Where I live: Building


It mightn’t look like it from this photo, but this is the most dangerous intersection in Melbourne for pedestrians.

During the last five years there have been 11 serious injuries sustained here, or if you like one every 166 days — leaving current users, as the ‘Herald Sun’ puts it, ‘dicing with death’. There are a couple of slightly tricky green arrows and it is true that 16 lanes of traffic cross the intersection. The 58 tram on its way to Toorak or West Coburg and the 59 running between Flinders St and Airport West also trundle their way through here every eight minutes. But it’s Melbourne. It’s mild.

If you do get into trouble the two-tone blue building is Chelsea House, a morass of medical chambers and ancillary medical services. The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Emergency Department is 50 metres behind us. You’ll find it just adjacent to the No Smoking sign where the intubated and others have their smokes.IMG_0508.jpg

If you happen to be pregnant just cross and you’ll go straight into the front door of The Women’s, where you will find a possessive apostrophe without a possession, a possible match for this slightly puzzling repIMG_0479.jpgresentation of its users. They have bulges in feminine places but are otherwise eviscerated, including the two who may be in flight from care.

And, while taking the first photo, I’m standing on the terrace of the very new, very remarkable and very expensive Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre which for several years we’ve watched being built. We got up early to watch this happening, two monster cranes lifting two two-storey transverse sections joining the two hospitals.DSC00023.jpg

Now it looks like this.IMG_0913.jpg

Below is a view of its atrium. If it was the right atrium you could be looking up through the vena cava.160229-VCCC-2463.jpg

And another of its exterior.aef5543e450270fc0391af26237098d2.jpg

The review in this architectural digest suggests that the white accents ‘mimic the wiry winter branches of the elm trees surrounding the site.’

But I look at that from the Haymarket Tram stop and I can’t help thinking despite being about ‘optimism and progress’ this view of the building looks just a little bit like a cancerous cell clinging to the glass.


Behind the hospitals, the University of Melbourne spreads its cashed-up tentacles ever wider through Carlton South. There are exciting new buildings being built. 

images.jpeg‘The Spot’, the headquarters of the Melbourne Business School is a building I see a lot and quite like.

But I’m not sure it’s competitive with RMIT’s Business School nearby (with the Oxford Scholar Hotel hanging on by its fingertips).dezeen_RMIT-Swanston-Academic-Building-by-Lyons_ss_3.jpg

Among the miscellany, an interesting miscellany, of architecture on Melbourne Uni’s original block, just outside the Baillieu, is this.IMG_0509.jpg
IMG_0513.jpgA wonderful sculpture. Victor Tilgner, who lived in the second half of the 19th century. Constructed 1891-96 — good work takes time, then and now — in the Imperial Art Foundry of the world’s second most liveable city, Vienna. It was purchased in 1923 by the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society and provided the primary adornment for this splendid building in Collins St. (Check out the central arch.) Melbourne has had its moments. nla.pic-vn3264782-v.jpgThis building was unceremoniously demolished in 1959, and this is the replacement.colonia.jpg


If you look at the first photo again you will find a tiny patch of very bright blue close to its centre. The blue patch is a tarpaulin covering up a deck which, because of shoddy building 15 years ago, has rotted from water damage. We live next door. If you were this much closer you could see two magnolias and a youngish bougainvillea cascading from our deck which we have had recaulked and retiled.


This is quite a good way to understand where we live — something like a permanent building site. The tarp and the bougainvillea are visible behind a temporary dump for equipment used in putting a new water main down the street you can actually see in the first pic. Working mostly at night, it took five and a half months. The concrete surface in this photo is the first floor of factory knocked down ten years ago because it was full of asbestos. The Lort Smith Animal Hospital (behind the graffitied wall) owned the space and made a fortune by seizing an opportunity to get it rezoned and then selling it on. It is still to be developed. One way I spend my time is organising protests about the prospect of having a 12-storey building immediately at our front door, along with a five-storey block of 108 units at our back. 

