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above Myer Music Bowl

Melbourne, Modernity and the XVI Olympiad

Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 17 December 1996-2 March 1997.
Review by Philip Goad

Forty years on, one might think that the afterglow of Melbourne’s days as host of the 1956 Olympic Games would have dimmed a little-or even been tarnished with some cynical realism. Not so: with ever-increasing interest and nostalgia, Melbourne continues to celebrate. The recent exhibition 1956: Melbourne Modernity and the XVI Olympiad at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide highlighted the Games as crucial to the development of the city’s identity. It comprised not only a fond tribute to the city’s serious art and architecture of the time, but also included an amusing aside, an extensive Olympiomania section of sporting kitsch housed separately (if incongruously) in John and Sunday Reed’s 1965 house-gallery. Curators Julianna Engeberg and Max Delaney are to be congratulated for attempting to be inclusive. In addition to paintings by Boyd, Blackman, Pugh and others, the influence of television was explored and there was also the recreation of a 1950s landscape designed by RMIT’s Jane Shepherd and Simone Slee. Strangely though, furniture, fabric design and sculpture seemed under-represented. The catalogue is essential reading for 1950s enthusiasts with a revealing chronology of major local and global events and essays by Simon Plant and Graeme Davison (amongst others) that give important social and historical context. The exhibition demonstrated that many aspects of the 1950s could be the subjects of much larger exhibitions. The architecture of the period alone deserves expansion beyond the well-known icons of the Olympic Pool, Myer Music Bowl and ICI House. From Mirka Mora’s marvellously indulgent opening speech about café culture in Collins Street to the bleak pathos of John Brack’s Collins Street, 5pm (1955), Melbourne in 1956 was shown to be at once the stuff of myths and also stultifyingly provincial. The buildings of the period, immortalised by photographer Wolfgang Sievers, remain, however, hauntingly vital. In their jaunty quaintness, they have an undeniable freshness. In the catalogue, Helen Brack’s letter from 1996 describing Peter McIntyre’s Olympic torch decoration suspended like a giant ice-cream cone above Flinders Street could read as architecture’s epitaph for the entire period: "It shivered and rustled and twittered and jiggled and sparkled and flamed …" Let’s hope Sydney’s Olympic buildings engender that same brittle but enduring affection.

Olympic Swimming Pool

Dr Philip Goad is a lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne.

left Olympic Swimming Pool

Sydney’s Metropolitan Planning

Lecture by Professor James Weirick, Chair of Landscape Architecture at the University of New South Wales, at Tusculum, March 24, 1997.
Review by Duncan Gibbs

James Weirick, wearing the nom-de-plume of ‘outspoken critic’, yet again added combustibles to the pyre of Sydney’s urban development. He exposed the forces shaping the metropolitan region, identified erupting volcanos on Sydney’s planning horizon and illuminated the route that history has taken in carving out suburban habitation in the Cumberland Basin.

Living systems are taking the brunt of our intrusions: small pockets of highly stressed remnant bush and coastline remain in the inner city, while the Hawkesbury/Nepean river system is becoming sedimentally polluted due to the northern, western and southern growth corridors planned in the sixties. Simultaneously, air pollution is circulating from the eastern suburbs west, down the Hawkesbury, out to sea, only to be blown back in again to form thick blankets of smog over the western suburbs.

The region’s Metro Strategy and concomitant traffic planning documents appear to do nothing but exacerbate this grim scene. According to Professor Weirick, the Roads and Traffic Authority appears to be a faceless Robert Moses (the Manhattan developer who funded many urban projects with revenue from tollways he built around New York); planning on collecting big-time with the Eastern Distributor. This road scheme channels not only north/south commuter traffic right through the centre of Sydney, but also collects most traffic between Melbourne and Brisbane rather than sending it around the proposed Western Orbital Road, which exists only as a dotted line on a diagram. The M5 East is equally as problematic.

The existing freight rail infrastructure through Botany, Dulwich Hill and Chullora remains under-utilised, while the city to airport rail line under construction simply bypasses the eastern suburbs and any possible connection to Bondi Junction and the University of NSW at Kensington. The new line will conclusively gentrify the industrial area between Mascot and the CBD; developers will make tidy sums and Sydney will lose its closest and largest employment base.

Meanwhile, the East Circular Quay debacle has appeared as an urban moment symbolising Greater Sydney’s problems. This furore has galvanised a group of concerned citizens who appear to be the only thing between the city and urban hell. The saving of Bradley’s Head from typical harbourside development and Glebe from freeways are previous examples of such monumental efforts by committed individuals and groups.

Recent work on Olympics infrastructure appeared as a positive sign that bureaucracy can actually learn and design can be a legitimate item on the political agenda: the Hargreaves’ masterplan workshop run by the Government Architect’s Design Directorate for the Olympic Co-ordination Authority has considerably improved the previous plan, giving it a purposeful structure and meaning. Professor Werrick’s recommended reading was Surface City: Sydney at the Millennium by Peter Murphy and Sophie Watson. This monograph provides a post-Marxist analysis of Sydney’s cultural and urban landscapes.

Duncan Gibbs has a bachelors degree in landscape architecture and a masters degree in urban design from RMIT, and is now with NSW Public Works in Sydney



Published online: 1 May 1997


Architecture Australia, May 1997

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