- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Peter Bennetts
- Architect Denton Corker Marshall
This article first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
Welcome to Melbourne
For many city dwellers, the defining urban experience is the repetition of the road: solo driving, drivetime traffic reports, talkback radio, screaming ads, Top 40 euphoria. Road repetition breeds myopia, the tarmac a non-place between origin and destination. We don’t see the city beyond the road, our minds already turning over the day’s events. It’s rare that the city can distract us from such deep musings but on occasion, when the light is right, the city can surprise. Denton Corker Marshall’s Melbourne Gateway is built for such occasions.
When the Gateway opened in 2000, its scale, vivid abstraction and primary colours proved a magnet for the droll wit of locals and visitors alike (‘cheese sticks’ seemed the most popular analogy). Architecture is often a slow-moving target for mockery, affectionate or otherwise, but big public infrastructure projects may as well sit up and beg for it. Today, though, perceptions have changed: the Gateway is now an icon. It’s accepted. The public has decided: it’s a view worth having. Old resentments and political conflagrations have faded and the city is reframing the project, its foreign abstraction now settling into a creeping urban setting.
Melbourne in the 90s was fertile ground for DCM, even though Victoria had suffered through the economic doldrums after the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash. The Labour party was in power and limped through to the 1992 election battered and bruised, in full expectation of a landslide loss. Soon after, newly elected Jeff Kennett and his Liberal/ National Party Coalition took to the state with whip and branding iron.
In their first term they retrenched 50,000 public servants, closed 350 government schools and privatised 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, which 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 an architectural purple patch. In the Kennett era, they became instrumental in the rebranding of the city and the state. Subsequently, independent from the quality or intentions of the work, DCM’s distinctive style and motifs became synonymous with Kennett style and politics (the Gateway’s blades, for example, were likened to ‘fascist salutes’ by anti-Kennett supporters, or even to Kennett’s trademark quiff). But it’s with relief that we can now retire the tired, lazy and inaccurate analogies that stemmed from that period. DCM’s work deserves nothing less.
The Gateway is a suite of urban elements, and it constitutes an uncommonly sophisticated urban architecture. It’s kinetic without being animated. It is sculptural but resists becoming flotsam and jetsam in the city. It sustains a massive scale but is open and dynamic. It operates at 100km/h.
The Gateway is not just good urban form but proof that architects are experts on the city, with deep understanding of urban scale and the ability to curate and deploy form and void in the city. The Melbourne Gateway is an argument for architecture. Travelling the arterials of Melbourne, we find many more pretty specimens in what DCM calls “the string of pearls”. Some belong to DCM’s portfolio but Wood Marsh, Peter Elliott, Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, ARM and Kirsten Thompson have all made significant contributions to the infrastructure network.
Prior to the Gateway, Melbourne was fortunate in procuring fine designs for road infrastructure: the Eastern Freeway’s geometric concrete bridges and elegant central lighting; Desbrowe-Annear’s Chapel Street Bridge; the brutal sweep of the West Gate Bridge; Cocks Carmichael’s staccato graphic on the Bell Banksia Link. Actually, the procurement of great design has little to do with fortune but rather the sustained efforts of successive generations of architects, urban designers, bureaucrats and, it has to be said, politicians – including Kennett. Other Australian cities are now following suit, with Brisbane, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide all getting serious about the procedures to procure serious-minded design and infrastructure.
So, in 1995, when the consortiums bidding for $1 billion worth of infrastructure fronted the Melbourne CityLink Authority 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 application of the 1969 Melbourne Transport Plan. The heavily road-reliant 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 effectively to stimulate the economy at the expense of turning productive farmland into unproductive suburbia, delaying the necessity of investing in public transport and spreading Melbourne ever thinner around the countryside. Yet it has provided opportunities for some excellent architecture, and when DCM joined the Transurban consortium the aim was to develop a new threshold for the city.
Because 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, 70 metres long, cantilevering at 30 degrees 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; 500 metres of yellow concrete ribbon. As the approach from the north brings you round a gentle right-hand curve, the yellow ribbon is on your right and a yellow beam dangles above 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 300-metre-long sound tube, closed in on your right; the overhead tracery flashes across your car bonnet and windscreen… and then it’s over, the Bolte Bridge receding in the distance, while to your left a billboard whispers fcuk®.
30 Seconds of Architecture
Today, after a decade of glorious isolation, the Gateway is becoming crowded in by the city. With ever-greater pressure to house Melbourne’s 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 the Gateway’s abstract composition and completing the set of primary colours. Skirting the edge, beneath the elevated road, locals walk and ride at the foundations of the Gateway, where, from this vantage point, the forms become surreal, as if we have passed through the looking glass. Here, each element appears as a fragment of some forgotten infrastructure, like a magnificent machine, its purpose long forgotten – a city wall, perhaps, marking an ancient pre-suburban demarcation.
The Gateway is an oblique architecture. We approach and exit obliquely and at speed, the Gateway expanding and contracting with this procession, each element playing with angles and tangential curves; it operates 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 nor a 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.
At night it 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 are studded with a string of blue lights, and above, the pylon lighting has been shortened and the spacing tightened to create a dotted line hovering above the road. Approaching the sound tube again, heading north, 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 are now beacons, no longer a ruin of some forgotten boundary, but rather a blazing roadside architecture like Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, heroic and tragic in their vivid abstraction. Ruscha’s vernacular structures and roadside detritus crystallise familiar images, rendering them abstract and all the more vivid. DCM’s red gash in the night has a similar effect, demarcating and rendering 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 as we glance in the rear mirror and reflect on 30 seconds of architecture.