the babel fiasco
letters to the editor
In 2012 Working Drawings of the RMIT Design Hub came into my possession. Without obtaining permission from Sean Godsell I removed the title blocks from the drawings and posted them on this website as illustrations and as a download accompanying a short review of the then incomplete building.
In doing so I may have breached the AIA code of conduct which stipulates obligations for ethical behaviour, equality of opportunity, social justice, aspiration to excellence, and competent professional performance. Sean Godsell has also suggested that I may have breached the Intellectual, Copyright and Moral rights of his office.
The reproduction, distribution and publication of any architect’s work should be done with the permission of that architect out of respect for their authorship and simply as a matter of courtesy. It is imperative that we actively maintain the highest possible standards in this regard. In doing so we serve the profession by ensuring that the value of our work is not diminished by unfettered distribution.
This article first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure

It was subsequently on the Australian Design Reviewwebsite

For many city dwellers, the defining urban experience is the repetitious blindness of the road. 10 x 5 x 48 = 2400 in/out, often solo, but punctuated by drive-time traffic reports, call-back, screaming bloody ads and Top40 euphoria. Familiarity breeds contempt. Road repetition breeds myopia such that the road is a non-place between origin and destination. We do not see the city beyond the road; our minds already turning over the day’s actions, or the next delivery, or what’s left in the fridge and whether or not it constitutes a balanced meal. It is rare that the city can distract us from these deep musings but on occasion, when the light is right, the city can surprise.

The CityLink Melbourne Gateway is one such surprise. Designed by Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) it opened in 2000 and has since then elicited countless analogies from locals and visitors alike. Its scale, vivid abstraction, and primary colours present a bright target for many a droll Australian wit. Architecture is a slow-moving target for mockery, affectionate or otherwise, but big public infrastructure projects may as well sit up and beg.

Melbourne in the 1990’s proved fertile ground for DCM. Victoria had suffered through the economic doldrums after the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. The Labour party were in power and limped through to the 1992 election battered and bruised in full expectation of a landslide loss. Jeff Kennett and his Liberal/National Party Coalition took to the State with a whip and a branding iron. In their first term they retrenched 50,000 public servants, closed 350 government schools, privatised the Victoria’s electricity and gas utilities, the ambulance service, and several prisons. The State’s largest protests since the Vietnam War were in opposition to the Kennett Government. Kennett also embarked on a massive rebranding exercise. With help from old mate Ron Walker Melbourne poached the Formula 1 Grand Prix from Adelaide. The Kennett Government approved the $1.85 Billion Crown Casino development, added another private football stadium, undertook the sale and redevelopment of the Melbourne Docklands, resurrected the discredited 1969 Melbourne Transportation Plan and created the Melbourne CityLink authority.

From this political, economic, social, and cultural maelstrom DCM managed a singularly productive architectural purple patch. In the Kennett era, they became instrumental in the rebranding of the city and the state. Independent from the quality or intentions of the work DCM’s distinctive style and motifs became synonymous with Jeff Kennett, his style, and his politics. Many have covered this ground, and many have relied on those now tired, lazy, and inaccurate analogies from a period of real political rivalry and social upheaval. DCM’s work that stemmed from that period warrants reflection for its quality and for the skill displayed.
The suite of urban elements constitutes an uncommonly sophisticated urban architecture.
The gateway is kinetic without being animated. It is sculptural but resists the pitfall of becoming flotsam and jetsam in the city. It sustains a massive scale but is open and dynamic. It operates at 100kmph. The gateway is not just good urban form but proof that architects are experts on the city, that it is architects who understand urban scale and are able to curate and deploy form and void in the city. The Gateway is an argument for architecture.

