After 12 years in the Isthmus studio the guys and Katrina decided that they needed a break so I went to take the air in Melbourne while the others rested up back home. It was no hardship to be fair but I hope they appreciate the utter disregard for personal safety that I displayed in attempting to understand this most interesting of antipodean cities from the viewpoint that a city is an organism with a beating urban heart and that I needed to be near it.
In this sense the primary organ was the nightclub downstairs from my room near Flinders Station, dub-step through the night interspersed with the screech, ring and rattle of trams and relieved at 5 am by the jack hammers of the new working day. Loved it.. yes, great to be back in a largish city…yes again.
Melbourne has a bicycle share system, evidently not liked by locals but I noticed several tourists using it and I questioned a couple who pronounced the bikes entirely usable. For myself I prefer to travel incognito and I obtained a set of wheels courtesy of Matt at the Humble Vintage. With a modest but Melbourne authentic fleet, an excellent guidebook featuring the must sees of art, music, coffee and beer as well as input from local creative professionals and some ye old bicycle history, the book provides an excellent source of ideas and insight making Matt’s sideline project an astute winner. With his personal recommendation on the best laneway coffee I headed down to Jungle Juice on Centre Place and reengaged with my espresso habit (3 per day anyone) and perched on a plastic drinks crate I chatted with the inhabitants and watched the world go by on a fine Anzac day morning.
On the subject of live music I was pointed in the direction of Brunswick, just go I was advised, listen at each bar and find one you like..well that’s a strategy I know, back in the burbs as teenagers before cell phones were invented we did just that, drove around, stopped the car and listened for a party.. no problem. The 80′s get a mention, not sure if I miss them, lived through it, but hey who wouldn’t want to be… again.
And I think that is my approach, you know it is easy as a a design professional to cultivate a detached critical view, but for me that veers to close to design as a clinical enterprise and avoids to my mind a very necessary engagement. I think design should grow from the organic and that means sometimes getting your hands dirty, being part of something, talking to people, living life in the raw, getting sore feet from walking and in the case of Melbourne enjoying the culture and nightlife that the city has to offer. It is a friendly place; the late nights and quiet streets felt safe, the people were polite.
The motorists were incredibly polite, in fact coming from the cut-and-thrust of Auckland traffic I could not believe it. You know I am used to the Darwinism that passes for traffic management in New Zealand, but Australia if Melbourne is anything to go by did not inherit the English thing. I know the English thing as described by Bella Bathurst in her book creatively entitled ‘The Bicycle Book’ …. I lived in London, I broke the speed limit and raced all comers on my trusty scooter, so there were times when the polite thing got a bit much, I am sorry Melbourne, I jay walked, did random lost tourist U-turns on my bike and accidentally crashed a few red lights. I promise to be better next time.. don’t tell my kids..and all power to you. Plenty of traffic though, not all smooth running below the surface and in the suburbs. That said Melbourne has some great cycleways and on road cycling infrastructure. Much of it is the painted white line but it works. Over and above that there are dedicated cycle and pedestrian paths along the Yarra River, along the St Kilda waterfront, through Docklands and along the Railway corridor.. almost everywhere.
There are several places in her book ‘The Life and Death of Great American Cities” where Jane Jacobs talks about the very fine grained life of the street which is an ecology of sorts, an urban ecology which is not a literal ecology i.e not about bugs and trees, but all about human social and spatial interaction, the meeting of a multitude of human needs and economic functions based around built form, community and long view investment. When I looked at the built form, social and economic fabric of a place like Brunswick just north of the CBD, I can see (I think clearly) where Jacobs was coming from. Mine is a voyeuristic view restricted to, relatively speaking, a single moment in time and by necessity an – a priori – filling in the gaps with broad swaths of colour, of course to suit. But anyway, and I find it personally comforting, that the multitude and diversity of street life, old establishment, Victorian terrace housing of the formally well to do and even limited 1960′s modernistic housing projects all contribute to the economic and social well being of the city, and by extension its ability to operate globally as a bona fide creative livable city. There are aspects of all the ‘big’ New Zealand city’s in Melbourne and then some. Sadly I saw a lot of Christchurch that was, and yeah it was a sobering moment.
For a Landscape Architect the Southbank and Docklands are key areas of interest and that is not to say by default that they are any good, but rather that is where the work is and by the look of it has been over the last ten to fifteen years. Everything in terms of outcomes is represented, some of it is looking smart, some of it is looking worn and to be fair some of it looking driven by the procurement of iterative small scale projects rather than a cohesive single vision. Sadly that is not so different from New Zealand. There were examples of cool street scale architectural projects which had impeccable form but in the urban context just attracted a dubious clientele evidence by the broken glass and worse. Again we also have that in New Zealand. There was public art in the form of landscape architecture that advised the route to the nearest playground and please parents keep your children off. Hmm not going to happen on my watch, designers beware, I can introduce my own personal deconstruction team..so don’t get too precious. All of the above said, I enjoyed the skyline, the horizon of the Yarra as it opens to the sea and the gestures of the build form. There were plenty of people even on a Sunday morning using the cycle ways pedestrian routes for exercise even if the empty intervening space was in direct contrast with the bustle of the central city and inner settlements.
On my final day I took a long walk which encompassed the National Gallery (of Victoria) where my favorite works were the shields bearing images of the Phantom (ghost who walks) presented as a totem in all seriousness and achieving the very best mix of tradition and pop art, to the ACCA gallery an enormous cor-ten structure with an indistinct entrance which turned out to be closed. Fortunately the graffiti, and I hesitate to use the word as in Melbourne the attitude seems to be one of street art, more than made for any internal inaccessibility with classics like ‘what is art” and ‘Camille likes …”, scratched into the cor-ten. The MONASH school of art backed this institution and in turn was backed by the training barracks for the mounted police. The image of knights in day glow was perhaps the best evidence of life imitating art I have seen for some time. Nevertheless feeling disheveled and overly caffeinated I took the adjacent side street. Similarly the 4 metre wide decomposed granite path through the Queen Victoria gardens was extensively utilized by runners with some serious heavy breathing being evident and I was mindful of the need for urban recreational infrastructure in our cites. Gordon Price laboured on this point in his Auckland talk, he is right but I like to think he is preaching to the converted as far as the profession is concerned.
Lastly the best off the cuff happening was when I returned to Brunswick via Birrarung Marr and Fitzroy Gardens. I walked in to a pub to ease my feet and found on the second floor an informal store selling vinyl (LPs) and that for me is it, the sheer scope of opportunity that is available on a random basis as an experience which is positive and place affirming, that is the mark of a city.
Sean was sent to Melbourne by Isthmus in recognition of his 12 years of service. He likes vinyl and vintage bicycles.