A Camel is a Horse Designed by Committee
RMIT University Master of Architecture Graduate Project 2019
Supervisor: Michael Spooner
Every day dignitaries gather in front of cyclone fences for the purpose of driving yet another survey peg into more unbroken ground, to launch a stage, that is in effect, exactly the same as the one before. It makes the 6 o’clock news alongside global share market fluctuations and floods in Northern Queensland. Nation Building is ground-breaking and ground-breaking is nation building, and yet New Parliament House still sits atop a cavernous unfinished “cathedral” simply because the budget ran out.
This project is concerned with the procurement of public architecture. The bureaucratic condition has been invoked as a mechanism, not only despite, but considering its absurdity, to establish a self-propagating architecture that is instinctively public. I have proposed a strategic plan for the extension and alteration and addition to the future and former offices of the Melbourne City Council, that remains resolutely optimistic in its ambition to contribute something positive to the discipline. Architecture operates within the bureaucratic framework, it is an inescapable condition and one we could be motivated to engage with differently. It is this project’s aim to realise the opportunity often overlooked within this refrain and celebrate the absurdity that reveals our innate human fallibility.
The site is located on Bourke St, one block East of Swanston St and has acted as a catalyst to delve into the often-bewildering legacy of the public interface with municipal services. A history of Australia Post reveals a determined government business enterprise which can be attributed with the production of many of the nation’s most iconic clock towers, the 2019 Great Aussie Coin Hunt and more recently Australia Post China Direct – a controversial, yet strategic service that allows shoppers to buy and send products, such as baby formula, exclusively to China. Similarly, a history of the Commonwealth Bank , a former government business enterprise that was once reliant on Australia Post before an extensive branch building program during the 1930s. A building of this stature is located onsite and was acquired by Melbourne City Council in the late 80s to be connected via skybridge to Council House 1 on Little Collins St. However, serendipitously for five years now City Duty Free have occupied the lower floors of the sandstone monolith. A building once concerned with capturing the nations identity – now home to a stateless enterprise, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Australia Post’s latest venture. It is as if the Former Commonwealth Bank has returned to its municipal origins and could be deemed a post office once more.
Reinforcing this municipal revival was the Lord Mayor’s announcement for a $232 million Bourke St Precinct Redevelopment project late last year, it came at the same time President Trump launched plans for the formation of an American Space Force via logo competition to his supporters. Council offices and a public common were included in Sally Capp’s well publicised plans for “Melbourne’s newest Civic Landmark”.
My project has reinterpreted this brief by recognising the instability of accepted typologies and challenging how the municipal condition might manifest in the future. A literal backdrop of architectural tests and presentations, driven by precedent case studies, forms the precondition for this project. Not unlike John Soane’s Bank of England which was continually added to over a period of 45 years (only to be demolished), it has been conceived as an aggregation on site of intersecting forms, unsubstantiated stages, pre-existing conditions and unpredictable programs. Moving beyond the demarcation of the land and bureaucratic red tape of property boundaries, this project has spent 15 weeks forever chasing council’s next big venture.
The site plan draws the ground plane of the new municipal precinct, revealing unexpected programmatic adjacencies and nuanced site-specific observations. The flattened level of hierarchy proposes the project be considered consistently throughout – the placement of a traffic bollard outside the Melbourne Metro Police Station is as contentious as reinstating the former Commonwealth Bank Building, as the new headquarters for the Australia Post China Direct venture. The site is as enclosed as the interior of Neaopli Wine Bar and as expanssive as the network of corridors and formal rooms that constitute Melbourne Town Hall and Council Chambers, or the shelve of the Woolworths Metro on Swanston Street.
This presupposes a model for architecture wherein the focus and scale are constantly shifting; a model for ‘moving forward, Sandra’. The expanse of the project is never conceived in its entirety, and never consistently dealt with – instead, the condition is constantly reframed, rezoned and the problem reinstated. Constant starts but no end – an incompleteness with bureaucratic resolution. Council has said ‘yes’ to everything but never completely documented the scope or bothered to inform the colleague sitting opposite, let alone the other departments.
