This article first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
It was subsequently on the Australian Design Review
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.