Where has all the good architecture gone?

By Antony Di Mase

There is one problem – there have been few good pieces of architecture built here in the past five years.

  This is a shame as the Central Activity Centre has been the heartbeat of Melbourne architecture.

For generations Melbourne has re-defined itself from gold rush extravagances to mid-century elegances to a thoroughly modern city that balances between old and new. 

Not so long ago, Melbourne saw projects like Federation Square, Monaco House, Melbourne’s council offices, the Urban Workshop, the Federal Law Courts and Melbourne Terrace as well as other exemplary projects redefined architecture in Melbourne.

These projects give something back to our city.

They are generous.  These buildings blur the public and private domain, so that the experience of the city is continuous and unfolding.

I did not realise it at the time, however the 1990s and early 2000s were a time of vitality and excellence in their architecture. 

Public and private projects were more innovative, and yet were built on the tradition of Melbourne’s civic and cultural values. Nowadays, real estate signage shouts “iconic” – yet there is sameness to it all – concrete, glass and tall buildings that give little to the public domain.

The new atrium at 171 Collins St is an exception. This fine example of corporate interior architecture plays with daylight, glass and stone.  It is an elegant reminder of our modernist tradition in city office foyers. 

Innovation is also occurring on narrow sites and the new Phoenix apartments in Flinders St and at the architects’ headquarters on Exhibition St.

So what is happening? 

What role does property values play? 

Have project managers “value-managed” design innovation out of architecture?

Is the planning system too constraining?

Does the planning minister have too much power? 

Does the Victorian Government Architect playing a meaningful role?

Good architecture is a collective responsibility and architecture has a role to play in defining the city and place we want.  Whatever the reasons for the dearth of good architecture in Melbourne’s Central Activity District – it is a failure.

It is a failure of the planning system to integrate good design into its performance measures and there is a failure by developers to invest in innovation.

Every new project has the opportunity to do one of two things – either give or take something away. 

The Post Office steps, for instance, gives a place for people to sit and enjoy the sunshine, whereas a shiny, glass high-rise tower takes away valuable sunlight away from the street or park below. 

In recent times we are seeing too many buildings contribute little to the city – relying on what took generations to make.

Architecture in the city says a great deal of our aspirations as a people.  It helps define who we are and who we seek to be.

Perhaps the election of the new State Government provides an opportunity to redress this situation.

As the new Planning Minister, Richard Wynne should hand responsibility solely to the Melbourne City Council to administer urban planning matters in a socially-inclusive way.

We need to whole-heartedly invest in architects, landscape architects, lighting designers and interior designers over project managers and developers to design our city buildings for people and a sustainable future.

Let’s discuss homelessness, affordability and sustainability in relation to our city. 

We need to envisage a city with ideas of scale, form and mass and a rich exploration of architecture.

Call me naïve, but just as quickly as people are drawn to our wonderful city, they can be turned away when it becomes expensive, cold, windy and just plain bland.  Let’s not let this happen.

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