Melbourne was fortunate in procuring fine designs for road infrastructure prior to DCM’s Gateway. The geometric concrete bridges and elegant central lighting of the F19 Eastern Freeway, Desbrowe-Annear’s Chapel Street Bridge, the brutal sweep of the Westgate, and Cocks Carmichael’s staccato graphic on the Bell Banksia Link are all testimony to the excellence of design in Melbourne. In fact, the procurement of great design has little to do with fortune at all but rather the sustained efforts of successive generations of architects, urban designers, bureaucrats, and politicians committed to developing architecture and design. The pride and tenacity of advocates Robin Boyd, Neil Clerehan, Peter McIntyre, Dimity Reid, The Halftime Club, Rob Adams, Leon van Schaik, Ian McDougall, and Jeff Kennett(!), amongst many others have been vital to developing and sustaining a vibrant architectural culture. Several Australian cities are following suit; Brisbane, Hobart, Perth, and Adelaide are all getting serious about the design of infrastructure and are implementing procedures to procure serious design.
So, when the consortiums bidding for nigh on a $1billion worth of infrastructure fronted the Melbourne CityLink Authority in 1995 without an acceptable design strategy, they were told to go away and find one.
There is a sad irony here. The CityLink project has its genesis in the Kennett Government’s resurrection of the 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan; a document that presents a heavily road reliant urban methodology. Successive governments have followed with EastLink, Peninsula Link and North-East Link. The 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan represents a US post-war urbanism, exported globally, that continues to promote the garden city and urban sprawl. In greater Melbourne it has been used, with great effect, to stimulate the economy, turn productive farmland into unproductive suburbia, delay the necessity of investing in the existing public transport network, and spread Melbourne ever thinner into the countryside.
Nonetheless, it has provided opportunities for some excellent architecture.
DCM joined the Transurban consortium to develop a new threshold for the city. The Gateway is the primary marker of arrival for nearly all interstate and international visitors to Melbourne it must therefore present an arresting experience and a clear brand. DCM’s approach was to take advantage of a predetermined trajectory and deliberately compose a procession of abstract forms; one yellow beam, 70m long, cantilevering at 30° out over the road; 39 red sentinels bolted to pile caps extending into the ground; an aquamarine horizontal beam; a skeletal tunnel; two colossal silver towers, and 500 metres of yellow concrete ribbon.
The approach from the north brings you around a gentle right hand curve, the yellow ribbon is on your right and a yellow beam dangles over you like the sword of Damocles. A red wall dissolves into a stand of red sentinels, the aquamarine line appears to mark the horizon before you enter the Soundtube, closed in on your right, the tracery overhead flashes across the bonnet and windscreen; then it’s over, the Bolte Bridge is obscured in the distance, to your left a billboard whispers fcuk®.
Welcome to Melbourne.
The Bolte Bridge was not originally part of the brief but DCM identified the location as an orienting marker in the city, part of the internal map Melburnians keep in their mind’s eye, it was designed as part of the Gateway project and there is a clear and consistent intent to curate the driver’s experience around urban form. In this case, two great concrete shafts rise by the crest of the bridge. Set apart by six lanes and strangely independent from the road, they look back to the towers of the CBD, one has the sense of travelling along the top of a great viaduct or city wall beneath an ancient abstract colossus.

After a decade of glorious isolation, the city has begun to crowd in. With ever greater pressure on the city to house a growing population, previously marginal sites are being filled. When Fender Katsalidis were commissioned to build apartments overlooking the Gateway they discussed the project with DCM. The result is a faceted blue skin, sustaining DCM’s abstract composition and completing the set of primary colours. The Gateway is now accepted as an icon and a view worth having. The old resentments and political conflagrations are fading and the city is reframing the project, its foreign abstraction now settling into a creeping urban setting. Skirting the edge, under the elevated road, urban locals walk and ride at the foundations of the Gateway, at this speed and vantage the forms become surreal, as if we have passed through the looking glass. Each element appears as a fragment of some forgotten infrastructure like some magnificent machine, its purpose long forgotten; a city wall, perhaps, marking an ancient pre-suburban demarcation.
Travelling the arterials of Melbourne we find many more pretty specimens in what DCM call ‘the string of pearls’. Some belong to DCM’s portfolio but Wood Marsh, Peter Elliot, Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, ARM, and Kirsten Thompson have all made significant contributions to the infrastructure network. It may well cost you a bit in tolls but there’s a dedicated portal, www.roadtrip.org.au that will see you through your self-guided tour of Melbourne’s infrastructure pearls.
As it gets dark; and its dark early in the winter months, the Gateway emerges stark and huge in the darkness. The Bolte Bridge, lit white from its base disappears into the night. The red wedges beneath the road take a string of blue lights and, above, DCM shortened the pylon lighting and tightened their spacing to create a dotted line hovering above the road. Approaching the Soundtube again, heading north, heading home; the reflection of starkly lit steel reflects on bonnet and windscreen, no longer shadow, but irradiated glare. The striation of bright trusses against night sky enhances the sense of enclosure but not of tunnelling, for the Golden beam points at an impossible angle, seemingly from out of the road itself. The red sentinels, now beacons, no longer a ruin of some forgotten boundary, rather a blazing roadside architecture like one of Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations; in their vivid abstraction they are both heroic and tragic. Ruscha’s vernacular structures and roadside detritus crystalize familiar images rendering them abstract and all the more vivid. DCM’s red gash in the night has a similar effect; they demarcate and render a threshold in the city. The Golden gate, once the Sword of Damocles, now illuminating the night, marks our departure. The last flash of yellow ribbon passes on our right and we can only glance in the rear mirror and reflect on 30 seconds of architecture.

