Lessons from across the ditch
I've just returned from a quick visit to Melbourne, which for reasons I've outlined elsewhere, may be the Australian city in which Wellingtonians feel most at home. Without claiming to be an expert (based on a handful of trips over the last decade or so), I'd like to point out a few things that Wellington should look at closely.
While Melbourne has its share of uninspired office and apartment blocks, it's striking just how much their contemporary architects have been able to experiment with form and colour. Beyond the obvious showpieces such as Federation Square, Storey Hall and the Exhibition Centre, it's noticeable that even otherwise ordinary towers sport inventive cladding, bold colour schemes and spiky details. Forms tend towards the folded and faceted rather than organic and sinuous, but the overall effect is one of brash inventiveness, sometimes overwrought but often invigorating. Is it the result of enlightened planning, ambitious developers, or just loud Aussie self-confidence?
Melbourne has only started rediscovering its river and harbour edges over the last couple of decades, with mixed results. While the Southbank and Crown complexes are undeniably touristy, it's equally hard to deny that they're lively and popular, not just with tourists and diners but also with joggers, cyclists and local workers.
The public spaces at Docklands are much patchier, and while that may partly due to their current isolation, their design might have something to do with it. The wide plaza around the "Cow up a Tree" sculpture is bare and windswept, while the adjacent NewQuay may be overly shiny and new, it felt like a much more comfortable place to be. The well-defined series of transitions (from apartment towers to well-detailed mid-rise apartments, to restaurant terraces, via broad promenade to water's-edge pavilions and marina) creates a legible, intimate and sheltered linear space.
Federation Square is a different beast again, and while it hasn't really become an extension of the urban fabric, it benefits from proximity to the CBD and was always a lively place. The dimensions and colours remind me a lot of Civic Square, and while the architecture couldn't be more different, it's also interesting as a spatial experience. Views of the Yarra and South Bank are limited to glimpses and viewshafts rather than panoramas, but the river is a constant presence and there are plenty of pathways to the water as well as views from ground floor pubs.
The famous lanes, arcades and alleys make Melbourne rich with shortcuts, secrets and spatial contrasts. We should also be making the most of narrow lanes like Holland and Egmont streets, and perhaps in time we'll learn to treasure and enliven them. It's interesting that the developers of Chews Lane are taking Melbourne laneways as their explicit model, and while the renders of that project make the lane look uninvitingly dark due to the looming buildings on either side, similarly-proportioned lanes such as Degraves St and Centre Pl absolutely buzz with activity. A note of caution though: while those and other lanes have history and character on their side, "contemporary interpretations of laneways" such as those at QV have a tendency to be more like malls than organic expressions of urbanism.
Movement as experience
Most of Wellington's recent transport infrastructure is dull and utilitarian, and we seem to have lost the sense of occasion that accompanied transport back when our Railway Station was built. Instead, Melbourne has in many cases decided to celebrate such structures, from pedestrian bridges to railway stations and freeway gateways. We could gain a lot from a similar celebration of journeying.
Other things that Wellington could do with:
- a covered food-market
- specialist bookshops
- more trees
- at least one proper residential skyscraper
- terraced houses on the city fringe
- more people (an extra three million would be good, but I'd settle for less)