Swanston Academic Building by Lyons Architecture for RMIT University adds another noisy note to the cacophony of Melbourne’s busy Swanston Street. As is well known, Swanston Street used to be an axis between the sacred (the Shrine of Remembrance) and the profane (the Carlton and United Breweries building), bisecting the business and retail activity of the CBD.
The Shrine of Remembrance remains, a little acropolis that invites each who casts a look towards it into a personal relationship with the Australian gods. The brewery has long gone, leaving an empty site that development company Grocon will one day fill with funky towers that snuggle up to Sean Godsell’s Design Hub. Beautiful, but mysteriously still not open months after looking complete, the Design Hub is too ethereal to stand for the secular by itself.
But the longwise view of Swanston Street has always been only part of its story. Zigzag movements of pedestrians across the street are increasingly impeded by the urban design “improvements” to surfaces of road and footpath that are currently underway (including complicated hierarchies of expensive stone curbs and edges, the rationale of which has already needed clarification with painted lines). But the eyes of a pedestrian walking along Swanston Street still zigzag. What they see is a rich index of the city centre and its activities. There are no towers here – height controls in successive planning schemes have seen to that, so the city that you see while on Swanston Street is not the same as the one you see on William Street, or Spring Street, say. And unlike those stretches of the CBD, it isn’t very shiny. Shine prevails only at the QV Centre, where for a whole block the general rule that commercial premises on the street have “verandahs” is put aside. Elsewhere, it’s a rule that only lapses briefly. The QV Centre also introduces another solecism to the Melbourne scene – the diagonal laneway.
The line of verandahs up and down Swanston Street funnels its cacophony. The different visual languages of the frontages and signage of inexpensive Asian restaurants that dominate around Lonsdale Street, of banks and chain stores around Bourke Street, and the takeaway joints that prevail down near Flinders Street, are played out mostly under – and on the underside of – the verandahs. At night, there is a tube of lit space either side of the street, where all these premises vie for the attention of passers-by. None of it is very “select,” but it is lively, humane and occupied. Above the verandah height it doesn’t much matter what happens from the point of view of the street’s occupancy, and architecture of a range of qualities does its thing.
The gaps in this pattern are concentrated on the eastern side of the street, where a series of stately nineteenth-century institutions stand: the State Library, the Town Hall, St Paul’s Cathedral. They each step back from the edge of the street, the sequence of setbacks accommodating perfunctory urban landscaping (the highlight for me is the changing floral display outside the Town Hall – the gaudy horticulture is in general keeping with the ambience of the street). This pattern of setback is followed by the City Square – typologically, in fact, a particularly generous footpath, which is now maintained apparently so that we can admire the hulking visage of the Westin Melbourne hotel that stands grandiosely above. It shouldn’t have been allowed.
In all this, the Lyons building looks naturally at home. RMIT’s Green Brain by Ashton Raggatt McDougall, on the corner of Swanston and La Trobe streets, establishes a new protocol for the university’s buildings which, although hard up against the street edge, have previously eschewed the verandah. Lyons continues the inclusion of the verandah (or canopy, if you prefer) in the RMIT repertoire. The Swanston Academic Building’s colour is surely a reference to the banal commercial bravura of much of Swanston Street. But nothing is simple with Lyons. This building also reminds me of another RMIT treasure down in the commercial heart of the street, the Capitol Theatre. Turned inside out.