The Gateway is an oblique architecture, we approach and exit obliquely and at speed, the gateway expands and contracts with this procession; each element plays with angles and tangential curves; it is operating spatially and at an urban scale. It creates enclosure and revelation while operating as an urban landmark. This is a carefully curated architectural space. It is, however, not a shrine to war dead or sporting heroes rather its abstraction is open and democratising, it is not a fortified city wall or protective city gate, it does not protect nor defend a mono-cultural city-state, it is a thoroughfare within a polyglot and complex built environment. The Melbourne Gateway is not resisting or insisting on patriotic symbolism, it is a soft city wall just barely drawing lines in space.

DOWNLOAD: RMIT Design Hub Drawings (PDF)This resource has been removed by request.


So the building isn't open yet but that gives us the opportunity to ignore architecture for a minute and talk about the building in the city.

Melbourne is a grid city. This means quite a lot. It doesn't have axes, in the École des Beaux-Arts sense.
The grid is meant to be unyielding but permissive, democratic, pragmatic, mute.
Despite this, much has been made of the Swanston Street Axis, from the point that it nudges around the Shrine of Remembrance, to it's kink at the former CUB site. It's hard to resist drawing that line through the site, continuing Swanston Street into eternity.

Sean Godsell resisted that temptation.

His RMIT Design Hub is just another building in the city. Apparently.

So let's look at it.

The Building holds the corner. The 'front door' is off the corner on Victoria Street. Retail Voodoo (which seems to infect everything) would insist on a diagonal corner entry, denying the street as address and implying that people are incapable of finding an entry that is around the corner. So Godsell's entry affirms the streetfront as proper for addressing the street.

Swanston Street, however, is a different matter.

The mass of the building runs into the street, providing neither street front, nor formal relief. This is a wall (a nice climbable one, but a sheer wall nonetheless). This is a rejection of the city and a profoundly anti-urban gesture.
The finished floor level (FFL) at the Victoria Street entry is FFL 23.50, internally a ramp follows the natural incline of Swanston Street as it heads north. I only raise the ramp because it brings us to the northern 'servicemen's entry' to the building at FFL 25.10. Past this entry, a stair descends rapidly to the sunken forecourt.

Back on Victoria Street, to the immediate west of the building is the primary approach to the forecourt which bottoms out at SSL 19.70. The building privileges this forecourt. It has art in it.

Adjacent to the forecourt is a low shed housing offices and archives and beyond that a vehicle ramp to carparking below. This gives us a total of 31metres of negative street front on Victoria Street, which, if your a Melburnian, you will recall isn't 5th Avenue.
Beyond the RMIT design hub is a wasteland where the brewery once stood. Grocon have been developing their interests for site over several years, NH Architecture prepared a masterplan which formed the DNA of the current development plans. Planning permits have been issued. Which is why it's a strange site to see a 5metre south facing concrete wall (it will apparently have greenery) at the northern end of Design Hub site. This wall frustrates potential connection through the site as does the archival building, sunken court, and vehicle ramp. This is articulate urban isolation, deliberate and composed.

The attitude that this might be a building in the city is a good one, and has strong arguments in favour of it over the will to axial urban design. However, this building is not one seeking to engage the street and by extension the city. It negates the messy convulsions of the city but fails to offer fresh conditions.

One can't help but wonder if Godsell wasn't hoping for something a little more...

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DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol.1,No.4, Oct. 1980

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The Pleasures Of Architecture Conference 1980: The Interviews
First Past The Post•Modernism: An Exercise In Metaphor | Neville Quarry
The State Of The Art | C. Elwyn Dennis
Glenn Murcutt's Houses | Ian Mcdougall
The Romance And Illusion Of The Architecture Of High Technology | Michael Keniger
Book Review: 'Delirious New York" | Richard Munday

