Exploring Melbourne, Australia

Originally published in 
Melbourne, Australia

No opera house. No Bondi Beach. No sunning celebs. This is Melbourne, home of Australia’s most thriving design scene.

In Melbourne, Australia, a city of Southern Hemisphere foodies, where fetid alleys reveal the cool cafes and bars, and hip, close-at-hand inner suburbs offer as much life as the heart of the city, everyone thinks they’ve cornered the market on the best spot in town. And odds are good that at that out-of-the-way joint a local recommended the food is as casually perfect and understated as the interior design. Visit and you’ll think that the Melbournians have taken a shine to you, that you’re getting an insider’s glimpse of the city’s hidden hot spots. Until the third night, when you realize that this—the food, the coffee, the design, and the civic pride—is Melbourne, and it thrives on just this brand of urban cool hunting.

Peer into any of the city’s crannies—the Central Business District is full of them—and you’ll almost surely be rewarded. A local architect I met suggested that the relaxing of zoning laws in the 1990s to accommodate shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants in the city’s many laneways has been so successful that a spare patch of grass was all that was needed for some tattooed coffee snob to open a stand. And even an afternoon search for a long black—essentially an Americano, though the espresso goes in after the water, not before—requires a nip down an alley you’d fear in any other town.

Yet for all the city’s up-through-the-cracks energy, its design functions magnificently at the civic scale as well. Federation Square’s bisected, fractalized buildings announce a thoroughly modern public plaza that the public actually uses; the rusted steel of Wood/Marsh’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art is all texture and form; Southern Cross Station’s undulating roof line and engineering-as-art aesthetic made it a hallmark Sir Nicholas Grimshaw structure—until part of the roof collapsed in a storm last spring.

My tour guide, architect Andrew Maynard (with an assist from architect Kevin Hui) quickly dashed between the role of civic booster, withering critic, and ardent design enthusiast. Maynard, a native of Tasmania, came to Melbourne in 2000, worked with various local firms, and did a stint with the Richard Rogers partnership in London before forming Andrew Maynard Architects in 2002. He’s won a spate of awards for his green-minded, innovative residential design and leads the pack of talented young designers who cut their teeth on projects in Melbourne’s laneways and unused spaces and who are moving on to larger commissions. Here’s his take on what makes the city hum.

Sydney gets a lot of play out of its opera house, but Melbourne lacks that big architectural icon. Could it be Southern Cross Station or even the State Library of Victoria?
There is an ongoing debate about the “need” for a signature building in Melbourne. I really don’t see the point and it really isn’t how Melbourne operates.

Melbourne is full of significant buildings, but more importantly it is full of layered, rich, and varied urban spaces. Most people don’t get it when they come here because Melbourne requires discovery. It is the type of city where you need a local to help you find the important spaces, laneways, cafes, bars, galleries, and street life. You need a local to show you its rich, fine grain.

A city for which a signature building is inappropriate? You’re about to run afoul of the tourism board.
Fed Square and Southern Cross Station are interesting additions, and they may have been commissioned with the intent of creating icons, I don’t know. What I like about their execution is that their authors seem to be very deliberate in producing horizontal forms that stitch themselves into the fabric of the city. Was this a deliberate tactic by the designers? Probably not, but I’d like to think that there is a little bit of Melbourne subversion showing its head in even these government projects.
The local design stars—Denton Corker Marshall, Nonda Katsalidis, and ARM, for instance—do seem to get a lot of large civic commissions.

There are a number of significant buildings throughout Melbourne that are repeatedly done by the same firms; however, there definitely isn’t a monopoly. The city requires a level of understanding if one is to produce something competent, let alone something interesting.

I continue to be amazed at the wonderful support that I received when I first started my firm as a recently arrived, innocent, and somewhat naive Tasmanian. The big names around town are accessible and are always keen to give advice or even hand off a commission. This is probably another reason that we don’t want starchitects messing with our town. We don’t like the illusion of hierarchy.

Federation Square by LAB Architecture continues to get a lot of attention nearly a decade after the Libeskind-inspired design opened in 2002.
I don’t really have a strong opinion on Fed Square. I think your description is accurate, it’s Diet Libeskind. Interestingly, the guys from LAB taught with Libeskind, and he was one of the jurors of the design competition for the Fed Square commission. LAB Architecture had never built a single thing, not even a house renovation, when they won the commission. As an urban plaza it functions better than I thought it would. The interior of the National Gallery of Victoria [part of the Federation Square complex] is outstanding.
I was stunned by Melbourne’s suburbs. They’re easily accessed by an extensive tram system, dense, walkable, and close to the Central Business District (CBD). How did this happen?
Surrounding Melbourne’s vibrant heart is a ring of inner suburbs, each with a noticeably different tone, attracting a different type of resident. Previous generations’ investment in our once-wonderful train and tram system is the reason that Melbourne’s rich inner suburbs continue to thrive. Our tram lines create direct links from the center of the CBD in all directions. There is a huge difference between the beautiful and eclectic villages of the inner suburbs that you saw and the vast areas of banal suburbs that surround greater Melbourne, though.
Much of that density is due more to infill—the laneways, for example—than expert planning. How did all these flowers in the CBD take root?
The most compelling reason is purely economic. There are many young, creative, and interesting people in Melbourne, and if they have an idea for a bar or a boutique then there is simply no way that they are going to be able to afford a presence on the main street. Therefore, many important and exciting places have popped up deep within laneways and this in turn has provided a center of gravity for laneway culture.

The laneways are also popular due to our love of mystery and discovery. The Croft Institute is a great example of this. If a bar opens on Main Street with a big neon sign, then it is bound to fail. The Croft Institute did the opposite. It opened at the end of a doglegged dead-end laneway, past all of the smelly Chinatown Dumpsters, and has been packed from the day it opened. In any other city you would only head down a nasty, dark alley like this if you had a wish to be mugged.

Laneways are grand, but Docklands—a massive new development on the Yarra, just west of the CBD—is the biggest site of development.
It is an example of instantaneous, manufactured urbanism. In many cities it would fail; however, I think it will eventually start to work well, once it gets some blood running through its veins in a generation or two. I am probably alone in this opinion, but for Docklands to become an interesting part of the city it needs to fail and become ghettoized so that interesting people can afford to move there. Otherwise, it will remain full of white upper-middle-class bankers.
Despite being so near Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne seems to be essentially a river town.
An astute observation. Though a number of suburbs like St. Kilda are oriented to the bay, Melbourne is a river city. Melbourne has always struggled with its relationship to the Yarra, however. Industrialization and bad planning have isolated the river from the people for over 100 years. Only in the last 20 years have efforts been made to better link up with the river. Melbournians are getting better at making the most of the Yarra, but there is still a lot that we can do through clever planning and design to make it an important public artery through the city.

No opera house. No Bondi Beach. No sunning celebs. This is Melbourne, home of Australia’s most thriving design scene.

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