Feature article for Public Art Review, Spring/Summer 2010 issue, Ed. Anne Loxley. Excerpt only.

Melbourne is widely known as Australia’s ‘Cultural Capital’, or so we tell ourselves here. What’s indisputable is that four aspects of modern life underpin the identity and experience of this, the most southern major city on Australia’s mainland. These are sport, cars, food, and the arts, arguably in that order.

Melbourne is a rapidly growing city, both in population – currently four million with a projection of five million by 2020 – and in geographic size. Like Sydney, the nation’s largest city at 4.4 million, Melbourne is one of the most suburbanised cities in the world, with a population density of 4,056 people per square mile. To put this into a global perspective Los Angeles, the world’s most famous bloated suburbia, has 7,068. Taking into account some cities with significant art industries we have densities of New York City 26,403, Tokyo 15,148, London 10,596, and Paris 9,648[i].

The ‘Great Australian Dream’, the desire to own a quarter acre slice of suburbia, continues to propel the urban sprawl further and faster. Moreover, Australians are obsessed with cars – our vast land seems to demand it from our people, much like the United States – but Melburnians seem especially so. Graeme Davison, author of Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities, has noted that in Melbourne in 1951 only one in ten drove to work, but by 1974 two-thirds commuted by car[ii]. These conditions have, in turn, made roads something of an obsession in Melbourne.

The year is 1999, and amid a seismic shift of privatisation by the Government, Melbourne’s road system entered new, unchartered territory. Sections of Citylink, Melbourne’s first tollway, opened to the public. This controversial road project was eight times larger than any attempted before in Melbourne, and was the result of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the Victorian State Government and Transurban. The road linked Melbourne’s international airport to the central city, and was made up of a combination of newly built and existing sections of freeway.

Citylink is important to the emerging story of Melbourne’s freeway art for two reasons: it was the first time large scale ‘sculptural’ structures had been constructed to enhance the aesthetics of a freeway, and it has become the model du jour for developing new major road infrastructure projects to address the dispersal of the city’s population.

For the first time, the Government needed a road to be more than just a method of moving automobiles from one point to another; it needed to make this section of freeway worthy of charging the driver for a road previously travelled gratis. This road needed to stand for something, and that something was progress, modernisation, and the idea of Melbourne as a major international city.

The result was three key monuments to this agenda, all still standing proud today: a series of large red and yellow monoliths, followed by a short bridge enclosed by a steel ‘tube’, leading to the Bolte Bridge, or more importantly in our narrative, two slender grey columns flanking this bridge at its apex, and dwarfing it as they rise a full 90m from the water below.

© Denton Corker Marshall dentoncorkermarshall.com

The single yellow and 39 red monoliths are officially titled Melbourne Gateway, as this is the point where a visitor catching a cab from the airport finally reaches the north of the central city. The structure, like the others previously mentioned, was designed by Denton Corker Marshall Architects (DCM), and is meant to symbolise the city-defining nineteenth century Gold Rush. The massive 70m yellow form – quickly dubbed the ‘Cheese Stick’ by Melburnians – cantilevers over the road at an alarming angle and recalls in hue the watershed controversial public artwork Vault by Ron Robertson-Swann (more on this later). It is by far the most successful of the phalanx, despite the disparaging name and general agreement by much of the intelligentsia that it resembles a fascist salute, a conclusion quickly determined as a reaction and reference to the reigning Victorian State Premier (and Arts Minister) of the day Jeff Kennett and his policies. While this sentiment lingers as a kind of nostalgia, what remains is a dynamic and dramatic form that certainly embodies the ambition to arrest a visitor to Melbourne.

If travelling to the south end of town, or the eastern, southern and western suburbs of Melbourne, we continue on Citylink to Bolte Bridge. Now if anyone doubted the political detractors, surely the thin sliver towers that serve no function but to extravagantly flank the 490m long bridge were proof of the totalitarian impulse of architects and their masters.

© Denton Corker Marshall dentoncorkermarshall.com

The fact remains the Bolte Bridge is an astounding piece of urban design, one that through its sheer audacity, simplicity and ambition elevates itself far closer to status as a work of art. It doesn’t just reference or borrow from the language the architects of Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia employed to denote the power and ‘inexorable’ progress in their state buildings, it seems to embody it – here clearly is a city’s delicate fingers reaching for, and maybe connected to, the stars. When viewed from the city centre, the twin forms have a void as a backdrop, day or night, serving to create the illusion they are in fact far higher (their 90m is in reality dwarfed by the nearby buildings of the city, the largest of which, Eureka Tower, being over three times their height). And yet for all this monumentality, passing in a car on the bridge you feel you can reach out and touch these sentinels.

© Denton Corker Marshall dentoncorkermarshall.com

While the Gateway is a series of bright primary colours – a sin to most Melburnians and one best consigned to Sydney or, better still, Brisbane – the Bolte is reassuringly monochrome, like the medium-grey suits of Mad Men. Now that’s Melbourne we say to ourselves.

Another tonality quickly becoming inseparable from Melbourne’s visual identity is that of Corten steel, a self-weathering metal that has a deep brown rust finish, echoing the notion of Australia that poet Dorothea MacKellar articulated as the ‘wide brown land’. The iconic building ‘Ngargee’ that houses Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) and state contemporary dance company Chunky Move is perhaps the most celebrated of these buildings, designed by Wood Marsh Architects. They have since designed the Australian National Pavilion in the same material for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, furthering this visual connection. Another Corten structure worth celebrating is the wonderful Craigieburn Bypass by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, a stretch of freeway that links the Hume Highway with the Melbourne Ring Road.

© John Gollings, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects tzg.com.au

© John Gollings, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects tzg.com.au

Article continues.

[i] Figures courtesy of Wikipedia.

[ii] Davison, Graeme, Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities, Allen & Unwin, 2004.