I am amazed by the architecture of Melbourne. Recently I walked from the end of Flinders St to Docklands and there were countless occasions where I just had to stop, and stare. Everywhere the city is jostling for attention, and it gets it. The new Melbourne buildings seem to be endlessly fascinated with colour, wonky triangles, facades that drape and fold and generally seek to obscure the floor to floor striations. There are buildings with abscess-like chunks eaten out of them, with jagged pointy bits, with floor plates stacked irregularly like a tower of blocks made by a toddler (and that aren’t necessarily representative of the actual floor plates). A lot of it has a kind of whimsical, clever beauty. Some of it is straight up ha ha funny.
At times I felt like I was seeing a city for the first time, wandering the streets with a gormless look on my face like I’ve just walked in off the farm. Which I haven’t of course. I live in Sydney. But it does make me wonder. What is the point of all this cleverness? Is it a kind of architectural reaction to the regularity of Melbourne’s grid of streets and it’s relatively controlled scale (so lovely!)? A kind of rebellion or contrariness that says’ I’ll show you what I can do to your precious grid! Take that!’ Without the grid, say in Sydney, it would be more crass, less clever-dick and more casino.
But it isn’t just the new architecture either. There’s precedence for all this showing off. Looking at the older buildings I noticed that a lot of them had all the detail of a goldfields showgirl who married extremely well; gold gilt, gargoyles, garish detail upon garish detail, layer upon layer in the facades. While at first I was thinking that eventually there would have to be a backlash against all the wonk of the new, I came to see that the circus of colour and ornamentation has historical context. These new algorithm obsessed buildings are being conservative, in that they are continuing a tradition.
The end of my journeying bought me to the new Docklands Library. I wonder what Melbournians think of it. It is a multi-storey timber building; both frame and cladding in timber, designed by Kerry and Lindsay Clare. It has a pragmatic shape, a simple plan and a confident control of materiality. After all the one-up-man-ship I’d seen on the way it seemed to be not trying so hard to create an outward impression. It uses a regular grid, set by the timber columns and beams and the planning works with this grid, not against it. Stairs and circulation down the middle, books to the right, study spaces, meeting rooms and a ping-pong table on a carpet of fake grass to the left. It seems well used for a Thursday afternoon, but it is quiet, really quiet. My squeaky shoes are an embarrassment to me as I wander around, trying to look at the building, but getting distracted by the books. Books! Loads of them! Lots of them face out! I have to make an effort to pay attention to the building. And that is a wonderful endorsement of this building, or of any building; that the purpose for which it is built overrides the architecture.
I wonder if all the colour and movement of the Melbourne CBD is partially a cover for the fact that they are largely dull office buildings? The purpose excites no one, so the architecture tries to compensate?
I suppose if I lived here I would get used to it, but in the short time I’ve been here I’m already tired of it. Should a city’s architecture be so demanding, so draining? Or should it, like the Docklands Library, provide a frame, a setting and the required shelter and amenity and then stand back and let the real show of life go on?
For some more beautiful photos of the Docklands Library see here (apologies for lack of photo credit);
Dogtrot House by Dunn & Hillam Architects win best House in Australia under 200m2 2014.
Dog shadows. Wednesday morning. On route to the Single origin Roasters Mothership, Botany
Apologies for the vertical video- address complaints to the dog…or the sun.