- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Peter Bennetts
- Architect NH Architecture, Woods Bagot
Having not lived in Melbourne for close to a decade I now find myself a visitor; that is, I look at the things I used to take for granted and I put aside time to wander in places that I would have traditionally raced past on my way to somewhere else. I find time to explore the city in a way in which you never really explore your own, walking down a street just because it looks interesting. I have the happy experience of treating Melbourne much the same way that I do Copenhagen or Bogotá; the time away has allowed me the distance to romanticise it, see all of its good.
Each time I visit Melbourne, ceremonially entering the city under the cheese stick and gliding between the goal posts of the Bolte Bridge, I have a competition with myself to find its newest bits, scanning the skyline for the collection of cranes busily working at adding to the city. God knows this type of competition is fruitless in ‘promise all and deliver nothing’ Sydney.
What I find so remarkable about Melbourne is that there has been a dogged and persistent focus toward a greater urban strategy of growth, renewal and the betterment of the city. From the outside at least there is no abandoned transport strategy, there have not been countless back flips on the injection of major capital spending and there has been little bastardisation of important international competition winning schemes such as Southern Cross Station and Federation Square. Sure, there are low points in the city, new spaces and places that you hope will be the first to be overlaid and ‘renewed’ in the 2030s; however, by and large the growth of the city is delivering remarkable outcomes. The once island development on the wrong side of the railway lines of Docklands is being surgically woven into the fabric of the city; from the extension of Collins Street and the construction of major buildings along its access to the continuation of the Yarra River Edge, Docklands now seems to be part of the city proper. The latest addition to Melbourne’s surgical urbanism and the latest resting point in one of my meanders through the cranes is the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC).
Situated at a bend in the Yarra, the MCEC stands as both bookend and launching point. Bookend, to the 20 years of development that has trickled westward from the original AV Jennings financed Southbank, and launch pad to the new Yarra, mouth of Docklands. From this bend in the river you are afforded a spectacular vista eastward along the river to the city heart, Federation Square and the wealth of civic buildings that now mark the important river crossing of the Hoddle Map. Locally you are positioned to view north and west, capturing glimpses of Southern Cross Station, Docklands Stadium, NAB HQ and a variety of other visual teasers.
Wedged between DCM’s Exhibition Building to the east, Polly Woodside, a new footbridge and the river to the north, the freeway and onramps to the Bolte and Westgate bridges to the south, and to the west a growing wave of commercial and retail development, the MCEC is envisaged and designed to be seen in the round, with a wealth of opportunities for access and address – by foot, boat, coach or car.
Formally the building is designed like a doughnut, a void surrounded by activity, with the plenary hall acting as the attractor and the person on stage as the focus. As you move away from this focal point, the activity becomes greater and the complexity of the spaces grows until the bustle of the pre-function spaces, existing in the gap between the external glass façade and the scales of the plenary hall, gives way to the public domain of the city. This internal façade, which articulates the mass of the plenary hall, is a remarkable building in its own right; actually it is quite simply beautiful.
Like a snake this façade coils in on itself to capture the smaller pre-function spaces and plenary hall entries while providing a screen to ensure that smaller events are not engulfed or dwarfed by the grandeur of the principal lobby; it is both organiser and screen. The interstitial space created between the timber scales and the plenary hall proper is drowned in blood red colourings reminiscent of the lobby spaces of the State Theatre further up the river. Indeed the rich interior finishes work to help reinforce a sense of procession and occasion from the outer edge of building to its inner core. From the drab Melbourne grey of the lobby floor, which extends the bluestone of the city footpath, the spaces layer and grow through rich reds and oranges until ultimately calming to the gum tree greens of the plenary hall.
The gum tree green colourings and the extension of the reptilian timber folds animate the massive plenary hall in a manner that reminds me of a controlled Storey Hall. Here, however, the space is immense, with the capacity to hold 5000 delegates seated for a single conference or divisible into three smaller auditoria (with the attached spill space also having to ensure the holistic medicine practitioners, plastic surgeons and euthanasia advocates attending conferences don’t come to blows over a coffee break).
While the plenary hall is simply a very well-orchestrated big box it would be remiss not to mention that it is one of the most adaptable spaces imaginable, with seats that flip to a position beneath the floor, so that staging in the round or indeed an entirely flat floor can be created. Its simplicity belies the technical input that has resulted in what will perhaps be one of the best conference venues on the planet. Attached to the plenary hall lies a field of conference and meeting rooms that cater to more intimate gatherings, together with a ballroom to equal Crown Casino’s, the whole acting as a buffer to the yet to be complete Hilton Hotel. Here too are some fine spaces and orchestrated internal finishes, more of the reptilian scales, green and gold and ochre reds.
Externally the building looks to be designed as a simplified origami box, its folds navigating the variety of internal volumes and external changes in scale that the building must negotiate. This approach to form strives to mask a generally awkward mass, cloaking it in folded zinc, glass and precast concrete so as to create the external interest and intrigue required. While at times some of these external folds and junctions feel a little awkward, the gesture of folding the roof back into the building and losing the glass façade to reveal the interior will help to engender in the lobbies the open public quality that the architectural team desired.
Undoubtedly this building is remarkable and memorable, from the six-star environmental initiatives to the creation of internal and external public space. What I take away, however, is not simply the building itself, but the tapestry within which it is woven and to which it now belongs. This is a fantastic addition to the City of Melbourne’s glory box in an age where city marketing is fierce and when even a remarkable collection of ceramic sails on the horizon shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the weight of an entire city’s image.