Melbourne - Sleek City

The $6m Melbourne Gateway scheme symbolises the city's architectural renaissance, writes Joe Rollo, which would not have happened without a series of bold decisions.

There's a story that bears telling about how the Transurban consortium most likely won the contract to build Melbourne's $2bn City Link tollway system. In the last throes of presenting their schemes to the Melbourne City Link Authority, the contenders for the contract - Transurban and Chart Roads - were given two weeks to reconsider the urban design elements of their bids, in particular the major gateway feature at the start of the Tullamarine Freeway.

Transurban executives hurried from the meeting and quickly called architects Denton Corker Marshall. Chart Roads called DCM too, but an hour or so later, by which time the architects had agreed to accept Transurban's brief.

Some say that DCM's $6m Melbourne Gateway scheme was the design stroke that swung the odds in favour of Transurban. This piece of urban design is a theatre of pure, modern forms, turning a motorway into art.

Designed as an abstract interpretation of a city gate, it features an assemblage of bold elements - a massive 70-metre yellow steel beam cantilevered at a seemingly precarious angle across eight lanes of freeway; two forests of leaning red sticks, each 30m high; half a kilometre of orange wavy wall; and a green-sheathed footbridge.

It is meant to be read in terms of space and time, like a film experience of sequences flashing by, that focuses your view towards the city as you approach at speed. It is public art on a grand scale, and there's probably nothing that compares to it anywhere on the drive into a major city. Certainly, there's nothing like it in Australia. No other public structure better expresses the spirit of optimism and vision with which Melbourne has entered the new century.

Probably more than anything else, the Melbourne Gateway symbolises the profound changes that have been wrought on the city in little more than 10 years, announcing to all that they are entering a successful, technologically advanced and culturally sophisticated metropolis.

It marks, in a sense, the renaissance of a city which architect Ian McDougall, a principal in the practice of Ashton Raggatt McDougall, says was "in decline and clinging, with dilapidated smugness, to a sense of being an important city". Melbourne has reinvented itself with a rush of major public and private building and infrastructure projects, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1850s gold rush.

If the vision began in the mid-1980s with the last Labor government and its minister for planning, Evan Walker, who masterminded the city's jump across the Yarra River to its south bank, then it was brought to a boil in 1992 by Jeff Kennett's incoming Liberal government, with Mark Birrell as minister for major projects.

Virtually from the first day of his tenure, the gung-ho and autocratic premier embarked on a program of public projects that you could liken to an antipodean version of President Francois Mitterrand's grands projets in Paris.

Within weeks of assuming government, Kennett stopped work on the Melbourne Museum, which had been commissioned by the outgoing Labor government and was already under construction on the south bank of the Yarra River. He simply called the deal off, deciding that the riverbank was a better site for an exhibition centre and that the museum should be built alongside the Royal Exhibition Building in the Carlton Gardens at the city's northern edge. He held competitions for the museum and exhibition centre, which DCM won. Daryl Jackson, the architect of the aborted museum, got a hand in designing the $1.6bn Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex in a tripartite partnership with architects Perrott Lyon Mathieson and Bates Smart.

Acting like a man running out of time, Kennett embarked on giving Melbourne a series of what he calls "investments for the community for the next 100 years".

"We got started immediately because we had identified the things we wanted to do long before we won government,"he says. "First-time visitors to Melbourne are stunned that a city like this can pack in so much decent architecture.

"If you want to bring about change, you need a patron who believes it, feels it and drives it,"says Kennett. "We had a vision - I've heard the claims that I had ambitions of creating a version of Mitterrand's grands projets down under - and I had the office, the taste and the influence to drive the renaissance. We gave architects opportunities to fly."For example, the competition for the controversial and still-to-open $450m Federation Square - two years overdue, about $300m over budget and climbing - which was won by LAB Architecture Studio in association with Bates Smart.

Kennett says: "I didn't know what to expect. I had reservations about the outcome of the competition - maybe I was expecting to get a Sydney Opera House - but I wasn't going to interfere with the jury's decision. I could have called the whole thing off but I had put a process in place and I was determined we should go through with it."Today, as it approaches completion, Kennett believes Federation Square is going be "one of the great buildings of the world".

