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October 15, 2009

My last full day in Melbourne, Australia, was one to which I’d been looking forward—not because I was happy to leave the Vegemite and ceaseless “How are you goings?” behind, but because I was to get the grand tour of town from a pair of opinionated, knowledgeable, sap-filled young architects: Andrew Maynard  and Kevin Hui of 4site Architecture and moderator of the online forum Push Pull Bar.

melbourne australia journal canteen

Those paying particularly close attention to my dispatches from Melbs might remember that I had dinner with Andrew and Kevin the night I arrived in the inner suburb of Carlton. We got on famously and I was quite happy to be back with this pair for a whole day of wandering about.

We met at the café Journal Canteen, a nicely wrought spot attached to the City Library (Mr. Tulk is another well-designed café at the State Library of Victoria proving that Melbournians take their restaurant design nearly as seriously as their passion for borrowed books) designed by my other new pal, Emilio Fuscaldo of Nest Architects and graphic designer Rabindra Naidoo. I tucked into a pair of crumpets and honey (ah to be abroad!) and once through we headed out into the cold, windy morning.

melbourne australia breakfast

A shot of Mr. Tulk is at top, and here are my crumpets.

Nearly immediately Andrew and Kevin set to mapping our itinerary, second-guessing one another and generally dispatching enough insider Melbournian architect jive to make me feel as though I’d been eavesdropping on John Denton  (of the famed Denton Corker Marshall) for the last decade. As it happens one of Denton’s firm’s early works, the Adelphi Hotel on Little Collins Street (all post-mod color and form) happens to be next to where Denton lives. Turns out the man was bothered by the noise from the rooftop bar and had it closed down. A little sweet-talk to the women at the front desk got us the guided tour of the Adelphi, including access to the roof pool that stretches over the street, as well as a look inside the rooms and the spa. Here Andrew and Kevin investigate how the pool is holding up.

melbourne australia adelphi hotel

Another highlight of the morning was the Capitol Theater built in 1924 by Walter Burley Griffin, a Wrightian Chicago architect who built a fair bit in Melbourne and was commissioned to do all of Canberra. The details are smack out of the FLW playbook, and when taken with his work at the Melbourne Uni—a residential college I checked out a few days before—and the sympathy each have with the Chicago Tribune Building-inspired Manchester Unity tower by Raymond Barlow just down from the theater, Griffin surely gets the nod as the city’s proto-modern forefather. Check out the detail at the ceiling for a glimpse of Griffin's style. The ceiling of the theater is really the thing to see, though we only barely snuck in thanks to a kindly guard who told us if we didn't interrupt the training held inside we could look around.

melbourne australia theater

From there we walked over to Federation Square where Kevin gave me the lowdown on Lab Architecture's  plans, execution and materials on the complex. We toured the Aussie art gallery there, though Andrew and Kevin were far less keen on the art itself than inspecting the joinery, disputing over the merits of a staircase and pointing out where a Lab architect was once caught on TV excoriating an otherwise calm and lucid builder over a floor tile. Suffice it to say, I was in heaven.

Just behind Fed Square we stopped in on Six Degrees, a firm where Andrew used to work, which is responsible for many Melbourne’s rather hip bars, such as Caboose on City Square and Riverland Bar just next to their office. Their riverside digs are in a series of rounded-brick vaults that give onto the pedestrian walk just north of the Yarra. We talked shop with Peter Malatt, lingered over a cup of coffee and finally made our way over the river to check out Hamer Concert Hall, the Arts Center, and the National Gallery of Victoria by Melbournian Roy Grounds. The pair lamented that the courtyards that once defined the interior of the National Gallery had been filled in, though they still like the building. “I rate it,” said Andrew, one of the highest forms of approbation I’ve yet heard from an Aussie architect.
 