Ian Mcdougall & Richard Munday

For many of the delegates at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, the most lasting impression was gained where they found that the less than smooth course of events inadvertently turned the spotlight on them, It was disturbing to realise that. in comparison with the Mid-Atlantic architects. Graves, Baird, and Koolhaas, they had not more than the barest notion of their own bailiwick. Also disturbing were the "Completion of Engehurst" entries from Australia's creme de la creme, trying hard but often vapid and sycophantic. And so it was perhaps that the event appeared to be not much more than an inaugural cultural ritual, staged to meet a vague national architectural obligation, rather than signifying the full-blooded emergence of architectural endeavour worthy of debate. Nevertheless it was a success in a salutary way. It tested the water and may have brought to the fore issues which are well enough appreciated but too uncomfortable to live with. Architecture in this country cannot be said to give cause for great pride, nor does the attitude of society to architecture give much cause for gratitude. This is grim, but architects cannot blame society if its expectations are low or if it is unreceptive. In this country the institution of architecture has been worn complacently and deceitfully by architects to conceal mass torpor and lack of substance. Those few who have made some contribution to architecture have eventually been feted with unbelievably uncomprehending relief, At the conference there did seem to be a softening in this attitude, a realisation that the responsibility for architecture lies with architects, that is, with themselves, and that the solution to a lack of substance could not be imported. Acceptance by architects of that responsibility is an important step, but architecture will not issue once or because it is taken. Architecture is not the fulfilment of an obligation: it contains a fortuitous element. It is a fallacy to say that if there hadn't been Bernini there would have been someone else. Architecture will not come about just because it is needed as a national totem . However, obstacles are in themselves no incentive, and while opportunities are best utilised by those who Create them ad hoc to suit their requirements, architecture would be a more realistic proposition than it is now if architects did something to create opportunities for each other, The schools of architecture in Australia could in general playa far more constructive role in architecture than is now evident. The significant contributions now being made to architecture are being made by architects such as Graves, Baird , and Koolhaas, all of whom have spent more time in universities than in drawing offices. It is of course ludicrous to regard academic involvement as some essential precondition for architecture; nevertheless it is important to realise that, because very few academics in Australia have evidenced much interest in theoretical speculations or in a serious commitment to practice, and because even fewer practising architects teach or have undertaken research , the possibility of a movement in architecture, of a type com• parable in any way to that which emerged in Europe and the United States over the past twenty years, occurring in Australia would be virtually inconceivable, There is some evidence of architects taking time off from the office to catch up on what is happening, or to do some lecturing, and this is fine, but it is hardly what is called for. Practising architects should be given access to architecture schools for the purposes of study and research , and under• take teaching as a means of reviewing their work and concerns, and extending them under these rigorous but sheltered circumstances, Many academics nurse presentiments of uselessness and would benefit from direct involvement in architectural practice, an arena which offers its own rigours. Others should be more assiduous in their demands for research time. And it is time for some permanently tenured academics to show cause. These suggestions are basically gratuitous when the problem could well be a matter of the wrong people or a sense of despair, but at the "Pleasures of Architecture" conference, highlighted by the sybaritic insinuations of that title, many Australian architects were shocked and embarrassed by their sudden awareness of their own emptiness. After such a revelation it is to be hoped that there will be some changes.

DOWNLOAD | Transition, Volume 1 No. 3, March 1980

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Editors | Ian McDougall, Richard Munday


Post Modern | The Renewal of Style in Architecture | Philip Drew

3345 : A Project | Michael Trudgeon

An Interview With William Turnbull Jnr

Ars Sine Scientia Nihil | Peter Kollar

Parliament House, Canberra | Two Designs

In Search of a National Symbol | John Rockey

DOWNLOAD | Transition Vol. 1, No. 2

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Editors Ian McDougall & Richard Munday


Looking at the Sydney School | Jennifer Taylor
Four Melbourne Architects | an exhibition
Parliament House Canberra | 9 Designs
Architectural Style in Brisbane | Dr. G. de Gruchy

Book Review
Supermannerism by C. Ray Smith Richard Munday

Letters, etc. replies to Vol 1 No.1

Made in Australia


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We longingly await the day when some Great Publication taking public duty to its heart, will offer regular, informed and utterly frank criticisms of all major buildings. Meanwhile we present these humble comments in all sincerity, and expectantly continue to await the Armageddon when the mysteries of design shall be honestly displayed to a waiting world.

Smudges Vol. 1 No. 1

This age of the pamphleteer begins with Ornament and Crime.

We, over here, like degenerates; had fallen for Queen Anne and called it Federation Style.We quite liked all that exuberance, all that featurism, we quite liked the two-tone Holden Special.

Robin Boyd did not. He called it our Ugliness and we loved him for it. In 1956 Ron Clarke burnt his arm lighting the Olympic flame. Peter McIntyre, John and Phyllis Murphy, and Bill Irwin had a red hot go at some pretty exuberant modernism.

Robin Boyd quite liked it.

Click image to pause
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Click image to pause

In this age the Villa Savoye fell to ruin and was raised again as a cenotaph in the suburbs. We had followed the crow Towards a New Architecture – but in the end it wasn’t so fast or so new.

