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Wanted: A little bit of common sense
Russell Degnan

"It is easy to have a big idea. It is harder to have a vision. Great cities need visionaries. Melbourne needs one, or more, for the Docklands."

So began the introductory article to The Age's latest hobby horse. If you know your urban history you may be scratching your head at the idea of visions. Oh sure, there is Baron Haussman and Sixtus V, and we all admire the layouts of Willam Penn, Colonel William Light, and perhaps even the unrealised vision of Christopher Wren. But mostly, cities are made up of the slow accretion of different parts, each reflecting something of the owner of the part, and the city itself.

Unless we are talking about the Docklands. If it is the Docklands then it is the unloved and unloveable "vision" of a few politicians and developers, each more interested in turning the poor place into a theme park for their own aggrandizement. Instead of focusing on tedious but essential things, like integration into its surroundings, or personalised space or (terrible idea, I know) community services, Docklands wants to be a ... place.

And The Age editors, thinking that they are somewhat more than they actually are, or ever will be, are happy to push their barrow out and over the end of Victoria Pier. If only to feel that they are contributing to a public debate that, if not unnecessary, shouldn't be yet another slice of cultural cringe.

Not that there is much debate. Having already announced in the headline that Docklands, nay Melbourne, needs an "icon", they then claim that

"Today we carry the views and suggestions from leading architects and urban planners who endorse our call for a spirited public debate -- one that should first identify what type of city we want Melbourne to be."

And here I was thinking that Melbourne knew exactly what it wanted to be! It is, now, if not forever more, an elegant, graceful, quiet and unpretentious city, photogenic in a way that Sydney's [1] narrow streets don't allow it to be; a place that hides and often keeps it's secrets, that can be ugly (as can all cities) and in which iconic, recognisable buildings exist, but only as part of the general milieu.

Some people clearly don't think that Melbourne should be as Melbourne is however, preferring instead that it dress itself up in drag and debase itself for the precious tourist dollar. So much so, that The Age even plays its readers for fools:

"In 1969, it launched a competition to find a design for the bomb site at Collins and Swanston streets."

What they mean here is the notoriously, though happily, finally, reasonable City Square. Except it wasn't a bomb site until after a serious of gross council mistakes led them to first, reject the current site of Federation Square as the place for a public space; then second, to buy up and demolish the buildings on the site, except for the Regent Theatre under protest from concerned citizens; meaning that, finally, the "bomb site" did not begin to be made into an obnoxious concrete jungle until 1976. Hardly an endorsement of the paper's urban bona fides.

Leaving aside the incongruity of Melbourne being in need of an icon, it is worth considering whether it might want one regardless. Norman Day is quoted as saying the Victoria Docks would be perfect, claiming that:

"Rarely does there exist a site in Melbourne which is highly visible and obviously suitable for the building of an icon."

Except one would think that there is more to visibility than having a clear view from the Bolte Bridge. People for example, particularly pedestrians, of which there are precious few in Docklands, them having to walk 2km from the actual pedestrian areas of Melbourne, throught he law district, the railyards and Docklands itself. It is not so obviously suitable, because in terms of urban spaces, it is not Times Square, but Battery Point, not Circular Quay, but Mrs Macquarie's Chair; a place for reflection and some nice photographs.

Nor do we have anything to put there: an opera house, a museum of some description, a cultural centre? Melbourne has these, elsewhere. It has no more need of them than it does a statue of a white elephant.

When considering what should be built on the Victoria Docks site it is much better to consider what is really needed, and what a site that is central to the Docklands, but little else really offers. That, for mind, is public amenity. it has been mentioned many times that Docklands lacks community facilities. Parks full of art posing as something useful? Plenty. But a place to play basketball or tennis, a school, a library, a child-care centre, or a bog standard shopping strip? None to speak of.

If Docklands is to be saved from being the dreary, inaccessible tourist district it currently is, then the Victoria Docks should be used for as many random things as can be jammed into it. Take the sheds, split them into as many odd sizes as can be found, and rent them out to any takers. Turn the tip into a park, for sitting, gazing and reflecting.

Spare us from an "icon".

[1] And let's be honest, this is really about the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, no?

Planning 8th August, 2006 19:11:28   [#] 


Take the sheds, split them into as many odd sizes as can be found, and rent them out to any takers.

I really like this idea. Turn the old dance club venues into cheap artists digs.Open air workiing galleries,with accomodation for the artists in behind. Needs to be cheap though.
Andrew  9th August, 2006 23:44:40  

Wanted: A little bit of common sense
thanks Andrew. The price is why you need diversity. A million dollar apartment funds a lot of lesser spaces as long as they co-exist, and makes both of them better.
Russ  11th August, 2006 00:42:34  


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