By Lily Keil
Edited by André Dao
The skyline from behind the Vic Market
From any angle, at night, the high-rises of Melbourne’s north-western grid are mesmerising; like bioluminescent undersea worlds, they become towering symbols of the infinitely complex, unknowable nature of life on earth. But during the day, viewed from the western corner of the grid, the skyline is like a chaotic cluster of mismatched fingers on a botched android hand. Anyone who has lived in Melbourne for more than a decade will remember the advent of the Eureka Tower in 2006 – everyone had an opinion on it: the look, the height, the shadow. Now, there is barely time to react to the various buildings; they get approved so fast and seem to go up when we’re sleeping.
The trend in façade patterns is distinct to Melbourne; in no other world city is the hangover from postmodern design so palpable as in this mess of purple and green distorted lines and graphics seemingly cribbed from Microsoft screensavers. Looking up at the super-towers from the narrow pavements is an exercise in existential economics. As a way of understanding what happens when humans are confronted with inhuman scale, take the example of numbers. A six-figured sum is not something I personally know the feeling of, but something I can aspire to, a relationship I understand. That is the equivalent of a three-to-eight storey building: by looking at it you can intuit the number of human beings and the kinds of activity going on within it, just as you intuitively know what 100,000 beans means to you in terms of hours and days you would have to work. A 70-storey building on the other hand, like the Vision Apartments tower on Elizabeth Street, is like a figure in the billions: faced with this obliterating scale, what can I be but an unnecessary comma in the ledger of space and time? This annihilation of the individual through scale is somehow pleasant in Manhattan, but in Melbourne it feels wrong. You can literally see the disproportionate power of developers and private interests and the time span in which they have come to dominate planning approvals.
The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre
Love it or hate it, approaching this building is an experience. Its bigness is almost Roman, a scale that says, ‘look how tiny you are beside the Gods’. It looks like it comes from a post-human future that we haven’t yet caught up to. The colonnades are Hadidesque and bodily, mucousoid. Its details are intentionally pleasing to the eye, like the carefully aligned fragmented lines of the bridge across Grattan Street and the glazed brick at ground level. These genteel touches indicative of a luxurious budget are rare on Melbourne façades; there are funds behind this establishment. The emphatic tech swoosh of the façade reminds me of contemporary sneaker design, a semantics which originated in the fashion of the early 1980s in reaction to the bio-obsessed decade that came before, designed quite earnestly to signal speed and technological advantage. Now, sneaker design is post-truth in a nutshell – everyone knows by now that a foot covering cannot actually improve our chances of winning in the game of life, or any of life’s sub-games, but if these foolish Raf Simons or Balenciaga sneakers, by referencing a time when these forms were new, can make us feel happy inside – like an architectural folly – there is a kind of post-purity purity in that. It’s only when you consider the building’s purpose that you realise it is not taking these forms with the detached irony of the latest sneakers; the cancer centre is a genuine attempt to symbolise technological triumph over disease.
A building from a post-human future in which there are no longer any organic bodies – and no disease.
Early and mid-century modernist architecture was an architecture obsessed with reduction and simplicity based on phenomena: how light and clean spaces could affect good health; how the provision of blank planes could enhance the perception of an object chosen for contemplation; how something as simple as curvature could soften the feeling of a room. It was part of the bourgeois awakening from tradition and a liberation from the barnacles of history, but also, through the design of factories and public buildings, intended as a gift to the working classes. Its rational principles aligned very nicely with the streamlining imperative of capitalism, and ever since architecture has been key in the quest to engineer productivity in workers. No less so today, with workplaces that are so comfortable, stylish and ‘agile’ that they give us the illusion of being in a home or a café.
Postmodernism in architecture, born out of disillusionment with so much order, began to take shape in the 1960s but took hold internationally through the 1980s and 1990s. It explicitly rejected the intellectual and physical hygiene of modernism and began to explore entropy and the joy of contradiction. The movement’s many strains had a particularly cacophonous climax in a branch known as deconstructivism. The deconstructivists aimed to take postmodern ‘play’ as far as it could physically go towards fragmentation – an aggressive game that chimed with popular disillusionment as the well-oiled, hard-bodied 1980s came to a halt in the global recession. Pop culture from the time spoke of revolution and rebirth.
In Melbourne, this radical moment was embodied quite late in the movement through the approval and realisation of controversial deconstructivist buildings in the mid-nineties on Swanston Street, the city’s unfortunate main street.
The buildings were so popular and popularly divisive that it continues to have a palpable effect on the preferences of developers, planners and council.
