Daily Archives: July 31, 2016

Graeme Davison on visions of the future

I mentioned the History of the Future exhibition at the Melbourne Town Hall. In the little booklet that accompanied the exhibition (which I had to email for, as they had run out), there is an essay written by the  curator Clare Williamson.  In it she references, several times, an essay written by Graeme Davison called ‘Melbournes that Might Have Been: Three Dreams of the Future City’. It was published in the Victorian Historical Journal, vol 63, nos. 2 & 3, October 1992 p.168-188.   Backcopies of the Victorian Historical Journal can be accessed here.  If negotiating the SLV’s clunky Cedric document loader doesn’t make you hate your life, the article’s well worth reading.

Davison starts his article by referencing Geoffrey Blainey’s idea of a seesaw in relation to utopian and utilitarian planning visions. There were periods of dreaming in 1910 and in the 1940s (often influenced by international innovations reaching Australia), and more routine planning approaches in the 1880s and 1980s. However, the three visionaries he studies in this article do not fit into this broad arc at all.  The first  planner ‘Anonymous’ (who he suggests may have been Redmond Barry or the editor of the Australasian G. H. Wathen) wrote in 1850, just before Victoria was to be separated from New South Wales.  The second was Frank Stapley writing in 1935 and the final was Robin Boyd, writing in 1969. Davison provides good long extracts from each of them.

‘Melbourne As It Is, and As It Ought To Be’ was published in the Australasian No. 1 in 1850 (and an abridged version can be found here). Unfortunately, this abridged version leaves out all his detailed prescriptions for public squares, streets and boulevards – and you’re going to have to be a Melburnian to appreciate all this.

View of the city of Melbourne from the Observatory

View of City of Melbourne from the Observatory [c.1858-1860], Artist George Rowe, State Library of Victoria


‘Anonymous’ starts his suggestions on the elevated ground between the flagstaff on the top of the hill at Flagstaff Gardens (shown above). On the elevated ground between the flagstaff and the ‘government offices’ on the corner of King and Collins Street, he believed that there should be a Grand Square, a Hall of Assembly, the Vice-Regal residence and other government buildings. A 200ft wide boulevard would sweep from there to the Supreme Court on the corner of Russell and La Trobe Streets where there would another square, then onwards towards another square located near St Peter’s Anglican Church in Eastern Hill. This 200 ft boulevard would then curve down to the Yarra River where a bridge could connect it to a similar boulevard on the other side of the river.  On the brow of Flagstaff Hill (ie. facing the other direction from where George Rowe did his painting) there was – but is not, today- a splendid view of Hobson’s Bay, the Melbourne plains and mountains. ‘Anonymous’ suggested a public promenade along this slope with statues and vases with a terrace down to the North Melbourne lagoon, with avenues of ilex (holly) and shrubberies of mimosa. A road leading to Batman’s Hill (i.e. where Southern Cross Railway Station is today) could have a hall for busts of Great Men, and an avenue could be constructed to Flemington. He was particularly dismissive of the Market Square at the time (i.e. near Market Street), and said that the centre of the city should be bounded by Collins, Swanston, Bourke and Elizabeth Streets- which is pretty much where it is.

2. Frank Stapley 1935

In his treatise on Melbourne planning, Frank Stapley looked ahead fifty years (i.e. to 1985). By then, he said, Melbourne would have two million people (he underestimated) and the traffic would be at a standstill, with Swanston Street at saturation point. He was a big roads man- he wanted to build a bridge through Yarra Park to Punt Road behind the MCG (our current Brunton Avenue perhaps?),and  widen both  Bridge Rd Richmond and Sydney Road Brunswick.  In a prescription sure to gladden the hearts of Save Our Suburbs, he wrote:

Zoning should be regulated in the metropolis according to a definite plan. Areas set apart in the first instance for residential purposes should remain so.  Some areas should even be reserved exclusively for single family residences.  (Davison p. 182)

3. Robin Boyd 1969 ‘Melbourne 2001 AD’

Robin Boyd, likewise, foresaw a Melbourne choked by cars but in his scenario, people had given up using them to actually get anywhere, and instead used them as extra rooms.  The tramway system would be vastly increased, with four to six lines in some streets.  The bay would be bitumized as far as Rosebud.  Melbourne would be infested with flies. The underground railway would be at test drilling stage only, or if it did exist, it would consist of recycled rolling stock painted in psychedelic colours.  There would be bushfires every year. Men (he doesn’t mention women) would dispense with clothing altogether on weekends and holidays.  Growth would be channeled into ‘fingers’ to protect the prettier parts of the bush and riverside, and a ring road would surround Melbourne. The Flinders Street railway yards would be covered, with a huge perforated structure, similar to a stock of ceramic cheese graters, housing 50,000 people.  There would be multilevel streets, and tall buildings would be built on consolidated blocks of land.

Oh dear. Robin Boyd’s not far off the mark in many ways.  I think I prefer the vision ‘Anonymous’, his halls of Great Men notwithstanding.