Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat: A bleak but entertaining Melbourne

When we peer into the future of the cities we live in, the only one thing we can know for certain is that there will be change. Melbourne has changed markedly since I moved here in 1995, and the mind boggles to think of the transformations that longer time periods will unleash on the complexion of our fair city. In fifty years, who knows what Melbourne will be like?

One person who has allowed his mind to boggle in the aforementioned fashion is Andrez Bergen, ex resident of Melbourne, current resident of Tokyo, and author of the noir homage novel Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat. Andrez offers us one imagined future for Melbourne, and it has to be said that things don’t look so good. The dystopian Melbourne of TSMG, pitched at some distance into the future, has the unique distinction of being the only city left in the world. Unfortunately, things are not going terribly well in terms of civil liberties, the political climate or the environment. In fact, things are comprehensively fucked up on all fronts, and the portrait painted is of an overcrowded, polluted metropolis groaning under the control of a government vested in corporate interests and busy herding non-conformists and misfits into extramural death camps styled as ‘hospitals’.

Despite this undeniable grimness, the novel is also pretty amusing, and it mines the noir vein with gay abandon, to use an old-fashioned phrase. Andrez wears his pop-culture influences on his sleeve, and the result is a compote that mashes up a plethora of fictional frameworks into a believable, seamelss whole. Readers who know Melbourne will enjoy seeing the geography of the city rezoned and remapped, polarised by the presence of a dome over the CBD that shelters the wealthy elite. And god help you if you find yourself in Richmond, which Bergen transforms into a demilitarised wasteland; Abbotsford and other inner suburbs don’t fare much better.

I for one appreciate someone taking the time to imagine an Australia of the future, as it is a welcome change to the ubiquitous North American setting of much popular fiction, and science fiction. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t be enough to recommend it. Happily, TSMG is also a ripping yarn in the best dystopian, gumshoe tradition.

Oh, and on a final note, you will thoroughly enjoy the company of the protagonist, Floyd Maquina - he is ruggedly handsome and generally ruined; witty, self destructive and self-effacing with his air of gracious defeat. He has a weary charm that is impossible to resist. If only he were real...

Melbourne No. 1, but for the chosen few?

Collins Street, late WinterSo Melbourne is on the top of the list of the World's Most Liveable Cities once more, having pipped Vancouver (with its touch of rioting) from the top post. This is all fine and good, and certainly from the point of view of a person living in the CBD or on a tram route (like my good self), there is some truth in the rating. However, what if you spend two hours a day in a car, just getting to and from work? Is that one of the most liveable experiences in the world? After all, that is hardly a rare circumstance. I merely pose the question, for your consideration.

Melbourne Open House 2011

July is such a busy month! In addition to the State of Design Festival, Melbourne is also hosting Melbourne Open House 2011. You can check them out here. Melbourne Open House is a rare behind-the-scenes event, where you get to tread where the everyday man or woman in the street does not typically get to tread. I am covering MOH for Artichoke magazine, and as such I will be blessed with a media pass to cut through the crowds. Bliss! This year I will be focusing on corporate spaces of now and yesteryear, with Bishopscourt (the oldest house in East Melbourne) and an enormous underground substation thrown in for good measure.

A 'pure' design problem?

I am about to embark on a design project that I am tempted to call a 'pure' architectural problem. What is important about this observation, apart from the details of the job, is my impulse to refer to it as a 'pure' problem. This implies that some architectural problems are 'impure' or contaminated in some way, a condition that this project somehow avoids through a convergence of circumstance, siting and brief. The distinction is false: a phantom idea that seems solid at first glance, but becomes progressively more vapourous the more it is examined.

My impulse to call the project a 'pure' architectural problem comes from it being relatively unencumbered in certain ways, but it is a lazy taxonomy. The brief is to design a library and community services building for a township outside a regional city here in southern Australia. The township is sorely lacking in public institutions, buildings and spaces, and as such the new building will provide an important social function. Stay-at-home parents will be important beneficiaries of the project, as it will give them space to come together in public, in a non-commercial setting. As such the project promises a lot for a growing community, and the social performance of the buildings must be outstanding or an opportunity will be missed. This social factor, and the project's limited budget, are the chief encumbrances.

The project is relatively less encumbered by its setting, and this is where it departs from my usual work. The building will be built on a greenfield site - one that is literally a green field at this time. Construction vehicle access will be direct and easy; the site slopes consistently but not steeply to the west, and access to services such as sewer and electricity is straightforward. The subsoil is a bit shifty, which causes some complications in the design, but on the whole it will be a straightforward build. Conceptually, the building will be an object in a field, a condition that many architects would view as ideal, a chance to 'strut their stuff'. After all, the quintessential architectural project is the heroic object positioned 'in the round' like a sculpture, with its sublime body visible, and hence consumable, from all angles. Isn't it?

