A Tale of Two Cities: Contradictory Melbourne

At Christmas I visited the Australian city of Melbourne, and I recently challenged Esther Sugihto, local resident, architect and landscape designer, as well as co founder of Melbourne Architours, to write a Melburnian’s narrative of her city, distilled into the local’s perspective.

I remember one evening walking back from the sports precinct and viewing Melbourne CBD from the Southbank of the Yarra, not to dissimilar to Esther’s first image. You have the full vista of the modern metropolis with its wall of tall glass and steel modern buildings. From this view you would believe that this is a cold spiritless city full of windswept corridors. Yet this idea could not be further from the truth as Esther goes on to talk about when referring to the little lanes. Breaking down that grid, breaking down those tall walls of buildings, cutting through here, slicing through there, joining up that alley to that one…one a well to do arcade filled with fancies…the other covered in the palimpsest of an age of graffiti and bill posters…another lined with tables, neon sides infused with the smells of the cafes and countertops of the foods of the world.


Esther goes on to state another contrast – retention of heritage buildings and the pushing to the fore of the new. One thing that stood out for me in Melbourne was the number of older properties that made up the cityscape. Many old factories, department stores, former buildings of the state retained and appropriated to a new use. Often that appropriation was a bold statement reflecting something of a creative fervour as the new modern surface treatments, parametric forms, and innovations with materials play out against ordering and formal stone facades.

As Esther suggests, “Writing factual information about buildings is not as difficult as describing a discourse when you’re intrinsically tied to it.” However the city she describes captures a few feelings I had about the city and a few more beyond that. During my time in Melbourne I was unable to take an Architour, however Esther provided some invaluable tips on the places to visit. But if you happen to be in Melbourne you can follow the link to book a tour. For now please enjoy this tale of two cities.

Robert Pike


A Tale of Two Cities

by Esther Sugihto


I live in Melbourne. Home is in Fitzroy and work is in South Yarra. I was born here and studied here, travelled extensively and lived overseas. Yet I come back to reside in this city of contrasts. Apart from being quite fortunate to have most fundamental systems in working order – healthcare, social security, education, tax, etc – we have the luxury of spending our time thinking towards better city planning, in all its facets.

So my view of Melbourne is this: out of any city in Australia, Melbourne is completely contradictory, yet chooses to embraces these tensions. Why do I say this? Here are some examples.



Its opportunism is borne out of the early illegal settlement culture, where free settlers from Tasmania chose to set up camp here, “buy” land from the local Aborigines, build upon the success of the gold rush and capitalise on the dizzying heights of Marvellous Melbourne in the 1880s! A population boom too fast to create order out of chaos – that was early Melbourne.

…yet planned


Given the rogue trader beginnings, the city had the benefit of foresight. Robert Russell’s survey demonstrates the service of a central business district 150 years prior to its need. We are lucky enough to have key figures throughout our architectural history, from William Wardell to Marcus Barlow, Robin Boyd to Rob Adams, who champion the true development of architecture of purpose and authenticity above style or dress to continue the character of the city.



As the population grows, so too does the need to curb the developer extremists. A stickler for the rules, each new release of the building regulations brings tighter controls that forces us to either a) reject the rules and request copious dispensations, or b) reinterpret the rules through lateral thinking. Coupled with a defined planning scheme across 78 municipalities, there are tough reins to negotiate for even the smallest renovation project. And then there’s those that default to VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal).

…yet explores loopholes


Among all this, Melbourne breeds a culture of design. We see it as the ability to take seemingly overwhelming competing interests and holistically solve the issues into our designs. AAMI Park by Cox Architects is one recent example – architecture and engineering intrinsically tied. Graeme Gunn’s cluster housing estates in the 1970s is another – density, housing and community. Even the Small Homes Service describes an architectural solution of supply of post war housing in the 1950s by producing affordable housing plans via the local newspaper to encourage a revival of the building industry.

