This bold new freeway work, by taylor cullity lethlean, tonkin zulaikha greer and robert owen, demonstrates vicroads’ commitment to high quality design, and continues the extension of melbourne’s vibrant design culture into the city's periphery.
Cities build or un-build their cultures by embracing virtuous or vicious circles of public behaviour. The opening of the first stage of the Craigieburn Bypass brings the impact of VicRoads’ pursuit of the innovative design of Melbourne’s freeway system into focus, with all of the excitement that attends the new. Driving towards the city along the gently rising and curling bypass, a comprehension that the Great Dividing Range has now been crested and an anticipation that the city lies ahead is created with an extended tilting arc of Corten steel. At the peak of curve and gradient this arc sweeps across the highway like a visor, framing the first view of the central city on the horizon. Immediately after, a solitary blue blade – almost the exact complement of the Corten’s rusting orange – arrives on the left of the driver’s view, then another and another, then array after array. As the driver sweeps around the long curve these blades follow the unfolding “S” of the bend, but as it coils back again they begin to fall away from the road until they peel away to the left, almost lying against the ground. With this the driver has reached the city’s northern ring road – a pool after the rapids. “J’arrive!” There is more to this latter sweep: a continuous perspex screen etched in a pattern to fifty per cent of its surface area, and an array of LED lights, of which more later.
The existence of this landscape-scale urban experience reveals that Melbourne is at it again: building a virtuous circle of innovation that has few parallels. From its earliest foray into designing the freeway environment, VicRoads has built up a collection of urban interventions that, with this latest arrival, eclipses all other players on the field of the Australian city in our generation. Projects include the patterned brick embankments along the Western Ring Road and the retaining walls at Bell Banksia by Cocks Carmichael Whitford in association with VicRoads (1993); the Eastern Freeway Extension by Wood Marsh, Tract and VicRoads Landscape Architects (1997); the Geelong Road, Laverton Section by Lyons (2001); and the Hallam Bypass by Kerstin Thompson Architects with Chris Dance Landscape Architects (2001). VicRoads was also notable in its encouragement of the City Link Gateway, Tullamarine and Flemington Road Interchange by Denton Corker Marshall (1999) and the (somewhat under-funded and therefore under-scale) Images of the West programme of freeway markers – the House in the Sky by James Brearley, the Brimbank Windsock Installation by Sinatra Murphy and the Field of Gold Fragments by Burne Hocking Weimar. Together this collection of works bring to mind Robert Moses and his Hudson River Parkway, Maillart’s bridges across Alpine ravines, Aurelio Galfetti’s routing of European highways across the delicate valleys of the Ticino, Roland Paoletti’s curation of the Jubilee Line Extension in London, or Fred Manson’s work on Canalhead in Southwark, the new parks of Paris and ongoing Dutch work on keeping the flood at bay.
In the last twenty-five years Melbourne has benefited from the visions of a number of key patrons. As director of housing, John Devenish gave many of today’s well-known designers their first public works. Rob Adams’ persistent championing of the qualities of the central city’s peculiar alternating grid of lanes and boulevards, surrounded by a network of greenery, has created an infrastructural safety net for the central city, which was in danger of being completely eroded by greed. Dimity Reed has continued to advocate emerging female designers and innovation in general. RMIT has generated a turnaround in public attitudes to innovative design through commissioning works from local innovators on the city’s central civic spine. All of these curatorial acts have had a knock-on effect, now evident in the extraordinary density of new works in the central city and at our institutions.
But the Australian city is not merely its core. The centre of gravity of the three-and-a-half million people who inhabit Melbourne is an hour-long drive from the city centre to the south-east. The impact of all the innovation that clusters in the central city now echoes through the city’s periphery and the region. Indeed, it is usually hatched in projects in such locations, but this presence is evident only dimly and to those in the know. What VicRoads’ process of designing freeway environments does is bring the excitement of the city’s culture of innovation into everyone’s reach.
