Melbourne VIC 3000

February 10, 2012

342 and 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne. RMIT Building.

3B Derwent graphite pencil, A4. 80mins, 10.30-11.50am. Hot and humid.

While not technically my first urban sketching of 2012, it certainly feels like it. There’s a throwback here to my “first” urban sketching 0f 2011, inside the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium.

Viewing public and residential buildings in Melbourne from ground level is quite a special experience. Very wide roads allow the viewer to see buildings from considerable distances, something that is lacking in Sydney. There is a “completeness” to the viewing experience. In Europe, you have more variety – some are tightly pressed together, others can be seen in their entirety from a distance. 

What I found very impressive was the amount of ornamentation on Melbourne’s buildings, both old and new. This is probably a response to the unrelenting flatness of the land and the uniformity imposed by a grid street layout. Individual buildings have to break out of this imposed order. There was a time when Melbourne seemed to break the monotony via public sculpture, but architects have taken up the challenge.

Early 21st century architects have adopted strong ornamentation and colour in their work, paralleling the previous use of public sculpture to enliven the environment visually. The number of preserved 19th-century and early 20th century facades, with fancy brickwork still intact, was overwhelming. I’m in the habit of restricting myself to Carlton and the CBD when visiting the city, partly as a throwback to visits to corporate headquarters in Exhibition Street. This was a rare opportunity to walk around Melbourne during the daytime. A walk down Drummond Street and Lygon Street shows how Melbourne seems to have bypassed the modernism of the 1960s and 1970s. So much has been preserved from the past! I’ve not been to Melbourne since Spencer Street Station was made over into Southern Cross with its wave (at least I don’t remember it from 2006) and that’s been added to later in terms of the Etihad Stadium and Docklands redevelopment. Also much of the uniformity of the commercial high rise of the late 1990s has now been fragmented with work on the southern side of the Yarra. I notice even some of the hardest edges of the Stalinist-looking housing commission highrise have gone, the first buildings you see on arrival from the airport (is this Romania?). Docklands looks like it could have been transplanted from Brisbane, but it lends an air of tropicality to an otherwise airless dessicated Australian city.

The RMIT Building of 1995 seemed unique at the time because no-one had introduced colour into building facades on such a scale since the 1890s. It stood alone at the time. As I recall, Melbourne was in recession and city shops, one after the other, were boarded up without tenants. Since then, Melbourne has gone crazy with colour and ornamentation and facades which aren’t flat and parallel to the street. 

I had the choice between dashing around and making thumbnails of all the interesting buildings I saw or one long sketch. I decided on this one since this, for me, is the foundation-stone of Melbourne’s interesting fin-de-siecle (21st century) architecture. The richly coloured facade contrasts with its 19th-century neighbour, the Storey Hall – I merely suggested left this uniformly mid-grey facade since I wanted the focus to be on the unusual fenestration of the 1995 building, which also extends up and over the Storey Hall at the back. There is in fact a “laneway” entrance which becomes a rear laneway proper at the back of Storey Hall leading to LaTrobe Street. I took advantage of some public seating across the road; the plane trees in leaf obscured more of the building than I’d anticipated. Rather more uniform, but still very exciting, is the Swanston Academic Building (construction nearly completed) on the other side of the street. Further along at Victoria Street, a highrise building with indoor rock climbing: a cliff inside a glass-fronted box.

My very light, deliberate style is influenced by some of the examples in the new book by Gabriel Campanario, The Art of Urban Sketching: Drawing on Location around the World. The loving attention to detail in this book, right down to how long sketches took to draw (approximately of course) makes this a very unusual and valuable book.

I’ve left the drawing completely raw while I think about what I might do next. Reference photos provide the yellow ochre, mint greens, burgundy and chrome silver of the facade. I may end up photocopying this on to watercolour paper and doing some colour versions. Having seen recently some watercolour sketchbooks by Australia’s finest watercolourists (Gosford Regional Gallery) and those of John Glover (NGV, History of British Watercolour), I’m sensing an increasingly widening gap between the sketchbook and touching up involving addition of pen and colour later on in the studio. Pen and colour, added later, will obliterate the feel of the original sketch. I’m not so worried that some of the lines won’t translate into a scan for uploading to the Net. I’ve always been worried about the gap, but that’s been reinforced for example by the very wide gap between Tommy Kane’s on-site sketching and finished ‘painting’ back in the studio, involving inks, pen, watercolour, pencils and markers. So much work is done in the studio, transofrming it into a painting, that it can hardly be called on an on-site sketch.

Storey Hall (at right) is now also a RMIT building, the site of the RMIT Gallery. The Gallery feels like the foyer of the Sydney Town Hall, “vertical” as opposed to the “horizontal” of Tamworth Regional Gallery from whence Sensorial Loop, the current exhibition came.  The exhibition moved to Melbourne this week and it’s now Melbourne’s turn now to the flabbergasted by the latest in Australian textile work.

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