Robin Boyd went to the dentist in 1971 and died. Architects in Melbourne read his stuff a lot.

Aldo Rossi crashed his car in 1971. He crashed it again in 1997 but not again after that. He wrote and said some things about buildings he’d done and cities he knew.

Architects in Melbourne read his stuff a lot. Richard Munday and Ian McDougall were among them. They wrote about architecture too. Some of us still read what they wrote.

Richard Munday left Melbourne for New York.

Death of The Pamphleteer began as an RMIT elective run by Dean Boothroyd, Nicholas Hubicki, and later, myself.

The pamphlet is a tradition in Melbourne architecture. Desbrowe Annear was a pompous pamphleteer of sorts. Robin Boyd, of course, was the consummate pamphleteer. Later Richard Munday and Ian McDougall took on the mantel, riding close on the heels of Boyd’s legacy.

The publications included in the study were Smudges, Cross-Section, Architectural Papers, Tension, Transition, Pataphysics, Backlogue, The Half-Time Club Minutes, Subplot, and Subaud. It should be said that this study was not exhaustive. The published documents of record dovetail with an aural history – the HALFTIME Club, Process, 3RRR’s Burning Down the House, and The Architects, amongst others. There is a local lineage to be found in this list, something that is in the architectural blood of Melbourne. The pamphlets and pamphleteers gave voice and sustenance to architecture in Melbourne. The pamphlets are not esoterica but are bound directly to the practice and production of architecture. Death of the Pamphleteer attempted to plot the history of writing architecture in Melbourne.

To make sense of information – to understand it – one has to put it into fruitful relationship with other information, and grasp the meaning of that relationship; which implies finding patterns, learning lessons, drawings inferences, and as a result seeing the whole.”

The Mystery of Things A.C. Grayling

The timeline plots key events, articles and buildings published in our pamphlets. Through it we can follow Ariadne’s thread as it unravels, bifurcates, and tangles it’s way through half a century. I’m just going to pull out a couple of these knots.

Smudges was almost Robin Boyd’s first step into writing architecture. He was 19.

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Smudges was published by the Victorian Architectural Student’s Society of the RAIA. Smudges was the archetypal Melbourne pamphlet – a single sheet, double sided, it was folded down to fit in a shirt pocket. Each issue had a different folding pattern. Smudges was irreverent, cutting, and insightful. It was also generous.

Famously Boyd awarded a Bouquet and a Blot of the month to the best and worst acts of architecture. When Boyd wrote of the Tudor shopping village called Castle Towers,

“It is as though a giant garbage tin had been shaken over Melbourne for about a decade and then, when it had seemed that the contents had all come out, a particularly fruity, juicy hunk that had been jammed in the bottom suddenly became dislodged and fell into the middle of one the most snobbish retreats in the city. If it lasts six months of the post-war world we may well ask: “what were we fighting for?”

The irate Blotter, Arthur Plaisted, sued Smudges for £3000. Boyd published an apology in a Gothic font. In Smudges we see the genesis of an irreverent clan of architects in Melbourne that evolves into an architectural culture. The Pamphlet like the pamphleteer belongs to the clan. With it’s own patois, the pamphlet is by and for the clan in a particular place and time. Smudges was the training ground for Robin Boyd, the undergraduate rag afforded him the opportunity to hone a gently subversive wit against the smug conservatism of Melbourne architects.

Cross-Section is a different beast, it is regarded as a newsletter for the construction industry – notices of new building products, who’s doing what where and the like, and while it is an exercise in brevity it is also a selective document. It’s Boyd’s How-To for the modern city. He extends this into direct advice as the director of the Small Home Service. A very productive outworking of Boyd’s pamphleteering.

But I’ll leave the real Boyd History to Phillip Goad. Suffice it to say that Cross-Section was an open letter to the whole clan – the construction industry – Boyd is building the clan, sharing the knowledge with which to build a new Australian architecture.

Cross-Section has a long innings: 1952-1971. With a succession of editors Robin Boyd, David Saunders and finally Neville Quarry. We actually logged every entry from that 20 years into a spreadsheet. It makes for some interesting if obsessive compulsive reading. Cross-Section, too, is sued for libel.

David Saunders, went on to edit the Architectural Papers. Those of you who are historians will be aware of the SAHANZ founder’s grant in his name. Architectural Papers published Sydney Architectural Conference papers by Miles Lewis, Conrad Hamann, Jennifer Taylor among others.

The lack of access to and circulation of these papers became part of the impetus for the founding of Transition.