Underneath the roundabout pictured below, about 100m from our house, is one of the largest water delivery mains in inner Melbourne, a massive electricity trunk which services in particular, a short distance west, the new Children’s Hospital, a major storm water collection line — and these boys are putting in new gas mains. I think someone or other has been digging up that roundabout for about an eighth of the 14 or so years we’ve lived here.


The hi-vis chaps are outside the [Edinburgh: elided in signage] Castle Hotel.2014-09-25 14.06.20.jpg

The Castle was run by George on the left, but he now he cares for his sick wife. Ange on the right has taken over. It’s frequented by medical staff after their shifts have finished and always looks like a fair bit of fun. They’re excellent neighbours.IMG_0824.jpgYou can look further down the street and, above all that infrastructure, it’s a sea of green. It was once a watercourse running down to a swamp, a corroboree ground for Wurundjeri people. It is now North Melbourne Football club’s home at Arden St. That’s one of the delights of North Melbourne. It’s a mix.IMG_0898.jpg

You can turn the corner at the pub and go down our lane, a sharp contrast. At its end is Myrna’s own gesture of revolt against unmediated asphalt.IMG_0850.jpg


Bins? Sure. My speciality. I am the self-appointed bin monitor. On a big Sunday night there are 38 of them out in Courtney St. A malodorum of bins in fact.IMG_0638 (1).jpg

Down the lane there is another pleasure awaiting.

Our house has two big carefully designed holes in it. One, encased by glass, goes horizontally across the first floor; and the other, straight up the middle, will always provide internal light and an unhindered view of the sky. It was designed for the optimism and progress which are its bywords.IMG_0466.jpgIMG_0441.jpg
Guan Yin (sometimes ‘Gualin’) is someone we found in an antique store in Malvern. She’s been a puzzle which has recently been solved to some degree. She is a Buddhist bodhisattva, oddly enough, probably derived from the Virgin Mary with whom she has strong affinities. (The traffic on the Silk Roads went both ways.)250px-HainanSanya2.jpg

In Japan she is known as Kannon and we have visited several temples devoted to her worship. Perhaps accounting for her popularity, her particular concerns are care for pregnant women, young children and the destitute.

Around the world she comes in a range of sizes. This one on Hainan Island, southern China, recently seen by members of our family, is 135m. high. According to Wikipedia it’s the second highest monument in the world.

Indoors, there’s been mischief. You can’t turn your back for a minute. But that’s where I’m sitting right now.




Old world new world. The churn. At this juncture. Right now. In front of our eyes. It’s not going to be like it was.Unknown.jpeg

I’m standing in Victoria St looking down to the city, opposite Star of the Sea (at left), a church tending towards the grand where funerals celebrating the lives of some of Melbourne’s most colourful identities (Australian for ‘gangsters’) have been conducted.

There are two obvious layers of building. The nearer are two-storey 1870s/80s buildings, mostly but not all commercial. In this block you can buy Dolcetti’s extraordinary cakes, pressure stockings, anything electrical (for the trade) at Calmatronics, have a coffee at Don Camillo with Sam Greco and live colourful identities, real estate, odds and sods, migration assistance. The gun shop has gone and the White Lotus which used to serve vegan food so serious it was not made out of food has also closed its doors. Apart from that it’s pretty stable. One new establishment is a diagou, a Chinese brokerage which buys Australian products and on request exports them to China. Infant formula is the hot item. The area around the market is littered with them. 

The dragon’s teeth behind are almost entirely residential, almost entirely fronting onto Elizabeth St, and almost entirely newly built. Only one that you can see — the small brown one on the far left — is older than four years.

Since 2010 in the jurisdiction of Melbourne in which we live 3,123 apartments have been completed; 2,744 are currently under construction; planning approvals have been granted for 2,266 more; and there are 3,417 others with permit discussions in train. You could be forgiven for thinking there was a building boom going on.

