Companion City

Master of Design (Urban Design) RMIT project, entry in Transition Magazine's Second Architectural Design Competition, Companion City, 1991 (second prize)

The major retail precincts of the metropolis embody the city's loss of control over its own symbolic form. Architecture is effaced in the desire for the infinite fluidity of movement. The centre of the city at ground level is perceived through limitless circulation. The static shopfront of the nineteenth century has disappeared in the desire to subsume every surface to merchandising.

Our perception of the city is restructured over time as the forces of capital act upon it. Our former picture of the city as assemblages of discrete masses is disappearing. One may arrive in the city by subway, consume and depart without seeing daylight. There is no architecture below eye level, only merchandise. Above, the flat ceiling grid broken only by escalators leads the eye to an horizon of more merchandise. Fire doors allow movement from one store to another, rendering the title boundary obsolete. The pavement is appropriated through the transparent shopfront. From the street, the fašade of the building has been reduced to a signifier. The city of consumption has no use for architecture's symbolic tendencies - the city is being transformed through the Architecture of Product Identification and the Logo. Thus the face of the city implies no continuity - the streetscape is only as permanent as the latest merchandise, occupier, movie or tenant. Through the fleeting pictures gathered in our obtuse and abstract movement through the city, our perception becomes disrupted and fragmented. We no longer perceive the city as a whole but as a series of images continuously received as we move through the space of consumption.

The two city blocks flanking Bourke Street between Swanston and Russell Streets characterise the cancerous movement patterns and supergraphic facades of the retail physiognomy. This site, referred to as Bourke Central (the planning title given to the precinct) serves as subject of research and location of the Companion City.

Like Manhattan, Hoddle's plan of Melbourne was a pragmatic representation of an expected grid of speculation. Koolhaas, in his City of the Captive Globe, proscribes for the blocks of the metropolis 'islands of science, mania and commerce', expanding limitlessly upward. Melbourne is not like Manhattan in this regard - its blocks are larger and only rarely does a superdevelopment require consolidation of close to every title in the same block. Whilst in New York the internal pressure of speculation has forced the mass of commercial fabric to the limit of the planning envelope, Melbourne's comparatively listless growth has resulted in the urban physiognomy of 50 storey towers adjacent to Victorian shops of a storey or two. Unlike Koolhaas' Manhattan, it is not unusual for several different uses - offices, institutional or religious, retail and entertainment - to co-exist in the same block. The separate blocks of dedicated uses which Koolhaas proscribes for Manhattan are not relevant to Melbourne.

The metamorphosis of the street elevation alerts us to the changing role of architecture in the city. The symbolic role which architecture played in the nineteenth century and the first half of this century has given way to the reduction of architecture to pure sign - purpose of which is to signify one meaning only - the logo of the company or product; its legibility is of primary importance. The awning, whilst protecting from the elements, severs the shopfront from the elevation. The fašade as supergraphic implies a limitless horizontal extrusion, the message which circumscribes the entire block.

Since the nineteenth century the shopfront has undergone a continuous process of dissolution. Melbourne was subject to the same hygienist movement as other cities of the time. This process of cleansing, (described by Didier Gille) required all surfaces to be smoothed to allow for the absolute fluidity of circulation. The healthy city was seen as being analogous to the healthy body. However the surfaces of the city are know smoothed in order for circulation to aid consumption, rather than hygiene. Similarly, the browser or promenader of the nineteenth century has become the consumer, shopping with absolute purpose and efficiency.

Companion City
Melbourne's grid has been described by Paul Fox as having another order - that of the institutions which, unlike the grid, takes advantage of the topography. However the institutions which once dominated the skyline are less and less able to exert any potency as the second order. Their domes and towers are now caste in the shadow of skyscrapers. The new museum has been located off the grid and law courts are now grafted onto office buildings. The crumbling stonework of the monument is bathed in the fluorescent glow of the contemporary city. The veracity of the institution (and the monument) is tested against the abrasive flow of capital. In some cases, such as the Burke and Wills memorial, the monument dislodges and becomes, in Diedre Gilfedder's words, the 'mobile monument'.

The Companion City extends capital's desire for the submission of architecture to pure circulation and pure signification. Electronic Article Surveillance systems, video cameras, security alarms, smoke detectors and air curtains negate the need for party walls and sliding doors, and title boundaries which are all merely impediments to movement. The shopfront is dissolved. On the street the inexorable reduction of architecture to pure sign is completed, as the fašade disengages to create two elevational planes - the plane of advertising and, behind, the curtain wall elevation of the efficient office block. Thus the dual roles which architecture has previously served are distilled and clarified. Ceiling grid becomes curtain wall; they are the Cartesian grid of Capital, claiming and ordering space.

Reintroduced onto Melbourne's grid of capital is the second order, the regeneration of the institution located in plan at the same angle as Melbourne's greater metropolitan one-mile grid. Melbourne's standard blocks are large enough to allow such internal disturbances, unlike those of, say, Manhattan or Houston. Each of these new artefacts operates as reception and information points, the new shopfront for institutions and government services. It draws off the magnetic forces which compel the urban dweller toward the retail precinct. Each new artefact creates a negative volume through the office core to the daylight whilst utilizing the ubiquitous floorspace above.

In this way architecture's role as the icon of continuity and memory within the city is reconstituted through the new artefact of the institution, which in turn draws from and creates a counterpoint matrix to the city of consumption and circulation.