He's probably not far wrong. Despite the replacement of the controversial western shard with a low structure one-third its intended height, now that the bulk of the project is complete you can see how impressive this place is going to be. The facades, a camouflage pattern of repeating triangular panels (five triangles within each panel) of zinc, sandstone and glass, provide a continually changing and visually dynamic experience as you approach the building and walk through its spaces.

The built shapes can best be described as fractured, twisted and contorted. And you need to look hard to notice the subtleties and nuances in the design, such as pieces of the facade that are slightly punched in or pushed out; and corners that appear to split away.

It's intentional, of course; meant to throw the observer off-balance, forever discovering details, forever being surprised. What is patently clear is that Federation Square is not going to be a one-visit experience. It is going to take numerous visits to take it all in and get used to it. When we do, it is going to be one of the glories of the city.

By the time Kennett's Liberal government was voted from office in September 1999, the legacies of the his era - some are still works in progress - included the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, The Melbourne Museum, Federation Square, the redevelopment of the National Gallery of Victoria and of the State Library of Victoria, the creation of the Immigration Museum in the former Customs House, the Old Treasury Museum, the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre and the redevelopment of Albert Park for the Melbourne Grand Prix. Not to mention huge government/private sector projects such as City Link, the Crown Casino and Entertainment precinct and the massive Docklands development, with a forecast investment value of more than $6bn, on 200 hectares of reclaimed waterfront at the mouth of the Yarra River.

Add to this a staggering amount of apartment and office developments and other public buildings built, planned or in construction and you realise that something special has been going on. Among them are the $700m Beacon Cove residential village at Port Melbourne; the $200m Melburnian apartments on St Kilda Road; the $500m Eureka Tower, the world's tallest apartment building; the $900m Freshwater Place residential, office and retail development; the $600m urban village, a city block on the former Queen Victoria Hospital site; the $450m redevelopment of the old Southern Cross Hotel site; the Commonwealth Law Courts, the Children's Court and the just-opened County Court; Colonial Stadium at Docklands; the $300m redevelopment of Spencer Street Railway Station precinct; and the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Along with the rush to city living - 1008 people and 376 dwellings in the CBD in 1992 compared with 9504 people and 5446 dwellings by the end of last year - and the revitalisation of lanes and alleys, Melbourne is a city reborn.

Fortunately, nearly all of it has been done with the kind of decent architecture that Melbourne, more than any other Australian city, seems able to achieve. It's the kind of architecture Tim Hurburgh, a former chairman and director of Australia's oldest architectural practice, Bates Smart, once described as "architecture with balls", and that Ian McDougall calls "contentious and not always well-mannered".

Buildings such as Ashton Raggatt McDougall's chaotic Storey Hall Annexe at RMIT University; DCM's collection of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, Melbourne Museum, the Melbourne Gateway and Bolte Bridge; Nonda Katsalidis' Republic Tower, Melbourne Terrace apartments and Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne; the jewel-like pedestrian bridges crossing the Yarra River of Peter Elliott and Cocks Carmichael Whitford.

McDougall believes that the quality of Melbourne architecture has much to do with "the quality of discussion and debate, the courage to experiment, an interested government and quality of patronage".

He says: "Architects reinvent cities. They manifest the good ideas of politicians and governments, and Victoria, in the Kennett years, had a government that was seriously interested in the way the city should develop and look. It's in Melbourne, more than anywhere else in Australia, that there is an embryonic interest in applying new technologies to produce architecture with a floating edgeless capacity, blurry and shattered like the Storey Hall Annexe.

"Melbourne architects have an over-developed sense of responsibility - they really try hard to produce good work."

DCM's John Denton believes that while the seed for change was planted by Labor in the 1980s, it was Kennett's "coherent, real and achievable"urban philosophy that finally turned the corner for Melbourne. "Kennett had a willingness to get good architecture and he ran with it, whether it was endorsed or not, and funded it. I think it was partly to do with Kennett's ego to be seen to leave behind him a whole series of public projects,"he says.

"But Melbourne was going backwards, people were leaving for other states, and he turned that around. He was aggressive, commercial and he created an environment that was good for business. Everything carried the Melbourne name. Let's not forget he came from an advertising background and understood the value of brand recognition, and he was smart enough to know that memorable buildings could market cities - you only had to look at what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao."

Joe Rollo is a Melbourne-based architecture writer and critic.
Source: NineMSN - Bulletin
19th August 2002

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