ideally and staid, philanthropic, old-moneyed propriety best of all. Any rebellion needs a rock against which to crash its fury. In Sydney, being bad isn’t rebellious. It’s business as usual.
So Melbourne built Federation Square, which emerged from the ground 30 years after the fashion with every facade crazed, every building stretched and strewn, every paver bloodied and every glass shard broken, then broken again. Sydney, meanwhile, still dreams of the mid-century moderns – the Bill Lucas tree house, the nut-sweet bush dwellings of Peter Muller, Douglas Snelling and Hugh Buhrich, the heroic towers of Mies van der Rohe (New York’s slab-like Seagram) and SOM (Lever House), the sublime transparencies of Mies and Aalto, the platonic forms of Le Corbusier and Kahn, the glorious materiality of Utzon and Seidler. Where Melbourne builds crazy Fed Square, Sydney – albeit with Melbourne architects – erects Governor Phillip Tower out of a million gleaming right angles.
It is tempting to liken the sydney-melbourne sibling rivalry to that of New York and Chicago. Certainly there are parallels. There’s the failed jostling to be capital, the turn-of-the-century race for height and wealth and the public paroxysms over the morality of these newfangled skyscraper things. (At this point, of course, the cultures part company, with both Australian cities imposing height limits that stopped the race dead, like a game of statues, for 50 years, while New York and Chicago raced on.)
There are congruencies, too, of politics and form. Like New York, Sydney enjoys a maritime mood, a ruthless commerciality and a rococo topo-graphy that is also its cruel constraint; all blessings of the distinctly mixed variety. Melbourne, like Chicago, is flatter, greyer, windier and looser, with freshwater frontage, outsize city blocks and an energetic absorption in its own creativity.
Tradition sees this dualism as manifest in the two cultures. In 1877, author Marcus Clarke, like a parent placating too-similar sisters, characterised Melbourne as Australia’s “intellectual capital” and Sydney as the “fashionable and luxurious” one. This became the orthodox view. Sydney had the looks, Melbourne the brains. Sydney’s so pretty, says photographer John Gollings, it never had to try.
But that’s not the end of it, since how to reconcile gritty, gridded, intellectual Melbourne with its floozitecture? Architectural critic Rory Spence, who in 1985 wrote two London-published essays entitled, respectively, “Sensual Sydney” and “Melbourne, City of the Mind”, was even then forced to allow the paradox of Melbourne’s “strident individualism” and Sydney’s converse inclination to an architecture that was more intuitive, more serious, more respectful of context.
Two early and influential examples of Melbourne expressionism sit two doors apart on Swanston Street: ARM’s bubbly, foliate Storey Hall and Edmond & Corrigan’s Building 8, studded, spiked and multicoloured, both for RMIT. Sydney institutional buildings of the same period include Ken Woolley’s ABC Centre in Ultimo, Andrew Andersons’ UNSW Quadrangle Building and David Chesterman’s education faculty building at the University of Sydney; all staid monochrome with punched windows, straight-back-and-sides structure and clear, declaratory purpose. All concerned with serious material place-making, while Melbourne pursued witty social commentary.
Alex Popov did the odd poodle-leg house at Balmoral, Philip Cox the odd half-round roof around Woolloomooloo and Redfern, and Graham Jahn the odd bit of cosmetic texture in Bondi and Surry Hills, but that was pretty much the extent of Sydney’s venture into postmodern levity. Broadly speaking, since then, the built cultures of our two major cities have diverged further still; Sydney reinvesting in the international modern, while Melbourne treks ever deeper onto the shifting sands of provocation and experiment.
For experimentalism is a constant Melbourne theme. Robin Boyd, writing in the 1960s and ’70s, consistently portrayed Melbourne as the innovator; “Australia’s cradle of 20th-century design …dedicated to change.”
These days, talk of an avant garde seems silly and old-fashioned, but it is clear that, while Sydney’s architecture has become increasingly homogeneous and “straight”, Melbourne nurtures its devotion to the bent and out-there, to all angles other than 90 degrees, to provocateurs who locate within and play to the art scene, not the building industry.