How come? Well there are 4.6 million people living in Melbourne, or were late last year. The city is currently growing by more than 100,000 a year. Not Chinese figures, but fairly heavy duty. Projections say that population will double by 2040. (And NO public infrastructure is ready for that.) The city is sprouting upwards and the suburbs are oozing outwards, both at an extraordinary rate.

How come? Melbourne is popular. It is, or it has been, a very easy place to live. It’s even-tempered, quite startlingly multicultural and forgiving of variety. In our lane the backgrounds are Chinese, Indian, Italian, Greek, English, Russian, German, American. We’re the only real Skips. I have often thought people who live in Melbourne have no idea what the rest of the country is like — and probably vice versa. Where we live is an oddity, one from which we benefit. (At differing times the people of Carthage and Bosnia felt the same. Hard men have always hated multiculturalism.)

IMG_1906.jpgWho’s bankrolling it though? Well, there are a lot of empty buildings in places like Suzhou and Guangzhou, and there has to be places to invest and grow capital.IMG_0582 (1).jpg

This claim might be true or it might not. I don’t know. But it is true that 1) a lot of new inner Melbourne is being built with Chinese money and that, 2) at least some of the new buildings have a high proportion of investment properties in which no one lives. Note the number of lit rooms in this photo.IMG_0500.jpgOne recent analysis suggests that there are more than 80,000 vacant properties across the metropolitan area. I don’t mind one bit about the Chinese money; but I do mind that the investment and the tax regime that underpins it are making housing unaffordable for the people who want to live and work here. In the last 12 months prices have risen by 16 percent. The median price for houses in Melbourne has gone from $375,000 10 years ago to $819,000 now; the median price of units from $305,000 to $623,000. That is unsustainable.

Some of these new buildings are imaginative delights. I quite like the one with the wave pattern. It was built without three storeys for car parking which appeared in its plans. After a small fuss, no action was taken. The champion town planner who appears for us at VCAT, a quasi court which deals with development disputes, says that buildings up to five storeys are subject to the most intricate and detailed regulation, but bigger than that you can do what you like. The level of expertise required to comment does not exist in the City of Melbourne’s Planning Department.

Fourteen buildings of more than six storeys have been built within 400m. of our house in the last six years; the tallest (and ugliest, they’re building in black these days) is 16 storeys. This 8-storey masterpiece is in ‘High St’, actually a narrow short lane.IMG_0828.jpg

Many, too many, of the apartments which have been built near us — mainly currently for Asian tertiary students — have rooms with no direct access to natural light. Twenty percent of the 108 units in the original plans for the apartment block at our rear were like this. However, in an agile — and creative — innovation, signage can replace actuality. See, for example, ‘Sunshine’. So when the total floor space of an ‘apartment’ is less than 24 square metres (6×4, have a look at the room you’re sitting in; it mightn’t be much smaller) you put a large sign on the wall saying ROOMY. When there is no access to fresh air you have another sign on the wall where the opening window should be saying DELIGHTFULLY BREEZY. On the empty spaces for shops on the ground floor you can get the signwriter in to provide you with a majestic ACTIVATED TO THE STREETSCAPE.

Development, and change, is inevitable, even in the world’s most liveable city. I don’t mind. I am intrigued by it. Buildings can be bigger and more intensive, but they could be of a far higher quality than much of what is being built in such a rush now. As Josh Gordon recently wrote in ‘The Age’, one of Melbourne’s papers: ‘The outpouring of public anger over a brazen decision by property developers to raze the historic Corkman pub in Carlton with no planning permits was perhaps a reflection of a bigger concern that has lodged in the public collective consciousness. It is the idea that cowboy developers are riding roughshod over Melbourne and its planning rules to enrich themselves, rather than the city more broadly.’ And that would be exactly on the money.

That is the macro. At a more immediate level some spaces like this are still being built.IMG_0455.jpg

And because it’s North Melbourne, there are still views like this to savour (Arden St oval).IMG_0842.jpg

 And this. Down the lane there is a barbecue in preparation.IMG_0458.jpg

And that’s one of the reasons I like living here so much.

But there are others.