Is Docklands a dog?Posted: August 18, 2010
I like dogs so I’d say Docklands is more like a mangy, flea-bitten hyena. It’s ugly, it’s shrill and it’s very ill-mannered.
As a friend and I cycled down Latrobe Street and over the railway bridge a few Sundays ago, I thought for a moment I was entering one of those anonymous, soulless suburban business parks that abound in the US.
I’ve written recently on how successful Docklands is as a business park so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so much banal architecture in one place – not every building, but there’re far too few that aren’t tinted glass boxes.
The residential areas exude the very worst of the Gold Coast, even down to the vulgar attempts to “stand out” from the crowd. They’re as flash as a hyena with a gold tooth. If there’s such a thing as a “Melbourne architectural style” that draws on subtlety, wit, intellect, culture and life in a cold climate, then it’s turned its nose up at Docklands.
This was my first daytime leisure visit to Docklands in a while and it shocked me. I seriously don’t know how I ever imagined that one of Melbourne’s competitive advantages is its high standard of architecture. How could Melbourne produce this generic tripe?
Docklands doesn’t even have what the Gold Coast’s got in abundance – people. It took us ages to find a place at New Quay that was open for coffee at 10 am on an unusually warm and sunny Sunday morning. I expect one of the reasons the plazas were deserted was because all those empty nesters, students, visitors and temporary workers decided there was more to do in their apartments than there was at street level. Perhaps like me they wondered why more effort wasn’t made in the design of the public spaces to maximise northern exposure.
While some parts of the public domain are no better or worse than Southbank (which was buzzing at the time – it faces north!), much of it is shocking. The neglect of the open space in Harbour Esplanade on the water-side of Etihad stadium – what is essentially the heart of Docklands – is just plain shabby. It could have survived being cut up by cars, trams and a bike track, but it’s hard for people to be attracted to something that looks like a derelict building site.
What could possibly have happened with Docklands? There’s lots of criticism and ideas on how to improve it (here and here). The only plausible explanation I’ve heard is that the development process was conceived like a mine – extract as much value as possible from the sale phase and get out. It’s as if each development was set up as a self-contained project with no one having any incentive to think about what they meant as a whole or to care about the quality of the public space that connects them.
I don’t blame any individuals or even the responsible agency. I think it goes right back to what the State Government of the day wanted from the project – revenue. They set up the management arrangements for the development to reflect that goal.
Had it been managed by an agency like the Melbourne City Council from the get-go there’s a better than even chance that the project would have been conceived with a longer term view. Knowing that they would have a continuing responsibility for the precinct once it was built – a political accountability in fact – they would be more likely to have seen it as a “community” and a “place”. They would have put effort into the design of both the buildings and the public spaces.
Not that I think the design of the place is the only – or even the dominant – reason it has failed to excite Melburnites. Lindsay Tanner might be right that it’s serendipity, but I can think of a few explanations. The fact that a number of competing, more accessible locations like Southbank (did I mention it faces north?), Federation Square and the laneways came of age at much the same time could be a factor. The demographics of the resident population might not be the ideal fit for creating a critical mass of local activity either.
But in my view the absence of any sort of really compelling reason to go to Docklands is the key failing and that goes back to how it was conceived. Federation Square, Southbank and the laneways are all close to the arts precinct, the town hall, theatres and all the attractions of the CBD proper. Even taken on its own, Fed Square has the Ian Potter Gallery and ACMI. Southbank has the casino and a real market.
Meanwhile Docklands has so much “activated” ground level commercial space it should be lethal, but no one’s there to flick the switch. It creaks along with that big broken wheel, Costco, an ice skating rink and Etihad. Its got water, but what’s it done with it? It’s not exactly Venice but that would’ve been a better aspiration than Burleigh. If I lived in Docklands I know I wouldn’t hang around – I’d scoot uptown.
Maybe the transfer to Melbourne City Council for the next big development phase will turn it around (although it’ll take more than Norfolk Island Pines). But if not, serious thought needs to be given to locating something there that people actually want to come and visit in large numbers seven days a week.
Or we could just let it grow up on its own. Given enough time it will undoubtedly come good in the end. Probably in ways we can’t foresee. And there’s always an alternative point of view, er puff piece.
Picture by Ozsoapbox.