It’s a dichotomy that invites interpretation. You can see Sydney as dull and commercially captive, beating a retreat to the future that is just another trap between the bean counters and the Rum Corps, or you can see it as disciplined and dignified, displaying a mature capacity to treat architecture as ground, not figure. Equally, you can see Melbourne as playful and creative, effervescent and irrepressible in its capacity for fun, or as desperate, garish and try-hard.
The question is not so much which is true, or even which is better – although these, too, are interesting – but what do such differences signify? Could it be simply this: that in each city, architecture rebels against the given, overcompensating for Melbourne’s grey sobriety, or Sydney’s airhead rep? Or, simpler still, that Melbourne, as younger twin, is determined to undermine, satirise and at any cost depart from the path set by its only-slightly-older rival?
Sydney, say Melburnians, is hopelessly, ploddingly material. To Sydneysiders, this is a strength, a sign of authenticity. Think not only Murcutt and Leplastrier, but Stutchbury Pape’s lovely timber pavilions, Durbach Bloch’s delight in glass, stone, zinc and sunlit whitewash, Neeson Murcutt’s brick-skin and square timber boxes, Supple Design’s homage to Utzon in ply and concrete.
Some lay this “fetishism about materiality”, in one architect’s words, tentatively at Utzon’s door, or maybe the Japanese influence via Utzon, and certainly there are plenty of “Utzon heads” about, especially in the profession’s younger echelons.
In Melbourne, by contrast, it’s as if the architecture itself, for all its attention-seeking carry-on, isn’t the point. The point is to provoke – discussion, debate, even disparagement; any attention is good attention.
There are any number of examples of this bad-boy architecture, this building as idea, as billboard, as social satire; building as safety-pin-through-nipple. There’s Edmond & Corrigan’s striped suburban churches and bejewelled urban boxes like RMIT Building 8; ARM’s neons and chequerboards, like 1010 LaTrobe Street; Katsalidis’s sudden switches of surface, shape and texture (as in Republic Tower), DCM’s colourful cut-and-pastes (Melbourne Exhibition Centre); Minifie Nixon’s pug-faced pie dishes at the VCA Hub and McBride Charles Ryan’s irregular origami, as at Monaco House.
There’s also McBride Charles Ryan’s shiny “black slug” apartment building (QV2) on Swanston and Little Lonsdale; ARM’s molten Luna Park face apartments in St Kilda; and, most notorious of all, Cassandra Fahey’s Sam Newman house, its face a three-storey Pamela Anderson visage like some drive-in movie screen, built (notes one especially blunt property website) “by an ageing playboy in honour of a self-made porn star”. All of it a blatant nose-thumbing at old modernist – old Sydney – ideas of space, material, nature and authenticity.
But the differences go deeper than mere style. Melbourne, it is generally agreed, is more collective than Sydney (this may not be saying a lot); more collegial in its architecture profession, more tribal in its football, more urban in its creativity, more concentrated in its urbanism. So although Melbourne architects espouse suburbia as an ethos, after their éminence grise Peter Corrigan, it is no surprise that they build most, and they build best, in the city.
It’s an old truism that most of Melbourne’s notable architecture can be taken in with a jog down the Swanston Street-St Kilda Road spine and a loop around the grid, and although now you have to add a trek over the hill to Docklands, this is mainly to satisfy yourself that no, Melbourne’s newest precinct still can’t channel the charm or chutzpah of Melbourne proper. Even Melbourne, it seems, cannot replicate the network of intact laneways and top-lit arcades that Sydneysiders have so long envied.
McBride Charles Ryan’s wonderful little scrunched-cellophane Monaco House is an example, opening like a cave mouth onto the street. Their recent QV retail development and John Wardle’s Urban Workshop on Lonsdale both irrupt brilliantly from within the orthogonal grid. But the same architecture en plein air at Docklands or Southbank comes across as overworked and overexposed. Vegas in daylight.
The public, it seems, agree. Even as Melbourne’s gridded heart pumps with life, Docklands is deserted. You’re lucky to catch a lone iPhoner Googling his connectivity from a waterside bench. Has Melbourne experimented just a touch too boldly this time? Or has it broken its own rule, taking its cues not from its own vibrant city grid but from Sydney’s acknowledged failures at Darling Harbour and King Street Wharf?
