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May 25, 2005

The hidden city

I spent an absorbing couple of hours this morning wandering around the inner city lanes and alleys, orientating myself for a piece I'm doing for a travel magazine, on Melbourne.

Melbourne seems to set a test for those who would try to know it well. If you're satisfied with the obvious, you'll miss some extraordinary treats.

Flinders Lane and Degraves St, Hosier Lane, Drivers Lane etc are full of tiny delights that I suspect most visitors - for that matter, most residents - never discover. How many of us notice the blue terracotta faience facade of Majorca House, and the Nicholas Building, with its leadlight barrel-vaulted arcade? It seems to have become a magnet for quirky little shops and designers. The Victorian Writers' Centre has recently moved there too. I suppose they've been attracted by the fact that it actually has windows!

We've been blessed recently by creative business people who seem to have been prepared to go burrowing around looking for interesting spaces to re-develop. And a lot of them don't advertise their presence.

The fashion boutique Marais, for instance, seems to have parachuted into the Block Arcade under cover of darkness. There's a small sign, but nothing really that would attract the average person to walk upstairs, to track down the work of young, interesting designers.

Has anyone discovered M.O.O. yet? It's a fabulous bar/restaurant downstairs in the lane beside the GPO. It's been fitted out with a pony-hide bar, 18th Century parquetry floors imported from France and Buenos Aires.

If I hadn't taken the Hidden Secrets Shopping Tour with Fiona Sweetman, I wouldn't have known that Christine Barro, who as buyer for Georges filled the place with expensive little treasures, had opened her own emporium downstairs in Flinders Lane.

What should I write about Melbourne? Any suggestions?

Posted by cw at May 25, 2005 03:48 PM

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Many years ago a friend said to me that you only find the real beauty of Melbourne by looking up. A truly beautiful nineteenth century city has been destroyed at ground floor level. The verandahs have been replaced with ghastly awnings. The signage is chaotic and ugly beyond words. There is no consistency of size or style. It is altogether shocking.

But look up to the first floor and above and you will see what is left of Marvellous Melbourne. The building on the north east corner of Collins/Elizabeth is straight out of Paris. The building on the corner of Little Collins/Elizabeth [south east] is gorgeous. Even in the blighted Bourke St Mall it pays to look up to see what was once there.

Adelaide has either preserved or restored its ground floor facades in some sections of some streets -- even to putting back the verandah posts. Why doesn't Melbourne?

You are right about the Nicholas building -- but how sadly it is decayed.

At ground level Melboure is a squalid third world bazaar with shops spilling out onto the street with tat and noise. The central block around Swanston/Bourke/Elizabeth/Lonsdale is shocking. I used to think this was the inevitable consequence of it being a city given over to laissez faire capitalism until I saw Chicago CBD with its tight controls on building/advertising etc. The Melbourne CBD is not an expression of freedom, it is a manifestation of lack of good taste.

Anyway, there are still remnants of past beauty if we look up above the squalor. It is also a reminder that owners and their architects once cared about what they were building and how it would be seen by generations to come. Now the business of creating buildings is all about maximum volume for minimum price. Damn and blast their money grubbing little eyes.

Posted by: Apal at May 25, 2005 06:39 PM

I know what you mean about the whole maximum volume comment you made, it seems Melbourne give's birth to nothing but ugly cost effective high rise now, Docklands is a great example of this. I am old enough to remember Melbourne before all the high rise race began over 15 years ago, bustling and successful Swansten Street before the Swanston walk disaster came into being. Swanston Street had beutiful W class trams trundling up and down servicing all routes, before the introduction of Z class trams in 1992.I would even go as far as to say that i'm fed up with Fed square too, damn yarra trams and their complimentary super tram stop on the side of the road that you don't want to get off on to!
Graceful Melbourne will soon be engulfed by plastic and fibreglass as the push for cyber land persists with rampant insistance and distaste.

Posted by: charles at June 1, 2005 02:12 AM