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With its imposing two-metre-high bluestone perimeter walls, Jack's Magazine on the Maribyrnong River resembles Pentridge Prison. But Pentridge's walls were designed to keep people in. Jack's Magazine was designed to keep people out. For more than a century the two main buildings – or magazines – on its 12-hectare site were a storehouse for ammunition and explosives. During Victoria's 19th-century gold rush the magazine chambers stocked dangerous quantities of unstable gunpowder.
"In 1890 the Military Commandant estimated an explosion at the magazines would reach the Melbourne GPO," says architect Georgia Nowak, curator of the group exhibition Jack's Reloaded: Material as Memory.
Georgia Nowak and Eugene Perepletchikov are co-curators of “Jack’s Reloaded: Material as Memory”, an exhibition exploring the history, associations and usage of bluestone.Credit:Eddie Jim
But it's the reverberations from the bluestone itself that preoccupy Nowak and co-curator Eugene Perepletchikov. Their own multichannel film installation Memory-work records the immense impact the material has had on Victoria. From its explosive volcanic origins to our detonation of the basalt that formed from the cooled lava that flowed across the state, bluestone has long provided an obvious, bountiful, building source.
It's a material synonymous with the state and ubiquitous in use. From Pentridge to Parliament it's a symbol of colonial power and state control. Today we use bluestone to pave our CBD footpaths and provide the foundations for our roads. Yet it's also a material that's been used for millennia. First Australians used bluestone for eel traps, sharpening tools, shelters and windbreaks. Near Little River the 11,000-year-old Wurdi Youang stone arrangement almost perfectly maps the summer and winter solstice.
Robin Williams’ Abbotsford House from Architour affordable houses.
NGV Design Week cover by Ray Edgar.
Pub date: March 30, 2019.
"It's older than Stonehenge, but just as precise," says Nowak.
For architects like Nowak, bluestone speaks of authenticity and locality, elements intrinsic to a notion of good design.
"Compared with processed materials, bluestone is incredibly strong and speaks of history and transcends time," says Nowak. "We perceive stone as static and solid, but it also holds histories. We often see land as a clean slate, but what were these stories and myths that sit literally underneath our feet? It's reframing how we live in the landscape."
Material as Memory is one of 200 exhibitions, events, films and talks featuring in Melbourne Design Week. It reframes how we live on the planet. Under the burgeoning weight of climate change, pollution, food shortages, ageing and housing affordability, a new generation of Victorian architects, urbanists and designers demonstrate how clever design and experimentation offer new solutions for the 21st century.
Melbourne Galaxy competition submission.
"There are big issues being tackled through this program," says Ewan McEoin, senior curator of contemporary design at the NGV. "They are the most important things in our lives today."
If Will Heathcote's talismanic bluestone rock wrapped in gold leaf suggests Material as Memory's poetic approach to our built environment's material history, Dale Hardiman gets down and dirty in another stand-out exhibition, Supply Chain.
Georgia Nowak and Eugene Perepletchikov at Jack’s Magazine in Maribyrnong. Credit:Eddie Jim
"Construction has one of the biggest percentages of waste globally," Hardiman says. "Why do we finish a house, throw away everything and then ship in the furniture from Europe? Why not make the furniture from the material that makes the building? Building waste is perfectly sized for smaller objects."
Harding's 37 Butler Street fabricates material from the eponymous local building site. Like the house, pine construction frames underpin his upcycled furniture. To make the chair, he adds engineered timber with a veneer of European oak floorboard. Plaster sheeting and chipboard make up the standing lamp. Intentionally "no tech", Hardiman's furniture is constructed with common resources, a handsaw and hammer.
Dale Hardiman’s 37 Butler Street furniture.
"I like it being rough and unrefined," says Hardiman. "I like messiness. It's perfect because it's imperfect."
Hardiman's rough-and-ready approach disarms and encourages DIYers. Nüüd Studio reverse the approach. With Brave Street, a series of scale models on display at Testing Grounds, they borrow experimental ideas from "burb mechanics", then refine them. During last year's design week Nüüd Studio transformed bundled fence pickets into a bench. This year they turn the actual fence into a hinged bench. The experiments are less about DIY and more about community engagement.
WoWoWa’s proposed pool for the Yarra river.Credit:WoWoWa
"Today we are more isolated [from our neighbours]," says Nüüd architect Brad Mitchell. "People tend to build out back and not out front and like to enhance private areas and neglect engagement with the public. The older generation seemed more engaged with their neighbourhood. This is trying to reignite and generate a community."
Our elders are also providing valuable lessons for a younger generation of architects for whom community, housing affordability and ageing are fundamental issues.
"We are all looking for different ways to face issues in the future so we have to come up with different ways of approaching things," says architect Timothy Moore, curator of Design Week's exhibition program. "Sometimes it's arranging what we already have."
Moore speaks from experience. A solution he and his colleagues at Sibling architecture proposed for the housing crisis adapted a model of aged living – grey nomadism. What if younger people took to the regions like grey nomads? Sibling speculated. They could live cheaply while populating regional centres for weeks or months, Moore explains: "These nomads could work on their laptops in the public libraries, cafes, sharehouses and co-working spaces of country towns, accessing work remotely through cloud-based telecommunications."
Heading outback may be a little out there for some. Katherine Sundermann of MGS Architects believes the key to liveability and housing affordability lies in developing precincts in Melbourne's "missing middle". Travelling across a vast city for employment isn't ideal in terms of time, or sustainable in terms of resources.
"Affordable housing needs to be close to places people can work," she says. "[Beyond] the CBD, there needs to be other centres."