A stair detail is remnant of initial strategies that divided the precinct into 30x30m cores to be developed independently and without regard for one another. This stair was split, and has become a Melbourne City Council success story. The balustrade seamlessly switches from glass to wire and the handrail was continuous. Moving forward, they are thinking of adding it to the online design standards.
This process of perpetual fragmentation and reorientation has been implemented as a strategy to build into the architecture, space beyond purview of use and economy, akin to the provision of public space without conscious intent. These spaces although at first seemingly unconsidered could transcend into something much more vital than mere leftover building. Through their haphazard formation they embody more public character than if they had been preconceived or pre-planned. The Hoddle Grid when first instigated had no provision for public space. The unusual dimensions of the allotments and the incorporation of narrow ‘little’ streets was the result of compromise between Hoddle’s desire to employ the regulations established in 1829 by the previous NSW Governor and Bourke’s desire for rear access ways, and yet it is our laneway culture market not an apple store in Federation Square.
This proposes a model for how an architect might operate within the public realm – capitalising on what may have been previously considered system error, or otherwise described as, recognising opportunity in the absurdity of the condition. I have addressed our internal areas through this mechanism.
The view of the Central Atrium space depicts remnants of the infrastructure from the original ground-breaking ceremony. The internal courtyard which bleeds into the new foyer of the China Direct Headquarters forms a depression into the ground plane, whilst opposite a café has haphazardly taken up residence under the stairs, as though the interface of the street has delved into the building.
Previous stages of the project can still be read through material and form, and any incongruities have either been carefully detailed, perhaps through the placement of an additional column or extension of a handrail – or alternatively celebrated as follies, as in the alcove that was created for the placement of the standard design, Melbourne City, stainless steel slatted seat, that only comes manufactured in one size. A seat on this bench provides a view down the newly pedestrianised section of Royal Lane which now intersects with an extension to the Tivoli Arcade. Whilst the analogue clock tower, which references the 2700 clocks found in New Parliament House, is wound back every year for daylight savings, but normally a week late.
The New City Library has found a permanent home within the municipal precinct, having welcomed more than half the total visits to the council’s six branches combined in the past year, it was considered a ‘smart solution’ to increasing community engagement with local councillors. It was also a timely addition as the current lease in Flinders Lane expires next year and no one had thought to do anything about it. Stairs ascend from the ground plane underneath the retired grandstand. Furniture design is considered, but only for as long as it took to discern whether the vinyl floor would meet non-slip requirements. Above the main massing of the library can be seen formally intersecting with new council offices.
A Conference Centre intersects with the former floors of Council House 1, the existing skybridge forming a symbolic backdrop to the new forum for public and political debate. The vivid hues of carpet reference both the Victorian Parliament and the State Theatre on St Kilda Road. The acoustic treatment has been a topic of debate itself, no one’s sure whether its ‘M’ for Melbourne or ‘M’ for Metro, the two have almost become synonymous in recent years and many feel the cavernous space is oddly reminiscent of the sheds that have become so engrained in the city fabric. A white matchstick leads up to the private meeting rooms required for decisions made behind doors closed to the public, approximately 25% according to the most recent ‘Know Your Council’ Performance Review, a figure Melbourne City lists with comparable importance to the time it takes to action an animal management request: 1.56 days. Almost a full day faster than similar councils.
Council Services are located beneath the conference centre in the original footprint of CH1 – a conglomeration of informal urban forms aims to reinforce the accessibility of the municipal condition. Similarly, the façade fronting Bourke St endeavours to portray a friendly monumentality adjacent the Former Commonwealth Bank. The intersection of forms alludes to the programmatic negotiation that occurs inside, whilst a public stair spills out onto the footpath signalling the entrance to Royal Lane. These views describe an ambition to create a municipal infrastructure that is not only public architecture but an architecture that begins to attempt entry into the public memory.
A camel may be a horse designed by committee, but wouldn’t you say, after this presentation a camel is quite fantastic? Community canvassing suggests it will be a success as long as there’s free Wi-Fi.