Taking pride in Docklands

Taking pride in Docklands
Tim Martin

I think it’s a fairly widely held opinion that Docklands is not what it could have been had developers not been dealt such a freewheeling hand.

An urban planning professor at RMIT has said that Docklands could have been one of the most desirable places in the world to live had it been better planned with a coherent vision (my summary of his words).

I have mixed feelings about that; I would have loved to see a lower rise, more community-oriented, coherently planned Docklands, but if that had come to pass, I would probably not have been able to afford to buy here … and I do love living in Docklands.

Instead, we are left with a not quite so good outcome which we now have to remediate to make the most of what is still a pretty desirable place to live in my opinion.

Batman’s Hill is lucky in that it has some of the most significant historical buildings in Docklands; the Goods Shed, the Queens Warehouse (now housing the Fox Classic Car Collection) and the Victorian Railways building on Spencer St.  They ooze character and add significantly to the spirit of place. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most of the newer developments.

Wandering around the precinct it has struck me that while architects seem very focused on designing buildings that look good from a distance, when it comes to street level, they complete their design after they’ve been to the gym at the end of the day and have exhausted their energy and imagination. I would argue that what is going on at street level is much more important than what’s going on tens or hundreds of metres up, even if the higher rise stuff is much more visible from a distance.

It’s at ground level where people engage and develop their feel for an area … where they get the “vibe”. That’s the level that attracts people backt; think some of the old laneways in the CBD such as Degraves St. Unfortunately, Docklands architects seem to have a love affair with aluminium and glass shopfronts which is fairly ubiquitous (with some minor variations) around the precinct.  If they were shooting for attention-stifling bland, they have hit the nail right on the head.

It’s difficult to believe that in many of these very expensive buildings a bit of variation in colour, material and form at ground level would add significantly to the final bill if money has been the issue. Don’t architects and developers have enough pride in their work that they want it to stand-out everywhere?

One exception which I praise is the lower couple of floors of the Melbourne Quarter building on Aurora Lane which have been built of brick and are obviously meant to reflect the brick of the Goods Shed on the opposite side of the road. Unfortunately, that is about the only ground level architecture of that very large development I can be positive about.

I remember going to an open house a couple of years ago where they talked enthusiastically about Gunpowder Walk which is a small laneway in the development just off the (very pleasant) plaza area. They enthused about the character it would have and yet, you guessed it, more aluminium and glass shopfront. Yawn.

There’s another building currently being erected in Melbourne Quarter and it’s way too early to know how it’s going to look at street level, but I reckon I’d be pretty safe in betting that we’ll be getting more of the same.

I could provide similar examples involving many or most other buildings in the precinct (or in Docklands for that matter), with the same issue but I think you have probably got the message. If not, take note when you are walking around, and I’d be surprised if you didn’t agree.

I would urge building owners to take a bit of pride in the area and invest a bit of money to tart up their street level shopfronts. I’m sure there would be a financial return. Lots of factors contribute to attracting people to Docklands but I reckon a widespread change of this nature would provide a significant stimulus.

People go to art galleries to be stirred by a variety of art, not to see picture after picture of largely the same ordinary piece of art hanging on the wall which only generates boredom.  When people have been stimulated, they are attracted to return. I don’t see why a similar attraction couldn’t be generated by a stimulating urban environment.

Having vented and raged, I now call on all Docklands lovers to rise up and be counted.  March in the streets to demand more of our unimaginative corporate architects, crash architect dinner parties to make your feelings known, make your voodoo dolls and fill them with pins, unfurl your protest banners from the tops of the highest building. Or if none of that appeals, you could just write to the council and planning ministry to urge a change. It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In case you can’t tell, this is one of my soapbox issues! I could continue squeaking but you probably get the message. I’ll finish up on a completely unrelated note by saying it is so good to see the streets of our suburb becoming busier and busier. They’re still not back to pre-pandemic levels but I am definitely noticing a big difference. Go Docklands.  •

 

Tim Martin is a resident of Batman's Hill in Docklands.

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