Edge City Group Scheme, RMIT, Acton Peninsula, Canberra; Craig Gillette, Mona Hana, Gini Lee, Caroline King, Michael McKenna, Stephen O'Connor, Sue Wood. Where the City Meets the Lake, exhibition catalogue, p 13, 1992

Edge City \ Melbourne docklands + Acton Peninsula, Canberra

Post-Masters. While I was busy with Quadrata mini-CBDs, Joel Garreau published Edge City: life on the new frontier, in which he argued edge city had become the standard form of urban growth worldwide, very different to the 19th-century central CBD. The term in Tom Wolfe's 1968 novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meant a concentration of business, shopping, and entertainment outside a traditional urban area, in what had recently been a residential suburb or semi-rural community. I hadn't read either at the time, yet they were the subject matter of my thesis.

I arrived there differently; through my work at Camberwell Junction. Once Melbourne's pre-eminent suburban shopping strip, it was struggling to compete against 20th-century super-regional shopping centres, all built with their backs to the street, such as Chadstone. Chaddy had become Australia's first Edge City in 1960, following the American formula, and copies had been springing-up far and wide for thirty years amid sprawling greenfield housing estates, usually at the intersections of expressways or turnpikes. This, of course, was just as Garreau described.

Group Scheme detail, RMIT, authors as above. Where the City Meets the Lake, exhibition catalogue, p 13, 1992
Leon van Schaik introduced Edge City to a first-year Masters studio, probably unaware Shane Murray had opposed the same subject matter for my thesis the year prior. I'd finished the Masters and Leon gave me an opportunity to run it, stressing he would stay close.

We were all still searching for a methodological discourse, but I wrote-up the brief he requested as best I could, gave him the draft, and opened the design studio with him in June 1992. Candidates were required to collect representative traces of Melbourne's built fabric; project them onto the West Melbourne docklands site in a composite map; and use it as the basis for design proposals at the Acton Peninsula site in Canberra.

The analysis and design process Leon had described was similar to my thesis which, of course, had evolved through his earlier briefs, such as Companion City. There were, however, a few crucial differences. For example, candidates were to use physical traces of the city — surface structure or its echos — where I had used deep stucture. These were to be chosen arbitrarily, rescaled, operated-on, montaged into one, reconciled with the remote site. They were as abstract as building shadows and rubbings from bluestone pavers.

Leon withdrew until the design phase, then invited guests such as Mick Markham and Rob Adams along to the interim presentations. I stood farther back each week as the project took on an exciting life of its own. Once Leon turned from the front row of a presentation, beckoning me forward, but I was a tutor, they were critics. I thought the participants were learning. At least something. Through the mists.

Edge City Scheme, Peter Hogg, RMIT, Acton Peninsula, Canberra. Where the City Meets the Lake, exhibition catalogue, p 12, 1992

Micromega 6, art poster print, Daniel Libeskind, 1979

The designs landed in Canberra with the physical traces of Melbourne CBD well and truly transformed, but the chaotic diagram of Melbourne docklands evident to varying degrees across all three schemes. I don't remember much about the exhibition, other than the words of an old friend, Dimity Reed, who wrote in a review: "... RMIT, good luck to them!" As it turned out, Ashton Raggatt McDougall were commissioned by the developer Mirvac to master plan the docklands site (1996-2004). They also designed the Museum of Australia on Acton Point. It had raised allegations of plagiarism in The Bulletin in 2000 over the exact copy of Libeskind's lightning-flash zigzag created for the Berlin Museum, which had just opened the year before.

Howard Raggatt said in his defence the design was a quotation rather than a copy. The archetypal content, the deep structure, was the Star of David, and it was just one of numerous literal "quotes," or supernational surface structures, in the Canberra project. Its braille colloquialisms are also surface structures, in both linguistic and architectural terms; literal, invocative, but without any new and original interaction with their deep structure or meaning. Just repetitive political comment. The "blind" were helped to read them until some were covered over, but it had already all been said that way, even in braille. Some art helps us to see the world for what it really is; a way of seeing we would not otherwise have. Some art is art for art's sake, beauty we already had. In theory, Raggatt's Drummond Street office (1986) was closer to the mark.

For five centuries, architects had interpreted a system of proportions and characteristic profiles and details; resurrected ancient order; slowly created designs at the scale of the city, which still number among the world's greatest. Many genuinely original works of art share common archetypal content, yet the editor of a book of literal quotations is neither author of their artistry, nor author of the book in which they appear. There is a sacred line in human intellect, which creativity cannot cross. It's a matter of honour.

One of the course lecturers pursued me for weeks for a copy of the Camberwell Junction final report. It was big and costly and so I said check the local library. He eventually found my practice office and I stupidly lent him my only copy, half-knowing I was waving goodbye forever. Stopping Peter Elliot's wrongly-located library; pushing re-generative development; "expertly" opposing a competing centre at Tooronga as a "civic duty" at AAT hearings for the City of Hawthorn; QCs questioning my credentials, not my evidence; anonymous threats in the mail even after I'd left; yes, it was beginning to get me down. I'd heard it whispered it was "the project that was going to make him," but I did what I knew to be right, and that made it enough to have just survived. I declined the one and only development opportunity that followed.

When the council approved Podgor's plans a few years earlier in 1988, four hundred residents stormed the meeting. Anti-development protesters won control of the council at elections later that year. Floyd Podgornik subsequently proposed a lesser development, but in 1990 the new council rescinded the earlier development approval. Podgornik took the council to court and eventually won $25 million in damages, but he had taken his own life shortly before I arrived.