Think global…


Sure, Melbourne is not the pre-eminent international city in Australia, however when the building industry was in decline, Melbourne architects travelled on the wages of taxi drivers and bartenders, learning from the current day movements at the time and not being scared to test it out locally. William Butterfield designed St Paul’s Cathedral in the 1850s. Harry Norris changed his design direction after a trip to the States (funded

by GJ Coles!) to produce the Spanish mission Majorca House. Bates Smart and McCutcheon designed ICI House at the same time when New York received Mies’ Seagram Building. And Federation Square is the closest thing Australia will get to deconstructivism.

…act local


Melbourne doesn’t have great topography. There are no scenic mountains, no dramatic cleft falls to a bay, no central lake. Given the natural shortcomings, it is resigned to look beyond the surface to other benefits. The development of our laneways is partially accidental, but wholly purposed also. The little lanes, originally not part of the Russell’s (and later Robert Hoddle’s) Melbourne was actually forced by the then Governor Bourke for means of refuse collection. Now, with a combination of factors such as the Postcode 3000 push, dirt cheap liquor licenses, the prevalence of overseas student life, Jan Gehl’s review of the city, and the patronage of the citizens through foot traffic (amongst others) we now have activation in even the most unlikely of laneway spaces.


The urban neighbourhoods that developed around the time of the tram network installation also allows for 19th century shopping strips that now are the new local town centres. Melbourne isn’t one for public squares (allowing protests and expression to free radicals? I think not!), so the strips from Smith Street to Sydney Road, Chapel Street to Clarendon Street is where we go to commune, shop, eat, reflect and experience our local city.

Also, we push forward the cause of local architects, so much so that many interstate buildings are now done by “another Melbourne architect.” And then we reiterate this on 3RRR’s The Architects radio program.


OldPaddy'sMarket01 Windsor Hotel Melbourne 04

While not restricted to Melbourne, the cause of heritage here is rampant. Over levels of government (Heritage Victoria, National Trust, Heritage Overlays through the planning scheme) through to well-funded community action groups (Geoffrey Rush, Melbourne Heritage Action Group) to protection beyond architecture (Trust Trees, monuments), there is the understated case that existing conditions is best practice. We will rally for preservation of our buildings and lament the loss of the Federal Coffee House, Australia Hotel, and even Lonsdale House of late (yet collectively skip over the demise of the Gas and Fuel Towers). Melbourne was the richest city during the boom time years – let us not forget it.

…yet ephemeral


On the flipside, because we are so opportunistic, we have embraced the instant gratification culture with fervour and excitement. Wood Marsh’s bridge from Spencer Street to Docklands lasted just two years. ARM’s additions in the 1990s to Roy Grounds’ Arts Centre was demolished recently to make way for another ARM project. The pivotal cermonious corner entrance to Melbourne Central completed in 2006 has just been reconfigured. KTA’s restrained interior fitour of the Ah-Mu restaurant at the top end of Bourke – blink and you’ll miss it. And Hassell recently won an award at the International Interior Design Awards for their Chasing Kitsune pop up Japanese sake bar that was roving around this city for two weeks during last year’s State of Design Festival. Yet, we love this temporal nature of time through all design disciplines – fashion (SOME space), food (Taco Truck, Beatbox Kitchen), retail (Matt Gibson’s The Co-op), drink (RoofPOP!, Black Coffee), the list goes on.


Where does this leave us? I’m resigned to a life of tensions. Hoping for the best, yet expecting the worst. I live positively optimistic about the potential of design to revitalise a locality, yet spend hours justifying the use of louvred screens to one neighbour. We’ll explore the prospect of a new construction method, only to have it as a steel framed structure due to inability to receive certification. Yet, an innate desire to see something extraordinary come to pass beckons – a purple cow as Seth Godin may say. I feel that this is the tension that Melbourne explores so fervently. I can only hope that as a visitor, you will look past the lack of the iconic and learn to read between the lines.



5 Responses to “A Tale of Two Cities: Contradictory Melbourne”

  1. Mark on August 1st, 2012

    melbourne sounds awesome! i love contradiction :-)

  2. Lee on August 22nd, 2012

    I think Melbourne as a city is beautiful. It just requires some digging and searching to find those architectural treasures.

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