Melbourne is a city of layers, with the best-kept secrets veiled beneath ever-changing skies and polite façades. International events like the F1 Grand Prix and the Australian Open tennis tournament greet visitors with exuberance, but the real Melbourne, like its inhabitants, is less overt and reveals itself reluctantly.
From its founding around 1835, Melbourne’s past can be traced in a fraying tapestry of historic buildings, from the Victorian boom time of the mid- to late 19th century, through the Federation era, during which the first unique Australian style was established, to the prosperous domestic idyll of the 1950s. Fragments of that modernist ideal can still be found, mostly in the sprawling suburbs, which have now joined former satellite towns to form one vast, flat mass of housing surrounding Port Phillip Bay.
Without the spectacular topography of Sydney or the sunny climes of Perth or Brisbane, this southern city has had to create its own character and, in doing so, has developed a healthy self-confidence. In the last decade, Melbourne has thrived, fostering a burgeoning creative force, which has radically changed the urban and cultural landscape. Architectural patrons, both civil and civic, have become increasingly adventurous, propelling the surge in cutting-edge buildings. The contemporary art scene is dynamic and innumerable festivals fill the calendar. In every alley, basement, and attic, enterprising spirits are creating hole-in-the-wall bars, multimedia galleries, collaborative design studios, and experimental dining experiences. They are neither obvious nor attention-seeking, but they bubble away beneath the surface of a prospering culture.
Capturing all of this manic energy on film gives photographer Peter Bennetts a virtual all-access pass to the city. The widely published, quietly spoken Bennetts shared his local favorites with Dwell.
There doesn’t seem to be the conformity in Melbourne that is apparent in other Australian cities. Do you think the city is enjoying an increased confidence in its architectural expression?
Absolutely. And we are relatively affluent. Opportunities abound. So you would expect creativity to flourish under such luxurious circumstances. We’ve got great design schools and, really, everything we have is as good as anywhere in the world. We all live on the coast looking out to the horizon and we know what’s behind us. From that position comes confident expression. The other thing about Australian creativity and architectural culture is that we’re well traveled. And yet we choose to come back. I’m a bit like Dorothy—I click my heels and say, "There’s no place like home."
Melbourne’s not as geographically impressive as Sydney, but are there still vistas that stop you in your tracks?
Flat Melbourne’s certainly not our flashy northern sister, but Sydney’s one shot. You’d photograph for a lifetime to get the essence of Melbourne. The Yarra River is really Melbourne’s chief geographical feature, but the city is more famous (rightly so) for its parks and gardens. The Carlton Gardens are home to the World Heritage–listed Royal Exhibition Building, and behind it is the Melbourne Museum, which symbolizes for me the resurgent confidence of the late 1990s. It is at once gray and colorful, low and soaring. On the south side of the Yarra is the Tan track, a 2.3-mile running track that circumnavigates the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here you can be passed, quickly, by the likes of Olympian Cathy Freeman while you see some great buildings, like architect Robin Boyd’s Royal Domain, a fine 1950s apartment tower, and the Shrine of Remembrance, perhaps Melbourne’s most recognizable building—certainly its most symbolic. I love that if all its vertical lines were projected, they would meet at a point 1.4 miles above the building. Why? I don’t know! From there you view the inner city down St. Kilda Road, Melbourne’s great boulevard. It’s here, more than anywhere else, where I feel the city’s continuously shifting light, weather, and seasons. And it’s from here, before the Princes Bridge, flanked by the King’s Domain and the National Gallery of Victoria, that I would choose to view this city.
As a photographer, what do you think makes Melbourne unique?
The ever-changing light. Here we famously get four seasons in one day, which can be a bit miserable in winter. Apart from being cold, it often rains, and the light is diffuse—the clouds are low and it’s not really an eerie fog that we get so much as just flat light. Whereas in summer the light here is what you would expect anywhere in Australia: It’s harsh and direct, provides great contrast, and is the ultimate revealer of form, like probing an object with a laser.
If you were to guide a visitor through the inner-city grid, where would you take them?
You have to walk to really see Melbourne; that way, you’ll get glimpses of notable architecture from the Victorian era through late postmodernism. Coasting down Flinders Lane you’ll catch framed views of Federation Square set against cobblestones—a public space that’s been widely embraced by Melburnians—and some Gothic revival and urban art projects. You’ll continue past Anna Schwartz’s serious contemporary art gallery, see the view south to Flinders Street Station and north to the neo-Gothic beauty Manchester Unity Building, and pull up at cafés, bars, and restaurants in Centre and Degraves lanes. It’s cool-hunter central!
Which of the city’s highlights have enduring appeal for you?
We talk a lot about Melbourne’s laneways. While there’s not any one you’d name over another, they’re an enduring legacy of our city’s founding fathers. Also, there are some of the best examples of Victorian building in the world here, like South Melbourne Town Hall and Melbourne Trades Hall. These public buildings are on the tops of hills and you get glimpses of them as you drive or [ride the] tram or walk around Melbourne. And you can’t forget Melbourne Gateway. You really know you’ve arrived when you drive down the Tullamarine Freeway, past "the cheese stick," through the speed tube. Visitors should get their digital camera ready for the drive into the city. It really sets you up for all that Melbourne can be.
Any great new public works?
Melbourne Museum, Federation Square, Southern Cross Station, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art by Wood Marsh are the best examples. I like to think that each is diametrically opposed to the others, and geographically they almost take up opposing sides of the city. It’s as if they’re better for the presence of the others; the total is more than the sum of the parts.
Where would you take a visitor?
Restaurants like il Solito Posto, which has Cose Ipanema (retail fashion) upstairs. For shopping streets, or suburbs, I’ll upset a few here by saying there’s really only Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and Fitzroy Street in St. Kilda. Brunswick Street has Melbourne’s best bookstore and eating institutions like Mario’s. Fitzroy Street is a must, with Albert Park Lake and the city skyline in the distance. Any visitor should go out to Healesville Sanctuary to see some Australian wildlife (wonderfully penned for your enjoyment!) and great contemporary architecture by people like Cassandra Fahey (Platypusary) and Minifie Nixon (Australian Wildlife Health Centre). I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where you can see injured wildlife being operated on and nursed back to health.