By far the most radical architecturally, Storey Hall is a masterpiece of non-sense: literally everything was thrown at its facade, from Fibonacci to female suffrage. It was an interpretation of postmodern chaos that was without precedent globally, especially for its heavy-handed metaphor and literal application of theory (visit its Wikipedia page to see how what looks like a random assemblage is actually a dense cluster of overt signification), and it continues to be as loved as it is derided. With this act of bringing chaos back into the city after decades of rationalism came the tantalising lightbulb moment that architecture can be funny and weird, and this gave Melbourne, the intellectual city, something to hold onto.
Never let go: the RMIT nexus
As it turned out, capitalism didn’t die in the 1990s. And in the words of Slavoj Zizek, “the more it is rotting, the more it thrives”. One of the institutions that benefitted greatly from this progression was RMIT University; formerly a technical institution, it became an industry focused university that was unbounded by traditional measures of academic rigour. While the traditional academic universities struggled to stay relevant and profitable through funding cuts, RMIT boomed by responding to whatever the market called for, with a strong baseline of lucrative, under-regulated courses for international students. Paradoxically, RMIT remains the city’s main perpetuator of postmodernist architecture – a design language which set out to critique the system that underpins the university’s success.
Standing on the corner of Swanston and La Trobe Streets and looking into the eye of RMIT’s newly renovated bling storm, there is so much to take in. The renovations on the northern side have opened up the ground level of what was formerly an impenetrable edifice, and the buildings have become permeable, like a sea sponge. Passing by on the tram at night, fine illuminations draw your eye inwards towards the freshly exposed concrete beams and columns beloved by fans of brutalism. In the day, you’re free to wander inside what could be mistaken for a retrofuture portal curated by Nickelodeon. But, far from hostile, there is something about the fullness of the furnishings, hard and soft, that says: you don’t need to be anywhere else – again, that rare but gratifying evidence of a generous budget. Wandering through the corridors you are unlikely to know where you are or how exactly you ended up on Level 7, and traversing a straight corridor you might stumble into an oblique curtained appendix – everything inside is plush and green, and the walls are whiteboards; you could close the curtains around you to be bathed in the lush biophilic shade of ‘Greenery’, Pantone colour of the year in 2017, and you could just stay, and work all night and all day.
Swanston Academic Building
Filtering back out onto Swanston Street like a lucky krill from the chops of a whale, you can’t ignore the Academic Building, erupting like a gigantic cold-sore out of a tender lip. It isn’t a secret that this building is crass and ostentatious, but maybe we like that now. Maybe it’s time to shed self-awareness and give in to these hyperbolic surfaces as a new kind of lovely thing for the post-postmodern consciousness, like an image of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West grinding on a moving motorbike against an unconvincing digital backdrop; the Academic Building is a joke but, if you can let it in, its craters and shiny crust have an undeniable allure. Inside, like over the road, the interiors are obliquely intersecting, intentionally clashing spaces, but here it is a bit more ham fisted, and it does feel more like slime might be poured from the scaffolding above onto unsuspecting new students at every wrong turn.
41X building, Flinders Lane
The first tower I noticed that made me wonder what was going on in the CBD. Completed in 2014, its façade is made up of fissures and cutaways highlighted by slime green in a display of affected discord that only a Melbourne architect could love. It makes you wonder, what is the trend for brutalism if not a direct reprisal against the long-sustained reign of the hypermanic façade, its grids and planes like an obliterating hit of austerity for the over-personalised contemporary condition.
Melbourne Recital Centre and Southbank Theatre
Modernist architects held that if you give people uplifting spaces they become more productive, and on the more sinister side, easier to control. Post-modernist architects, out of sheer perversity, did not wish to comply. They rightly understand that the success or failure of human beings depends on a complex interrelation of forces outside their control, not on impeccable design. This disaffection from modernist ideals, too radically applied, often resulted in architecture that was intentionally ugly and even mean. Robert Venturi, the first postmodern theorist, famously embodied the reactive spirit of the movement when he wrote, “less is a bore”. But if you look at the buildings that he and many of his followers designed, they often have tiny windows, an intentional contrast to modernism’s worship of light, which suggests that while Venturi might have been a great polemicist and clued in to the fascistic tendency of modernism, he perhaps did not have much sympathy for the people who would inhabit his buildings. In Melbourne, the deconstructivist heroes of Storey Hall fame are old now and hold some of the top offices in the architectural food chain, but while their designs still hold true to the principles of deconstruction, they are no longer torturously intellectual. Deconstructivist architecture has been fully absorbed by the establishment and is now worn as a pocket square in the evening blazers of the strawberry-nosed Boroondara daddies, sitting in the members’ rows of the Melbourne Recital Centre and the Melbourne Theatre Company Southbank Theatre while the hair grows ever faster out of their ear holes. They have embraced comfort and beauty and the twin buildings are both fun to look at and lovely to be inside.