I think my impulse to call this a 'pure' architectural problem comes from an awareness of this apparently 'ideal' condition, that of the unencumbered architectural object 'landing' on the big, empty site. It is curious that I might be tempted to call this 'pure', as I tend to think of the ideal as something quite different. With my team, the ideal project is one that is heavily encumbered - by a complex and dense urban setting, a built-up site, or even an existing building that needs to be accommodated in the new works. The energy of our architecture at WBa comes from the charge of highly constrained problems, which is why we love working with heritage buildings so much. We are not motivated by the desire to create heroic architectural objects - we are more interested in subtlety, nuance and insinuation. In our best projects, texture, surface and materials play more of a role than objects and sculptural gymnastics.

This library project is a very different beast, and yet it is perhaps still encumbered, albeit in different ways. Because the setting is so resolutely suburban, the user's understanding of the building will be more informed by visual iconography rather than a small-scale pedestrian experience. The iconography will inevitably be informed by somewhat inauspicious but familiar building types: the fast food restaurant, seen from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, is the most obvious example. This hardly sets my world on fire, but some elements of that archetype are interesting. These include the 'friendly' roof form that marks the building in an otherwise homogeneous and horizontal landscape, and the need to carefully choreograph the transition from vehicle arrival to pedestrian entry.

On balance, I would now like to rephrase my description of this project. It is not a 'pure' architectural problem, but neither is it an 'impure' architectural problem: it is just another design problem, one that demands a typically specific response, albeit in different terms than those I usually work in. Others would relish the opportunity for some architectural heroics set against a big sky and dominant horizon. The challenge is to bring the sensibilities of my more typical work to the greenfield site. Let's see how that unfolds.

For more sketches, check out the project in my portfolio

Another face of Melbourne

It seems likely that later this year, my design practice will be pulling up its skirts and sashaying off to new premises. Thinking about it entirely from a selfish point of view, this will have several ramifications. Firstly, depending on the final location we choose, I may no longer be able to go home for lunch. Such a condition currently inflicts the majority of the working population. Being at home at lunch is luxurious, and I enjoy it very much - and my animals enjoy my presence too.

The second ramification of the move will be the opportunity - nay, the necessity - to acquaint myself with a new part of the city, immersing myself in the minutiae of a new location. The pedestrian trails between my house and the new office will also be a chance for discovery. I will have an opportunity to buy coffee each morning in new and better establishments, and explore the back lanes and stray shortcuts that reveal themselves to daily foot commuters. Melbourne city is excellent for such sport, and rewards close examination and random exploration. This potentially is a source of great pleasure, and by extending my commute beyond its current three minutes (literally) all manner of possibilities may emerge. At the very least, I will be 'getting out there' more - a state we are conditioned to believe is wholesome and generally good for us. I am not so sure, but I am willing to take a positive view.

One building we are examining for our new premises is a two-storey wedge-shaped commercial building dating back to the early 20th Century, and this is generally more appealing than our current building, which is best described as '1980's boom commercial on a budget'. Whether the light and layout potential of a triangular building is as abundant and practical as our current boring rectangular floor plate remains to be seen. Nevertheless it sounds like a challenge suitable for a team of architects. Controversially, the building in question is off Hoddle's city grid - albeit only by fifty metres or so. Psychologically, relocating our practice off the grid that comprises the Central Business District is a big deal, even if we are only just off the edge. I trust that our egos are robust enough to carry it off, and live without the absolute downtown address, and the cachét that comes with it.

On balance, despite the likely impending loss of my lunchtime privileges, I think the move is a positive one, and there may be a daily reward for carrying my camera to work. The chief beneficiary may be my Melbourne Urban Photography Project: my little MUPPet.


The seasons of the mind


Melbourne is settling into a brooding late Autumn mood today, and it makes me glad. I am a gothic at heart, and as such I like it when the sky is low, the sun is blacked out by a blanket of towering clouds, and a cold rain is falling. This has very little to do with being an 'indoors' person, as I find that it is a fine thing to be tucked up indoors under a blanket, or out stalking the streets wrapped in coat and scarf and beneath a large umbrella.

I find this weather, this season, conducive to both idle contemplation and diligent thought. I can imagine more, and more effectively, when it is cold and grey outside. This time of year is all about closing down - about people scurrying off into their homes, and the summer things being shut up and battened down for the cold time to come. Spring and Summer are all about the body: Autumn and Winter are all about the mind. In short, these seasons are my seasons.

The Melbourne Urban Photography Project (MUPP)

I took this photograph yesterday while having lunch on Collins Street. The photograph was taken with my Nikon P90 camera, a favourite that travelled with me all over Italy in 2009.  It is not as special as my Sony A550,  but I love it nonetheless. The Melbourne Urban Photography Project is a personal project of mine, something that I tackle from time to time, usually on weekends but in this case during the working week. I'm going to start taking my camera with me to work, because I do tend to go all over the city when going about my daily business. I have meetings, I have site visits, and then of course there is lunch. I like the idea of documenting what is merely my everyday reality, for posterity but also for my own personal reference. It is good to have something to look back on, as the days tend to  blur together. In a way, it is a process of marking time as the year progresses through the seasons. The day I took this photograph was the coldest May day in three years.

City landscape as rock shelf

I took this photograph today and I thought that it resembled the kind of striation you see on rock shelves near the sea. My friend David has in the past speculated about how we might design if we regarded the natural as the artificial, or vice versa. This photograph reminded me of that idea.

Pavement, Little Collins Street