I left the Junction twelve months later having secured consensus for 20,000 square metres of new core-retail space; about the same as the ill-fated Podgor scheme. More importantly, it was designed in the form of several mini-majors, a new public library and other functions, each carefully re-configured to regenerate the length of the strip, instead of turning their backs on it. A design structure for a greater number and greater diversity of publicly connected centres, nodes, focal points, in close pedestrian proximity, instead of one new centre under one new private roof.

The Camberwell CEO died soon after, his wife publicly citing the Junction as the reason. My heritage consultant called to ask me to try to get his Masters papers from RMIT, even though he hadn't finished. I didn't know he had fallen gravely ill. He died in his late-thirties around the same time. There were small related developments in the District Centre over the years that followed until 1999, when a proposal to incorporate retail and office development at Camberwell railway station met similar opposition.

The 1993 Structure Plan supported development over the station and so this had occurred despite the agreed volumes and controls devised for the station and environs, which ensured little or no adverse impact. Geoffrey Rush and Barry Humphries publicly supported the protest action (see Battle Stations). Wood Marsh applied for a planning permit in 2007, re-submitted in 2008, (Proposal) then an air-rights development by McGauran Giannini Soon was conditionally approved in 2009, almost twenty years on. One option included a small public plaza and a new public library. Cont right...

The core-retail component on the Hawthorn side did not open until late-2008. The Well at Camberwell was developed by Andrew Myer, son of late philanthropist Ken Myer, and grandson of Myer department store founder Sidney Myer. Designed by Bird de la Couer, it's 9,240 square metres are entered from Burke Road and anchored by Coles supermarket (2,800 sqm), Genesis Fitness Centre, Dymocks and ABC Shop, JB HiFi (1,200 sqm), about 30 specialty boutiques, and offices (2,410 sqm), at a cost of about $80m. A 7-level apartment tower with 42 units sits on top. The next year the shopping strip won a survey of the best performing suburban strip in Melbourne.

That same year, FKP officially launched Camberwell’s Aerial project to be developed on the former Henley Honda site, again on the Hawthorn side. It is two 9-level glass apartment towers with 144 units, a 14-level glass office building, and a shopping centre, all by Wood Marsh and Tract, due for completion in 2012. The architectural imagery of the development is similar to Yve apartments in Melbourne (2005) by Wood Marsh. When VCAT approved a 40 percent increase in the number of apartments over the original 2008 approval, VCAT senior member Anthony Liston said “the time has come for Camberwell to play its part in the 2030 solution to Melbourne’s housing needs.”

Melbourne 2030 metropolitan strategy was amended that year to become Melbourne @ Five Million, which reinforces the aim of a multi-centre metropolitan area by lifting the hierarchic level of six sub-urban centres to Central Activities Districts. Box Hill, Broadmeadows, Dandenong, Footscray, Frankston and Ringwood will now have to provide similar services and functions as central Melbourne; the Quadrata thesis. There are nine Transit Cities in the plan and Dandenong CBD will be the first, aided by $200m State Government infrastructure package. It too had taken almost 20 years, but the string of failures went back much farther to the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission's 1929 Plan of General Development. The designers and developers of Melbourne should not leave this important breakthrough to planners.

I was justifiably proud of the work Murray, Elphinstone and the rest of the multi-discplinary team managed to extract from plain intransigence. It was one of the best teams I've seen assembled in Victoria, embracing prevailing landscape and urban planning wisdom, then far exceeding it. This work delivered more to the local and state regulatory control system than anything before it, anywhere in Victoria, while directly engaged in the worst guerilla warfare waged by sectional interests, anywhere in Victoria. The system, the people in it, could barely cope with the detailed precision of the solution they were handed. Few noticed or even cared, but designers disempowered planners that year, snatching back development control. RMIT was there.

I was not invited back to the Masters program, but I did apply for a job at the Centre for Design at RMIT, only to come away from the interview feeling pretty vacant. I consulted for the Faculty with Leon and some of the graduates and produced the Cremorne Urban Design Study for the area that is now a small suburb in Richmond. More followed, including the Richmond Power Station and environs, completing the Cremorne study area through to the river; and a review of plans and proposals for Richmond's side of the river. Metier 3 met with me while they developed the first stage of the redevelopment for Country Road, which was then extended to the Power House within my framework plan.

Other developments included the XV Building, the Nylex Clock silo sign; Daly’s Malthouse conversion to Katsalidis’ Silo Residential Apartments (1996); redevelopment of the Dimmey's site (2008-10, John Armsby); Hayden Dewar mural; the Cremorne Residents' Mural; and Pelaco Sign building. Just Jeans, Country Road and Mattel are some of the companies now operating in this area, and the small Victorian terraces and cottages have undergone a renovation boom. Further along the river are Coogie's National HQ; Victoria Gardens Shopping Centre (2003); and 450 Swan Street (1995, ARM). Cremorne is now a new suburb, less a light industrial sector — a mixture of period and modern housing, cutting edge offices, art galleries and funky bars — yet the urban design contribution to its development and control has all but fallen like dust between the cracks of history.

Phil Borelli of SJB Planning rang RMIT wanting to partner, but I declined; too commercial. He later flattened me at a planning appeals tribunal. My last task with Leon and RMIT was assembling a bid by invitation for the Casino tender selection process. We briefly discussed the RMIT accommodation strategy which later led to the spate of buildings there by Corrigan, ARM and others. I told Leon I wanted to stay involved, but I knew then my time there had come to an end. At least for a time. The outer suburbs were calling and it felt like everyone I'd either worked with or learnt from had suddenly become an RMIT professor with some kind of masters.

I, however, had completed Leon's course. And I'd do it all again.

What is urban character? The case of Camberwell

  Sub-urban meltdown — 80-yr timeline: Melbourne 2030

Book of "quotes" — Garden City, RAC 1990; Companion City, RAC 1991; and ARM's Museum of Australia, 1999-2001

© 2010 Ross Carpenter All Rights Reserved