Prior to the Craigieburn Bypass design, the content of Melbourne’s freeway design embraced three contrasting approaches. Broadly, the approach of Cocks Carmichael Whitford and Kerstin Thompson Architects takes the freeway as a given, and works to anneal its landscape incisions back into the geography and the fabric of its surrounds using sympathetic patterns and syncopations. The Wood Marsh approach is to add a picturesque emphasis to the surround, creating a new environment through lateral compression and amplification. The approach of Denton Corker Marshall and, more humbly, the Images of the West projects is to add props that create new stage sets through which we drive. The Craigieburn design learns from all of these, but adds a different pace, the pace of landscape.
This body of work marks the emergence of thinking about how to design with the city in its entirety – rather than concentrating on the historic core as urban design tends to do. The design arose from a two-day workshop with landscape architect Taylor Cullity Lethlean, architect Tonkin Zulaikha Greer and artist Robert Owen, after they were shortlisted. This followed the usual VicRoads process of calling for expressions of interest, shortlisting a handful of consultants, paying them a small fee for developing a concept, and then selecting the consultant on the basis of an interview around that concept. The workshop blurred the consultant boundaries between landscape architecture, architecture and sculpture, generating a wealth of ideas. These were edited into a concept poster, framed with a simple proposition. The design was to animate two urban conditions: the outer concerning the slow drift from the Great Dividing Range towards the remnant grasslands between Merri Creek and the Whittlesea Gardens parkland, the inner relating the suburb of Thomastown to the freeway. In this concept, the first stage takes its inspiration from a lava flow, or a snake shedding its skin; in the second stage the louvres and lace curtains of suburbia are the influence. When the commission was won there was a five-month design development and documentation window. TCL did the southern part and TZG the northern, with Robert Owen acting as critic and making his major input to the screen and the LED display, based to a considerable extent on his work Cadence #1(a short span of time). Scott Adams, the VicRoads project landscape architect, managed the consultant interface during the subsequent design-and-construct process. This was relatively trouble-free due to detailed documentation required by VicRoads as part of the contract.
The design has resonances with those that have gone before. The concrete panels are based on the slashes in a Fontana painting, but they build on the precedent of the Wood Marsh textured wall. The blades and lace-curtain screen are family with the stage-prop approach. Little outside the fantasies of designers in avant-garde schools prefigures the LED wall. Realized precedent is thin. Serra looms in the mind’s eye, but there are no international examples of huge, landscape-scale sculptures like these – and the acrylic suppliers, who work internationally, are dumbfounded by what has been achieved here. I think of Yves Klein’s 1950s earth, fire and water installations, designed to be viewed from a freeway, but I am alone in this memory. Lethlean cites an obsession with Le Notre’s poplar-lined canals, but only when pressed. Diller + Scofidio are not on the radar – though Owen is aware of their work.
Not surprisingly, in the context of Melbourne’s many layers, this exhilarating work plays many games. Is the slot in the tilting arc that sweeps across the freeway as a footbridge and emergency services vehicle access way between the Merri Creek and Whittlesea Gardens actually a reference to Ned Kelly’s helmet? Glenrowan is a hundred and thirty odd kilometres up the road and civic narratives are in the air.
Be that as it may, this coil of rusting plough share steel – transformed at night by yellow and purple floodlighting into a powerfully theatrical event, like the snake that floated iridescently above the stage in Corrigan’s design for Nabucco– sets you up perfectly for the complementary elegance and urbanity of the experience that follows. Its seeming orthogonal order is twitched by a regular rotation of the blue blades that clumps them into a flow of darkening and opening louvres. The etched screen in certain lights covers the blades in a pattern indeed reminiscent of lace curtaining, and the light diffused up through the screen at night flares on the etched surfaces into a giant lace curtain. At night the LED display urges you on into the city, mimicking the speed of the cars, reading: “Are we there yet?”
Thanks to the longstanding commitment to design by VicRoads and its determination that the northern suburbs be treated to the same quality of design as the eastern, we can be sure that – with this exciting addition to the cityscape – we are on beam for an even more dynamic city of design, one that now includes a maturing sense of the wide geographic reality of the city and its region.