Monday, August 30, 2010

Melbourne at 175: City of the White Elephant

August 30 marks Melbourne's 175th birthday. It's as good a time as any to note what a mess this place is getting into. If you've ever been here you would know about the slow-moving disaster that is our public transport over the last five or eight years. That's not strictly a white elephant; it's at least intended to perform a useful task.

But somehow Melbourne people just don't notice when an insultingly ridiculous and expensive public engineering cock-up is stuck in front of them. Take the Southern Star Observation Wheel. says:

The Observation Wheel is a stunning addition to the Melbourne landscape that boasts some of the most spectacular views over Melbourne and beyond.

The $40 million ferris wheel based on the London Eye is almost 120m, around 38 storeys into the air featuring 21 airconditioned glass cabins that showcase views stretching as far as Geelong.

No trip to Melbourne is complete until you have seen the views from the Southern Star Observation Wheel.

There must be a lot of unfulfilled tourists because it doesn't work. Currently it looks a bit like this:
Southern Star Observation Wheel... sans observation wheel

After being built up and launched at the beginning of 2009, it failed the first test a month later: the (admittedly record-breaking) heatwave that preceded Black Saturday caused the metal to warp. Now it has been taken down and although it is supposedly going to be rebuilt, there is no sign yet.

$40 million dollars. As I was saying, we have serious problems with our public transport. $40 million would  help fix some of that. Or any other number of problems like homelessness and public housing waiting lists, hospital bed shortages, the list goes on...

And another big fat white elephant: Southern Cross station. Not the station, the new(ish) roof. Confessions of a Graphic Designer has a handy couple of pictures of it and some commentary which I'll borrow:

"On the 22nd of June, Grimshaw architects won the 2007 Lubetkin Prize for the most outstanding building outside of the European Union. The undulating wave-like roof to me is its most interesting creative point because it creates the impression of movement and continuance that relates to the usage of the building. As well as being striking it is also functional, Keith Brews of the Grimshaw team explains: "It's difficult to extract diesel fumes, but if you create a dome, they can move laterally. As the wind speen increases across the roof, the wind goes up the side of the domes and across the Venturi caps, which either allow some air through, or suck it (and the diesel fumes) up." (2007)."

I don't know if Grimshaw got to keep that prestigious prize, because they clearly forgot to model what would happen when it rains:

Southern Cross Station in downpour (image linked from The Age)

Not to mention that the supposedly self-ventilating roof didn't work and they had to put fans in. And the whole enclosed station area echoes with diesel locomotive engine noises and incomprehensible (or inaudible) announcements. The old Spencer St Station (which became Southern Cross) was not real flash, but you didn't cop diesel fumes and noise pollution. And the roofs, modest though they were, worked!

What else? We could talk roads, freeways, the Domain Tunnel (try using it on an afternoon... traffic banked up to Toorak Rd). I could mention the channel deepening: to let in a handful of superlarge container ships, the bay was dredged and the heads blown open. Now beaches around the bay are getting washed away by the increased currents. I could mention the ecological disasters of our carbon-intensive water factory (desalination plant) at Wonthaggi and the pipeline that brings water from the drought-stricken north to wash driveways in Melbourne.

But those are more political and ecological concerns (although if you ask anyone directly affected, you'll get an answer as brisk as asking a stranded commuter at the station what they think of the train operators!).

The waste of public money on these big public show-off projects is insulting.  Melbourne was already pretty without big shiny toy buildings and meccano toys scattered across the cityscape. What is needed is more public infrastructure, not the answer to the London Eye. If they could at least get these things right it might be bearable but I'm not holding my breath. And what will be their next bright idea for a big monument? I dare not speculate. If everyone thought like me, it might be a giant guillotine.


  1. Yes there's too much stuff in Melbourne.When some things appear to work -- liker Federation Square -- with familiarity you can see the contradictions and cop outs-- the actual buildings (and their rooms) are utter disasters.

    Southern Cross is indeed a mes-- diesel oil. When you compare it to the old stations of London or of Paris (or Glasgow even) , it's like some leftovers kept in the refrigerator (it is so friggin cold and drafty!) with some Gladwarp on top.

    I guess the best makeover, I've experienced in the city is the Vic Markets.

    But I like Melbourne's sculptures -- they're a plus. They compensate for some of the barbarism. Compared even to Brisbane under the realtor's hammer , the 'new' Melbourne has no room for new open public (or even private) spaces. Melbourne is a city of parks where no new ones seem to be habitually gazetted. And Port Phillip Bay is 'protected' by a few postage stamp sized no fish zones....
    When you look toward Port Melbourne and the Docklands development -- all that glitz and flyover junk epitomizes the urban culture of the city these past 25 years.

    It seems to me that working to preserve the shores of the Maribrynong River from a similar sentence would make a lot of sense. In the crass development fetish here Brisbane's one saving grace was that the city was drained by floodways that could not easily be built on. These are much broader than the Merri Creek for instance and not as easily tamed as the Elwood Canal. So they are being renovated and replanted and, in their way, re-colonized as recreational areas -- mangroves to mountains.

    But consider that without its opera house and harbour Sydney is a crappy town too. There may be charm a plenty in the post war styles of Bondi and Manly but if you ever access via Bondi Junction you know that public space and collective aspect aren't valued there much either.

  2. I was in Melbourne after the Wheel broke but before they took it down. It seemed to me that the city should have left it in place and then changed the city's motto from "Vires acquirit eundo" (we gather strength as we go) to "Home of the World's Largest Non-Rotating Ferris Wheel" which would surely attract more tourists.


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