Melbourne was recently voted the most liveable city in the world by the Economist, whose liveability rankings have long been a joke because they obviously equate liveability with speaking English (there is no fucking way Perth is the seventh most liveable city in the world.) Monocle’s more opened-minded survey ranks it #5, and last year Mercer ranked it #18. So clearly it is a pretty neat city – as long as you don’t go more than ten kilometres from the CBD, beyond which it becomes the same bland Aussie suburbia that can be found from Bunbury to Bundaberg.
The Age recently conducted its own survey to see which is the most liveable suburb in “the world’s most liveable city.” Of 318 suburbs examined, my suburb of Sunshine West comes in at 233. Crime, lack of trees, poor public transport, distance from the CBD and the bay, and lack of shops and restaurants all hurt it.
There are two factors the survey didn’t take into account, which Sunshine West would rank poorly in anyway, but which I think were serious omissions. The first is pollution. Sunshine West sits at the edge of the largest industrial estate in the metropolitan area, and the smell is quite often “noticeable” (if we’re being polite). There is a pollution measurement station on my street, aerials and instruments humming away, which is kind of like seeing regular police patrols in your neighbourhood. It’s good that the authorities are concerned for your welfare, but the fact that they need to be is worrying.
The second is architectural aesthetics. By the standards of the study, an old-established suburb that has existed for hundreds of years has no benefits over one in which every structure was erected in 2010. Apart from trees, topography and distance to the city and bay, the study makes no allowance for things unrelated to infrastructure. Although it admits that “liveability” is a nebulous notion, it seems to argue that a vibrant city and a liveable neighbourhood could be scientifically designed and built.
Compare Southbank and Docklands to South Yarra and Collingwood. Compare Canary Wharf to Bloomsbury. Compare Atlantic Yards to Greenwich Village. Which of these areas are indisputably the heart and soul of their respective cities? Which of them, on the other hand, feel like generic committee-designed redevelopment projects where everything, even the roads and footpaths, was built from scratch and is unsettlingly new? A Ballardian landscape of skin-crawlingly clean modern architecture?
Architecture is something I’ve been thinking more and more about in the past few years. It’s a field in which I have no education or experience, merely a bundle of deep-seated feelings I find difficult to express. I instinctively lash out against brand new apartment buildings and McMansions, with their maroon-and-purple colouring and interior design dominated by straight lines and white space. It’s boring and ugly. I see more beauty in a run-down brick factory with graffitti stencils and broken windows than I do in a white Mirvac Fini apartment building in Docklands with a thousand identical balconies.
Why is this? Are new things objectively less beautiful? Buildings in bygone eras – Victorian, Edwardian, whatever – had a tendency to add decoration. The spires of the Forum Theatre, the brick pyramids atop each storefront along Sydney Road, the splendour of Flinders Street Station, the cornices and cupolas that adorn the buildings of the central city. Modern structures seem to be built with cost in mind – ease (and therefore cheapness) of assembly, of maintenance, of cleaning. The walls of Southbank’s towering structures are lined with plain white slabs; they remind me of China’s grown-overnight white-tiled cities. But surely capitalism was no less entrenched in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? Have we entered hyper-capitalism? Has the almighty dollar become even more vital than it was in times gone by? This is the intersection of two completely different sciences, neither of which I know much about.
Roger Ebert, in an article on the decline of architecture far more articulate than mine, seems to agree that finance is the one and only factor these days:
I walk around Chicago, and look up at buildings of variety and charm. I walk into lobbies of untold beauty. I ascend in elevators fit for the gods. Then I walk outside again and see the street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains, scornful of beauty. Here I squat! they declare. I am Chase! I am Citibank! I am Payless Shoe Source! I don’t speak to my neighbors. I have no interest in pleasing those who walk by. I occupy square footage at the lowest possible cost. My fixtures can be moved out overnight. I am capital.
Eureka Tower obviously shows some more thought and imagination than the rest of Southbank – perhaps a concession that, as the tallest building in the country, it was going to draw the eye, so they should at least put in some effort – and it’s not outright awful. But does it compare to an Empire State Building – or even a Rialto, or a 120 Collins Street? Stylistically it’s in line with Federation Square or those jutting sticks on the north-south Citylink. Modern architecture, when it does try to show flair or individuality rather than the cheapest available option, seems to embrace whatever looks the most garish or unnatural.
Yet I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m biased, and in one hundred years’ time people will be doing their damndest to preserve the buildings I hate now, and decrying whatever monstrosities the architects of the day are putting up. Is it the newness itself that causes my dislike for these buildings and places? When the Age interviewed Robyn Annear for the liveable suburbs coverage, she had this to say:
If I were adding indicators, it would be something intangible about the past and a sense of what happened in a place before, and being able to see that authentically, not through plaques. There are still some really old, left-alone things among the multi-storey townhouses, some weird gargoyles, places that offer evidence that there was something quirky going on in the minds of the people who built them. There are these layers that speak to me about what the place was once like.
This reminded me of something William Gibson once said, regarding Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner vision of a realistic future city:
The simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps — just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life — it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.
Southbank and Docklands may be rich and desirable neighbourhoods, but there’s a certain stigma to them for their newness. More judgemental Melburnians look at them as they do Sydney – being all about glitz and money, lacking some certain vital aspect that makes old neighbourhoods like Carlton and Fitzroy more appealing. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I had a choice between a townhouse in Fitzroy or an apartment in Southbank, I know what I’d choose. Some places lack stories, legends, a past. They’re designed by committee, funded by private investors out to make as much money as possible or government bodies trying to “re-develop” areas to get re-elected. They are neighbourhoods created from scratch, by people who should not be in the business of creating neighbourhoods. Perhaps because nobody should, or can, be in that business. Neighbourhoods should create themselves.
Gentrification is an inevitable and not entirely negative process. But it bothers me when developers move into an old neighbourhood and demolish old structures. In Footscray they are tearing down factories and warehouses from the 1930s to make way for ugly, identical, brand new apartment blocks (you can have your choice of white, grey or maroon). In Fitzroy I once visited a warehouse apartment, with brick walls and catwalk balconies. It’s not necessary to throw away the past to repurpose the present. It can be preserved, and it is better to do so. Maybe not cheaper, but better.
I think the disconnect I feel with modern architecture is a combination of both factors. I think modern architectural design is objectively ugly. Even when something is clean and neat and not particularly offensive, it’s boring. White cubes are boring. Big glass windows, if they only give a view of a hundred identical Mirvac Fini apartment towers, are boring. Clean blank space is boring. And a neighbourhood in which absolutely everything was built a few years ago – no matter how well designed, no matter how many cafes and restaurants and bookstores it has – will always feel a bit too much like a hospital or a government office. Utilitarian, sterile, lacking that vital connection to what came before it.
And I am surely not the only one who thinks that. I’ve quoted from several above, and the existence of preservation groups and the price of 19th century townhouses in Melbourne must be evidence that this opinion is, if not majority, at least widespread. Why can we not build old buildings that look like new buildings? I see the refurbishments and conversions of old, dilapidated buildings into new apartment blocks, which is good, but when something is built from scratch it’s either a McMansion or a glass and steel Southbank rectangle. Where has the vision gone? Have we lost our ability to design beautiful things? Or do we just not care?