One of the benefits of getting out of your normal surroundings is the opportunity to reflect on a few things from a different perspective. Whether you come to different conclusions, or simply the number you first thought of, is another matter. Anyway, here a few reflections prompted by a quick trip to Melbourne this week.
A colleague and I stayed at a brand new serviced apartment building in the Dockside area ("development"? "precinct"?). It was very new, with a kind of sleek but somehow not very substantial design. In fact its appearance - its surfaces - were a prelude and introduction to what I saw later when I ventured out to dinner.
Having obtained instructions to walk to the Dockside restaurant precinct ("strip"?), I was quite struck by the comparative absence of life. There was this enormously wide road (in fact only 2 lanes each way but with a broad median strip and tram tracks on one side made it seem far wider), but hardly a car. And no one walking along it as I was. The immediate comparison was with those pictures you see of Pyongyang. With Telstra Dome a massive edifice on the right, and it being just on dusk, it genuinely felt a bit odd, verging on surreal. Having read for some years about the 'buzz' of Docklands, you couldn't help wondering where it all was.
Of course, it was soon revealed - lots of expensive boats, the three (?) apartment towers and the the row of restaurants. And all of a sudden, people everywhere, mostly young and mostly dressed up. I was on the mobile to Mrs VVB, assuring her of my safe arrival, as I walked up and down looking for a suitable eatery.
I had sort of expected to be dining with my colleague and his wife, who had accompanied him to stay for the weekend, but it turned out they had family in Melbourne and gone off elsewhere. So I was dining alone, which I loathe. Trying to pick a restaurant out of many - about 20 odd I think - is hard. I had enquired at the hotel desk, but for their recommended place you definitely needed to book. The menus out front showed that most of these places were more expensive than I am used to. Anyway I found one, which managed to turn out a pretty much indigestible fish and chips and it still cost $30. THe salad was great.
While waiting and eating, I had a bit of a think about the whole design of this area. The mian builings were all very arty from my perspective, lots of brushed aluminium and sleekness, strange angles (ie not 90 deg) and appalling public art. There was a lot of variation in the fit-out of the restaurants, fortunately.
I'd read about the boom which had accompanied the building of the area and then the decline in demand which I believe saw owners soon sitting on a capital loss. Then I thought about the row of restaurants. Was there any covenant that decreed that only restaurants could operate? I looked at the full tables of people, obviously more accustomed to forking out this sort of money for dinner than I am, and wondered what happens if it all goes a bit sour.
For example, we had assertions in the late 90s that the business cycle was now dead and it's all good from now on. This country is certainly riding a wave of prosperity, driven mainly by raw materials exports. There's lots of disposable income and, either by personal predilcition, (they prefer flexibility, or they prefer to rent and invest elsewhere), or because housing affordability has fallen, more people are renting and spending the difference on consumption.
I wondered about any linkages between a specifically designed restaurant strip, apartments that look like they are going to date very quickly, apparent lack of any other retail or services (and I didn't venture further so that stuff may be about but if so there's not much of it). Is such a precinct sustainable in the longer term? Is it designed to mutate and change or is it some mega version of so-called consumer durables that in fact aren't?
It pretty hard not to think about this stuff in a value-free way so I tried to eschew the usual VVB doomsday scenario stuff. It just all seemed to me to be rather incompletely thought-through design. Not so much that the developers had just come in, ripped everything up and plonked this stuff down, because obviously a lot of reclamation work had gone on and it is certainly a massive undertaking. More that it felt as if it wouldn't age all that well. The scale and proportion of the apartment towers is massive. Lower rise and more integrated design, including shops and other services would seem to be a better way of ensuring some longevity.
I wonder how much the design reflected recent socio-economic trends such as smaller families, but more apparently lots of unmarried people living alone, longer working hours, and restaurant patronage so common a pastime as to be almost stereotypical behaviour.
It's also very easy to be nostalgic for more familiar streetscapes and it's even easier to think about picture-postcard European streetscapes with low rise apartments, lots of cafes sprinkled with other shops with people about everywhere and conclude that all design should be like that because it has persisted and adapted for so long. Nor of course do we want some romanticised 1950s streetscape with no services available.
If we do get some fairly dramatic economic downturn at some stage, how resilient will such an apparently monocultural urban design be compared to an area with more diverse settlement and activity patterns? Can human ingenuity overcome any apparent design flaws - yeah, I know, this is starting starting to get awfully value-laden despite the protestations, so it's really all about that I just didn't like it - and enable the area to change usefully and gracefully?
It'll be fascinating to watch.