Is Docklands a dog?

Picture by Ozsoapbox

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.

15 Comments on “Is Docklands a dog?”

  1. OzSoapbox says:

    Thanks for the photo acknowledgement.

    I reckon another major problem is the fact that Melbourne developers don’t really have much experience with developing an urban environment from scratch.

    What with Caroline Springs and all the other crap they’ve been pumping out over the last few decades, the Docklands has turned into a suburban urban hybrid that’s gone horribly wrong.

    Open McMansion planning and an urban environment don’t mix. If they want the Docklands to have character it’s got to adopt high density living properly.

    None of this huge open desolate space crap developers get away with in the sticks.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Your photos sum it up. I was there about six weeks ago and the streets looked exactly the same as when you were there 12 months or so before. Thanks for the use of the photo.

  2. From one extreme to another, badly designed new urban space (Docklands) and the remnant suburban environmental disharmonies of the Aussie brick veneer suburban housing developments … both as soul-less as the other, and both part of the Australian ‘design’ and urban aesthetic community disaster.

    They share a common last resort option as a remedial technique as well.

    Purely and simply, landscape the blazes out of them – using the landscaping for both beautification and eyesore reduction purposes. But this time the fundamental necessity is for a) a brilliant conceived and appropriate remedial and enhancement design and b) a non-monumental/non-tokenistic approach which aims to turn those nasty bare spaces into densely greened, multi-level, layered plantings … the aim being to create an oasis in the ‘desert’ counter effect.

    You are absolutely correct Alan, Norfolk Pines (wonderful as they are) will not do the job, in fact in the context of Docklands they will only reinforce the starkness.

    An entirely different, carefully conceived ‘wilder’/more natural environment approach, as suggested, is the true need … as something of a serious attempt to minimize the built environment errors already made and so blatantly evident.

  3. Moss says:

    Great, biting blog Alan. The architecture there reminds me of that saying in sport “a champion team will always beat a team of champions”. There has been to much emphasis on the individual buildings and not enough on the creation of a fine-grained urban fabric.
    Docklands is what happens when there is little attention paid to the human scale. It’s clear that no one sat down at the start and said “if I am a human in this space, what kind of experience do I want to have?”
    Can you imagine if a different design philosophy had been adopted? Perhaps a focus on creating a European village type feel, with low rise (4-6 story) buildings, more traditional classical architecture mixed with some cutting edge modern design, pedestrian squares, piazzas, parks (with real trees!), markets and cafes, mixed use buildings etc etc. It would have been amazing…

    • Share your analysis on this Moss. The wider context and mix of the whole is what is usually left out of consideration to the detriment of creating a genuine precinct that works. Your question is a key one, rarely if ever asked, but would gain some valuable insights for the planners, architects and developers. Success for all means success for their own tenants and clients.

      • Moss says:

        Hmmm. Well, I don’t really have any answers on how the process should have been handled, except that maybe it should have been handed over to a single developer who put forth the best vision for the site, one that best retained the charcter of Melbourne. You know, intimate alleyways, gold boom architecture, active edges on the street (cafes etc). Mix it up with hidden spaces for culture, trendy bars, garden squares, maybe an iconic gallery or two on the water front, maybe some king of small villiage type fresh food market that we do well here in Melbourne, retail space on the ground floors and offices/residences above, and only a scattering of highrise. Add in appropriate schooling and a focus on walkable streets rather than car based asphelt rivers between monoliths.  That’s a place I’d go to visit, in fact that’s a place I’d like to live in!
        That way, residents and visitors can wake up in the morning and be provided a myriad of pleasant options on how to spend their day, all 5 minutes walk from their door without ever having to go to the hassle of the traffic, parking, walking in an environment hostile to pedestrians etc etc.  

  4. Anon says:

    It is interesting that the outcome we have is the result of the expertise that was available to the then Melbourne Docklands Authority (now part of VicUrban I think). Some good local and international experts advised the authority on strategic and local matters (see and their other projects suggest their belief in the technical solutions that might have prevented what we have now. It can surely only be a consequence of process and development management? The decision makers over-ruling urban design advice, or perhaps trying to integrate the recommendations of designers for competing parties without seeing the bigger picture?
    The configuration of the road network is a product of a few factors; namely the State’s requirement for a major road route, the extension of the key CBD routes into Docklands to ‘integrate’ the two, high density development quite some distance from high capacity public transport (eg Victoria Harbour precinct) and quite importantly, egress from the then Colonial Stadium. The traffic work for the stadium allowed for higher car access in its early years, with the thinking that as Docklands developed, public transport and walking mode share would increase, and surrounding attractions would disperse traffic in more directions and suppress the peaks. For example, when surrounding developments were completed, Stadium patrons would either start or finish (or both) their trip with visits to surrounding cafe’s, restaurants, etc. Some visitors would walk from surrounding apartments, or be working nearby then go to an event before going home. It was to be quite different to the environment around other Stadiums in Melbourne. This might yet be achieved.

  5. Russ says:

    Moss is on the right track with his focus on scale, but not so much on the solution. The biggest problem with Docklands is the advantage Alan identified in his previous post: larger floor-plates. Most of the buildings in Docklands take up entire city blocks, but that also means that they count one (1) as destinations. That’s a problem.

    As a basic estimate: the distance people are genrally willing to walk is around 400m, or 2 city blocks. that means the total number of destinations from a point is 16 (blocks) x D (density of destinations). Docklands, with its vast corporate head-quarters, narrow harbour frontage and large empty stadium/parkland has (at most) about 20 per block: 16 x 20 = 320. That means the number of connections between businesses is n(n-1)/2 = 320×319/2 = 51,040. No better than a suburban shopping strip, but much larger. By contrast, the CBD would have close to 500 businesses per block or 30,000,000 potential connections per walkable radius.

