- Article by Maitiú Ward
- Photography by Stuart Harrison
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The final three days of Victoria’s State of Design Festival saw the Melbourne Docklands play host to ‘Urban Realities: Landscape Urbanism 3 Day Design Challenge’. An initiative of the Office of Urban Transformations Research (OUTR), the challenge saw 10 teams from across the globe compete to design and construct a temporary urban intervention in just three days.
An environment notoriously hostile to all forms of life bar fly-in-fly-out property investors and yacht owners, Melbourne’s Docklands nevertheless became the workshop, camp and dining room for the teams involved for the entire duration of the 72 hours. The lucky participants’ only fortification against the harsh elements was the lure of a $20,000 paycheck for the winning team, and of course the opportunity to inject some life and diversity into Melbourne’s newest AB demographic ghetto – however temporarily.
Armed with nothing but a $2500 budget and their own wits, unsurprisingly most teams took the opportunity of creating temporary installations that served to critique or draw attention to some of the Docklands’ urban failings as much as they did to provide solutions to them. From the more oblique (a ‘beach’ deposited at the foot of the NAB building) to the more direct (an ‘Urban Disorders Clinic’), most of the installations confronted the Docklands’ lack of socially inclusive cultural and physical infrastructure as being its biggest obstacle to success.
The winning scheme, by team Dirtybuoy, certainly took as its remit a critique of the urban conditions surrounding its site, but also worked hard to activate that space with a balanced mix of design intervention and program. Constructed from a combination of temporary construction fencing, and translucent plastic bags and containers filled with decidedly unpotable water collected from the Yarra, the installation highlighted the absurdity of the Docklands’ aspirations to, in the words of team member Jeremy McLeod, “Miami-style waterfront living”. It also, however, offered some respite from those conditions, making use of its water-filled building blocks to obscure the imposing forms of the neighbouring high-rise apartments – the one opening in its walls framing what team member Stuart Harrison described as “the only part of the Dockland’s that hasn’t been f***ed up”: the surviving parts of its working port. With the help of some of Melbourne’s finest baristas, it also used coffee as an attractor to draw people who might not otherwise frequent the area down to the isolated site, activating the space.
The first runner-up scheme and the winner of the people’s choice award took a slightly different tack, although they also made use of another natural element the Docklands has in abundance – wind. Urban Stitch, by Team 9, placed a series of windsocks in the void space running between the NAB building and its neighbour, simply but effectively turning the negative consequences of an urban planning oversight into a positive – a dynamically site-responsive sculptural installation.
The people’s choice award was presented to Urban Augment by Team 1, which attempted to, in the words of one team member, “extend a limb” to the western side of the wharf to address the stalling of foot traffic in this area. Knotting strips of recycled blue plastic to the temporary mesh fencing, they used these rustling blue planes to frame views and create intrigue for pedestrians, drawing people down along the wharf.
The second runner-up was Team 3/Team Miskom’s project Urban Graft, designed to ‘heal’ the alien landscape of Docklands. An arched form was constructed from agricultural polypipe, with a woven exterior skin made from recycled packing material and wool enveloping an interior made from hay.
Despite the brisk conditions, the three-day event seemed to draw a reasonable crowd, and certainly resulted in a compelling collection of propositions. Ironically though, if anything the challenge served to highlight the fact that while some of Docklands’ problems could certainly be considered the result of poor design, for the most part its failings have very little to do with it, and are instead directly attributable to bad policy or ill-considered regulations. As McLeod pointed out, the high-end apartments and their concomitant high-end price tags are a logical result of the requirement that developers in the Docklands pay for infrastructural development. There’s little that can be done about that now, of course, but the part-privatisation of purportedly public space this has affected has had some damaging outcomes that could quite easily be redressed – not through design, per se, but through a change in the way the use of this space is regulated. Through a bending of the rules, team Dirtybuoy managed to sneak a coffee cart into this ‘public’ private area, bringing a little more life to the area in the process. As McLeod pointed out though, barbecues – those great symbols of the appropriation of outdoor space for public use – were strictly banned. Public water fountains were also precluded, apparently for fear the boaties who would otherwise have to pay for usage of the docks’ berthing facilities would circumvent them, and use the free water instead.
Truly public space, of course, doesn’t require a cash payment for access, and with a little tweaking of the way in which the Docklands’ ‘public’ space is managed, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of energy Urban Realities brought to the area as more than just a temporary possibility.