It’s almost as if Melbourne, notwithstanding Sydney’s envy of its vibrant bohemian culture, were trying to re-normalise to some more Sydney-esque state. Take liquor-licensing. The relaxation of Melbourne’s drinking laws following the 1986 Nieuwenhuysen Review is largely credited with its explosion in public culture, but now – just as Sydney follows suit – the government and city want to re-regulate, following controversy.
Certainly Sydney, for its part, is now taking a trick or two from Melbourne. Sydney lanes were flogged and brutalised for decades and the CBD may yet prove irredeemable because of it. But around the inner ring, from Marrickville to Bondi, new small-bar legislation – drafted largely in emulation of Melbourne’s – has helped produce a flowering of small bars, quirky galleries and funky venues à la mode Melbourne.
Barangaroo, the redevelopment of the old city container dock, will prove a test case. Can Sydney learn, on this, its own docklands experiment, not to repeat the mistakes it passed on to Melbourne’s Docklands? Can it learn (a first in this country) to recreate the hum of fully peopled streets?
Maybe, but it’s unlikely that Sydney will outrun Melbourne in the urbanism stakes any time soon. The reason is not just that Sydney can’t get its transport act together, rhythmically announcing, then cancelling, a long list of huge, unrealisable projects (of which the CBD Metro is just the latest), while Melbourne, far from resting on its tram-laurels, plans a new underground city metro that is both rational and achievable.
In the end, melbourne’s greatest strength is perhaps its least apparent. True urban design sees public space as figure, not ground. It makes street-to-street connections feel like adventure, not duty; it gives out invitations to explore. It is the least understood of the design professions, especially by architects themselves. Architecture is inherently impatient for the object. Urban design is in many ways its opposite, its female, in the electrical sense: strategic, responsive, thoughtful but, in pace, glacial.
Architects, notes Rob Adams, Melbourne City’s design director, don’t generally get this, which is how city-sterilising towers like Fender Katsalidis’s Southbank Eureka Tower – glorious from a distance, but not nice to be near – win Institute of Architects urban design awards. So how likely is it that the politicians and bureaucrats of a city will generate real urban creativity? Yet this is exactly what has happened in Melbourne.
There’s Evan Walker who, as planning minister in the ’80s, worked with planner David Yencken to impose the city-centre height limits that saved the grid’s fine grain and kept the laneways and arcades intact. There’s Rob Adams who with infinite patience has shaped the city’s urban policies over 25 years. And there’s a bunch of inspirational long-term educators, like RMIT’s Peter Corrigan and, especially, Leon van Schaik, professor of (wouldn’t you know it?) innovation who, over the same quarter century, has consistently championed Melbourne as a global “design city”.
Sydney, by contrast, has been governed – broadly speaking – by crooks and ninnies, few of them with any grasp of or concern for the public interest, all elected by a populace who would sooner be at the beach. Its universities have provided decent and occasionally brilliant architectural educators but with few long-term beacons. And, from the Opera House to Barangaroo, its competition history has riddled the profession with a sense of cynical disempowerment.
“There’s a tough, knife-you-in-the-street kind of profession up there in Sydney,” says Melbourne architect Ian McDougall, principal of ARM. Whereas in Melbourne, commentators agree, problems are more likely to be sorted out in the back room of the pub. This (say its supporters) makes Sydney more honest, more transparent, if not necessarily kinder. But it gives Melbourne greater warmth and, once you’re in, a much stronger sense of community.
So, have I answered my question about the Sydney-Melbourne paradox? Maybe, maybe not. In truth, the two cities strike me as the mildly dysfunctional halves of a single egg. Put them together and you have a whole personality, but keep them apart and you’ve a genuinely interesting dynamic. As every other Australian town becomes increasingly blanded over, so that Tamworth now looks little different from Wangaratta, or Lakes Entrance from Port Stephens, difference has got to be a good thing.
ELEVEN PHOTOS: Sibling rivalry: is Sydney (above) getting straighter, while Melbourne (below) gets more bent?
Different angles: (top) Melbourne’s “crazy” Federation Square and (above) Sydney’s Governor Phillip Tower – “a million gleaming right angles”.
(Opening pages) getty images; photolibrary.com; fairfaxphotos.com; istockphoto; illustration by john shakespeare. (this page) photolibrary.com; fairfaxphotos.com
“Glorious from a distance”: (above) Melbourne’s award-winning Eureka Tower; (below) Docklands’ Webb Bridge.