Our national innovation clusters, which co-locate universities and hospitals, are an obvious starting point to create employment precincts, she says. Link them with the suburban rail loop and it fulfils the city planners' dream, a decentralised city. Universities are effectively cities in microcosm. People work and live on campus.
"What's the next version of a university?" Sundermann asks. "The university works because it has a benevolent landowner. But the state should have that role and provide a mix of housing."
Rather than selling off surplus land, departments such as the Victorian Railways should retain ownership so they can have an ongoing relationship with the neighbourhood, she suggests.
Closer to the inner city more intimate forms of multi-residential living can be seen as Architours explores further examples of good design. Urban designer Andy Fergus and architect Esther Sugihto of Architours will host a tour of creative housing solutions in Abbotsford, Northcote, North Melbourne and Fitzroy by Robin Williams, Six Degrees, Freadman White and Kerstin Thompson.
"It's not about visiting buildings of unattainable wealth, but showing inventive examples of increased density using spatial experimentation [often on a more modest budget]," says Fergus.
How do you design a site for two families, share amenities like a pool, yet still retain a layer of privacy? How do you live, work and expand in a home-based business?
"We have diverse needs for living," says Fergus. "And if we want a creative city we need housing that attracts creative people."
The architects behind each project will speak with the "architourists", sharing what they have learnt from their own experiments in living.
"It's not just about backslapping and celebrating successes – it's learning what they'd do next time," says Fergus. "One of the critical things about experimentation is how to admit failure and fault, which can be challenging in Australian society."
Experts are also on duty on another Architour that cycles along the Yarra from Burnley to a mangrove colony opposite Fishermans Bend. They speculate on how we can improve our relationship with the river as we face the 21st-century challenges of climate change. Forgotten Ecologies of Birrarung is part of a larger pillar of the Design Week program that investigates the waterfront. As with our bluestone history, when it comes to water and the river, Indigenous history is never far from the surface.
"We need to understand Indigenous stories of the river and how they can be maintained and how can we re-establish a connection – as much as anything – as a healing process," says Fergus. "The tour will be overlaid with stories and conversation about Birrarung's environmental performance, social and cultural recognition."
Design Week creative director Ewan McEoin wants to see greater engagement with the Yarra. We treat the river as little more than an underutilised city "backdrop", he says: "We don't engage with it as other cities do around the world. It's not a river that people regularly boat on, or swim in, or understand what's legally allowed. Who owns the waterfront and what are the big urban design decisions that shape the river as an ecosystem?"
Designed as a provocation, the Yarra Pool project by WOWOWA architects jumps in the deep end of that discussion.
"Why can't we swim in the Yarra?" asks McEoin. "It raises questions about pollution and urban development, and general attitudes in how we think about a river as a natural system within a non-natural system."
Indeed not only is cleaning the river naturally entirely feasible, it's already being done at the Botanical Gardens.
"We're stripping our water here all the time," says Andrew Laidlaw, landscape architect with the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne and a guest speaker on several Design Week discussions.
Water plants and floating islands in the Botanic Gardens ornamental lake strip high nitrates and phosphates out of polluted water run-off that flows into it.
"If you do water treatment right, the Yarra Pool is absolutely feasible," Laidlaw says. "It also creates habitat, which is the other important thing about green infrastructure. In an expanding city with a massive urban heat-bank we're becoming a place not just for people, but a refuge for animals."
Testing ideas with the public – such as the Yarra Pool – aren't new. Perhaps only the motivations change. Long before Federation Square came to fruition, a competition was floated in 1978 to produce an international landmark on the Flinders Street site. Wild ideas were encouraged from school children through to professionals. Introducing the competition on behalf of the organising committee, Phillip Adams proudly boasted they didn't have the "faintest idea" what they wanted – just something "original and exhilarating to put Melbourne on that elusive world map". About 2300 entries were submitted. For Design Week, Public Record Office Victoria curator Natasha Cantwell has selected 40 submissions from its archives for a panel discussion on how green spaces best serve community needs.
Melbourne's Green Spaces: From Sci-fi Fantasy to Future Reality provides both a window to how far we've come in terms of understanding the environment, and a sad reflection on how much we have to compensate for the consequences of that ignorance.
"At the time we didn't have this idea of sustainability the way we have now," says Cantwell. "People wanted to just throw greenery on it to make it look nice, or have animals because they like to look at them. They weren't thinking in an ecological way. We've changed our thinking so much since then."
But the entries also demonstrate a lack of appreciation for local history.
"It was very surface and kitsch," says Cantwell of entries that included giant koalas with helicopter landing pads. "A sense of place was framed in terms of Australia rather than Melbourne. A national identity without any specific city identity."
Ultimately the competition served as a fact-finding mission for politicians to gauge what the general public wanted. What eventuated was neither exhilarating nor original – or on site. A casino, a carpark and an aquarium would end up rising further down the Yarra.
Forty years later can we do better? Coincidentally, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects is launching a new competition during Design Week. The Future Park International Design Ideas Competition calls for a park within a 10-kilometre radius of the city. If the site sounds vague, its concerns aren't: climate change, shifting demographics and density of the city, reconciliation, biodiversity and evolving concepts around public and community are key considerations of the brief. Forty years from now will the experiments seem equally quaint, ambitious and kitsch as the 1978 competition? How much will our relationship with materials and history have changed? And how hot will our planet be? We can't afford too many experiments to backfire – or explode.
Melbourne Design Week, March 14–24, Various locations; ngv.vic.gov.au/melbourne-design-week/
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