Melbourne, Venice and the shop window

The first thing you might notice about the Melbourne General Post Office is that it is no longer a post office. It has been adapted by my firm, Williams Boag Architects, to create an historic and aesthetically pleasing, upscale shopping centre. The former postal hall was an ideal vessel for the creation of large retail space, and the delicate glass boxes that intrude into the room do not distract from its primary shape and volume.

One thing that I have noticed about the GPO, as it is called, is that it is not similar to the buildings framing Piazza San Marco in Venice in many respects, and yet there is a thread of something linking the two. The impression is fleeting, and primarily a consequence of the arched colonnade that extends along Elizabeth Street, wrapping around the southern end of the building alongside Bourke Street. There is a cafe under the colonnade, and when I have the time I like to sit beneath the arches on the little padded benches provided, pretending that I am in a far older city with a far greater appeal to the imagination than Melbourne can currently provide.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am not entirely dismissive of Melbourne's charms, and its history is both convoluted and fascinating, not without its share of chiaroscuro and drama. The night the GPO burnt down in 2000 was one such moment. Nevertheless I find myself acutely aware that Melbourne is not Venice, nor Florence, nor Rome; also, I am defiantly unwilling to abandon the wish that Melbourne was like these places in some ways, despite the Euro-centric view being so unfashionable right now.

Melbourne is not an Asian city in urban terms: it is patterned on a western new-world model, and defined in its bones by western architecture. While the current building frenzy carries a whisper of the east, the critical mass and sheer volume of activity is not there, and the patterns of the City are still primarily European.

As a city with mixed cultural and social, but strongly European physical history, I have a strong desire for this City to be more than it is. Not more than it was, perhaps, but more than it is now. Venice's greatest quality is that despite the glare and noise of relentless tourist inundation, it still maintains its shadows. La Serenissima endured for nearly a thousand years and its carapace is still with us; across such a time things begin to build up, and time and gravity conspire to settle the dust and darkness that would otherwise be kicked up by the garish process of destruction and renewal you see in less mature cities. Less mature cities like Melbourne, for example.

I once spoke to a Dutch man who had moved to Melbourne as an adult, and he didn't understand the constant destruction of buildings and their replacement with new buildings of approximately the same purpose, which are then stripped out in a decade or less to begin the process again. He didn't understand this passion for building and novelty, and having stayed in Amsterdam I can understand his point of view.

Little of what is built here has time to endure, but of course in some ways this is not such a bad thing. The thought that future generations might have to live with much of what we are constructing now inspires sadness and horror in equal measure. Fortunately there is a disposability to much contemporary construction, which is either hollow at its core or made flimsy in its superficial finish or appendages. It is fashionable to embrace this, to work with the depthless surface and celebrate life lived millimetres deep, rather than to see it as a deficit. Unfortunately enough for me, I have returned to the point where once again I perceive a building that is 'all surface' to be merely superficial: inessential and of little enduring consequence or substance.

This surface quality is not to be confused with lightness, a different beast altogether, and one that can be imparted to a block of marble by a skilled enough artisan. I know a man who carved a block of marble to appear as if it had a silk sheet draped over it. Interestingly enough, he carved the sculpture in residence in Rome. This kind of lightness, one of Calvino's six memos for the new millennium, is all about weight - the absence, the defiance of or the proximity to a great weight. Something is joyously light as a counterpoint to its alternative, which is the crushing weight of death. Everything built of lightness has weight in its shadows.

Of all the Australian designers working today, Amanda Henderson of Gloss Creative is one of a very small group who intuitively understands this, and her work is exciting to me. Gloss Creative works in the medium of lightness and not superficiality, designing things as ephemeral as 'brand experiences', which is a jargonistic way of saying three-dimensional shop displays and spaces for events. Catwalks, Race Day marquees and shop displays are all regular gigs.

On first consideration these kinds of projects would appear to be the very quintessence of the superficial, the epitome of what I decry above. In fact, a curious inversion occurs where the temporary nature of each Gloss project liberates the work from the responsibility of carrying social or cultural weight for any but the shortest length of time. It lives for its alotted time, and the time expires. At the end of that period, during which the work stands up more than well, up to 95% of the physical substance is recycled into new projects or uses, and the work is left as but a shared memory.

It comes, you see it, it conquers, and then it's gone.

Many architects are designing buildings as if they were 'brand experiences', and denying the fact that a building is a building and part of the city, not a prop or foile for an experience. My argument is simple: many 'leading' architects seem to be trying to pull off the kind of show-stopping brilliance that Henderson can pack into a single window display in a seemingly effortless fashion, but as their medium is architecture the desire is misplaced. The results are heavy, witless and laboured as examples of visual merchandising, and superficial and disposable as examples of architecture. In short, the worst of both worlds.

If our city is constantly rebuilding and never maturing, the deep shadows that make life so fascinating in the world's greatest cities may never find a place to settle here. We will be the poorer for it, but at least, thanks to Amanda Henderson and her team, the shop windows will be worth the visit.