We then headed through part of the Victoria College of the Arts campus to check out a building that Andrew worked on before heading down to the Australian Center for Contemporary Art.

melbourne australia corten building facade

This large, rusty Cor-Ten steel building bore a striking resemblance to the Jawas’ sand crawlers from Star Wars, structures that Andrew had mentioned as his favorite buildings a few nights back. Too much local pinot or too much Lucas? Unclear.

I rather liked the ACCA myself, a free museum by Wood/Marsh Architecture from 1998. We went inside just to check out the interior, but were immediately pulled into an exhibition called The Dwelling which turned out to be first-rate. A series of meditations on residential space, the pieces ranged from a rave-like model of the Farnsworth House by Callum Morton to a large installation of record players, Tannoys and jumbled bric-a-brac in a boxy, plywood room.

melbourne australia yellow peril portrait

One of the real treats of ACCA was what lay just outside of it, easily the most controversial piece of public art in Melbournian history. The Vault by Ron Robertson-Swan is a bit of origami writ large in metal and a vibrant paint job. Installed in City Square (a plaza at Swanston and Collins) in 1980, it was promptly dubbed “The Yellow Peril” and so roundly vilified that it was moved within the year to Batman Park. 2002 saw its “rehabilitation” and now it sits outside ACCA, just in front of a massive stack that ventilates an underground tunnel.

I’d heard of the Yellow Peril before, but after seeing it it’s hard to imagine that this so-so bit of public art inspired such opprobrium when much of what passes for public sculpture in Melbourne—yes you, wire figures on the far bank of the river—is significantly worse.

Our trio hopped a cab then back into the Central Business District for some top-drawer dumplings off Little Bourke, a beer at the outdoor bar Section 8 and more of the tour. Here are Andrew and Kevin at Section 8.

melbourne australia Little Bourke portrait

We went into Melbourne Central which is a shopping center based around the old Shot Tower. The tower itself is still around, though a massive early 90’s cone from Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa soars above the old structure. An addition from local boys Ashton Raggett McDougall layer another architectural era over the existing structures.

melbourne australia shot tower Kisho Kurokawa

By this time it was getting on to 4 o'clock, and we three came to a very serious fork in the road: carry on with a stop into Curtin House to check the shops or head to Kev’s in North Melbourne for a Beatle’s Rock Band sesh.
 
Two songs in I’d deduced that Kev drums as well as Ringo, Andrew plays guitar a bit worse than Ringo and I sing just a bit better than Ringo. Suffice it to say, we crushed “Do You Want to Hear a Secret.”
 
From there it was back to the hotel to meet up with Peter Janssen of Tourism Victoria for dinner at Vue du Monde, a spot just round the corner from my hotel that is routinely rated as the best restaurant in Melbourne, no mean feat in a proper foodie town.
 
Vue du Monde’s fare was properly local, properly delicious and straight from the haute cuisine manual. Deconstructed cheesecakes; foie gras paired with pancetta, small slices of heavenly French toast and a green apple paste; a cocktail that literally turned to small stalagmite of ice when the waiter poured water over it; and egg yolk done three ways inside the shell were just a taste of the nine courses that awaited us.
 
Sufficiently stuffed I induced Peter into a post-prandial and my final bit of design tourism: a late-night ramble through Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s Southern Cross Station. The undulating roof was something to behold, though it’s network of burly supports were just as fluid. But lest we aesthetes write the joint off little more than a marvel of engineering (Fie on function, say we twee lot. Move us!), Sir Nick included a rather odd pair of yellow rectangles sitting on stilts to house the station’s office space.

melbourne australia Southern Cross Station

They look like large toys, to be frank, but I appreciate the playful nod when dealing with something as serious as regional transport, though one wonders if the trains stop running on time if these yellow blobs mightn’t find themselves in peril as well. They’re a tough crowd, Melbournians. They charmed me though.
 
Off to bed. Miserably early flight tomorrow, mitigated, I hope, by a little tour of Marc Newson’s Qantas Lounge in Sydney. We’ll see what the old boy has been up to and if the spot offers more than just fancy pastries. I’d reckon that by the time I arrive a shower is what I’ll really be longing for. 

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