    The mistake made at Docklands was to go with “vision” when as dozens of unread, under-valued, and generally ignored urban design theorists since the 1960s have pointed out, you need to develop diversity of activity and building types (Jane Jacob’s point, which maximizes the diversity of businesses), and make public space traversible not artistic. Docklands could have been a hundred times better if they’d enforced one rule: a maximum street frontage of 30m (60m at a corner). It would have, like the CBD, surrounded the large corporate head-quarters with smaller diverse businesses, interspersed with laneways. A much more interesting street front for walking, and a much greater density of potential connections.

    Docklands isn’t “fixable” with so many giant allotments. How many people a day travel between the adjacent, block-sized NAB and ANZ buildings do you think? On other matters, why put the stadium next to the station, which minimizes the distance the glut of people have to traverse (meaning needless to say: they all go straight home), instead of at the maximum walkable distance from the station (out on a pier would have been best), which would have forced people to travel through Docklands? And why haven’t trams from the north (North Melbourne) and south (Port Melbourne) been redirected through Docklands? It is a nightmare to travel to on foot from anywhere other than the CBD.

    You’d think two generations of urban theory saying “maximising diversity and connectivity is the most important thing when creating an urban place” would have been sufficient for anybody (developer, quango, government) to get the point, but apparently not. Instead Docklands gets white elephants like stadiums, or ferris wheels. What next, a monorail?

    • TomD says:

      Good stuff Russ. The lack of integration and thought concerning the relationships of the key considerations you raise, also lies at the heart of many of Dockland’s problems. And it helps to have truly interesting architecture and excellent landscaping as well, let alone a more imaginative approach concerning how and how many enjoyable ways you get to experience the water itself.

    • TomD says:

      Meant to add not so sure about the “make public space traversible not artistic” bit within your comments … if I correctly understand what you are getting at.

      Generally speaking, have no problem with the ‘traversible’ aspect, but don’t see how making a space artistic (whatever that means) can be counterproductive.

      If anything, making a space ‘artistic’ (by which I would hope it means capturing the imaginative in some possibly non-predictable, evocative and memorable visual and sensory ways) should enhance its impact and its ability to attract even more traffic.

      Actually I’m not even sure about ‘traversible’ in certain contexts either – street or sidewalk cafes add a strong sense of life, but don’t necessarily facilitate ease of passageway. And for many people that is not necessarily a source of discontent but of satisfaction … because it creates the sense of energy, interest, security and mass that they enjoy in a recreational streetscape or dining/entertainment precinct.

      Melbourne’s highly cafed and coffee shopped, outdoor eating laneways are a classic example of this principle at work. And picking up on your points about scale and distance the lanes’ narrowness and sense of being closed in (encouraging more intimate encounters while passing through) only serves to heighten this effect.

  6. Tanya says:

    Great discussion & ideas about Docklands. I think the points made about the lack of human scale & lack of diversity of businesses are important factors. I made the mistake of taking my parents to Docklands when they visited from Adelaide. We had already explored the CBD, so took the city circle tram & got off at Docklands for a coffee & to go to the ‘market’. We walked the entire stretch of the New Quay Prom & could not find a place to have coffee, bar a sad food court-style snack bar, as all other places were proper restaurants. As for the market, there were about 3 pathetic stalls.
    I think a lot of the public art that has been plonked around the place has been done as part of an obligation to spend a certain amount on public art, rather than with a lot of thought into how it might specifically relate to the experience of visitors to the area.

  7. Russ says:

    Tom, I don’t think we disagree. I meant traversible in a broader way than just “ease of traversal”. More “facilitates traversal”. Urban design theory has long noted that the thing people do at parks for more than any other is watch people. In order to get other people, any park needs to be sited between places people go, and provide easy methods of traversal, with places to sit and view the foot traffic. While urban designers do take these things into consideration, they are often after-thoughts to enacting their “vision” of the space. And while I have no issues with artistic vision, it is wasted if noone goes there to see it.

    The problem with public space in Docklands and other developments is that there are no very rarely any guidelines for siting public space. Generally there is a public space allowance of 15% or so (which is about 10% too much, to be honest) which will generally be the least desirable/accessible spot, and often a single block, or strip, instead of fragmented smaller spaces that can be re-purposed easily by the people who use them (not that big spaces can’t work, but they need to be super-popular and super-impressive, and Docklands just isn’t designed to have that many people).

    In Docklands case, the main parks are away from the water-front (water-frontage is valuable), quite difficult to walk through, as opposed to around, and always empty. It is a horrible waste. The best thing they could probably do is sell 2/3 of the parkland and build small lot mixed use developments, that addresses what is left.

  8. […] There are other, more successful higher density projects which are just as relevant. In any event Dockland’s failings aren’t due to excessive […]

  9. John Hynds says:

    Melbourne & perhaps modern Australian architecture in general seems to have a fixation with tactless public space sculpture (example: zinc alum poles sticking out of the ground at perfunctory angles)& building design from a doodle pad. Docklands has these forms in abundance, as well as the aforementioned business – wharehouse precinct sensibility. Afraid its gone too far to be rescued now, tho getting rid of the cheap public art sculptures & planting open spaces with significant botanical areas might give Docklands that urgently needed organic feel. Melbourne has an emperors new clothes mentality with its public & private architecture (i.e. Fed Square). What a shame, its Victorian & Edwardian architecture is so inspiring

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