03 April, 2015

We've lost Paris but let's keep Palace

Melbourne Herald Sun, Thursday April 2, 2015

Back in the early 70s I worked in "the Paris end of Collins Street", and it really did have the feel of the great European city. Out of my office window - next door to the Melbourne Club - I watched elegantly dressed ladies take coffee at pavement tables, and men in office suits slipping into the Ross Hotel for "a quick one".

But it seemed no sooner was I there than the excavator of progress moved in and I watched them dig the deepest hole you've ever seen. It seemed to take for ever, the beautiful 19th century buildings - housing the elite of Melbourne's medical consultants, it seemed - were gone.

Eventually the twin towers of the ANZ building took over much of the block down to Exhibition Street and I have never forgiven IM Pei, the great architect, for turning my patch into the Chicago end of Collins Street.

So much of Melbourne's character was wrecked by the indiscriminate constructions of the 60s and 70s. The brake was thrown when the public rose up to defend the Regent Theatre which, along with the Plaza Ballroom underneath, was threatened with the wrecking ball. Ironically the ones we have to thank for stopping the madness are the Builders' Labourers Federation. Inspired by Jack Mundey in Sydney and his "green bans", the Victorian branch responded to the Save the Regent Committee, and stopped all demolition.

The resolution of these stand-offs took years but we can be thankful to have a city with some superb theatres. Except that they are always under threat.

That energetic conductor-come-entrepreneur Greg Hocking pointed me to what was happening to the Palace Theatre in Bourke Street. The case is being fought in VCAT right now, with Melbourne City Council and crowds of supporters once again fighting to save a theatre from developers.

"Melbourne doesn't have many venues with that 1000 to 1500 capacity," he explained. "Nobody would pay the money needed to build theatres of that quality and size these days." So if they go, they are gone. He pointed to St Kilda's Palais, Flinders Street's Forum - all periodically under threat. We have to stay vigilant.

When I visit Paris or Rome it isn't swish new office blocks I want to see. Fortunately, through good management or the inability to ever agree, those cities retain much of their hearts intact. You can walk, after midnight up the Champs Elysees and feel the city as it had been more than a century ago.

Rome by night is a parade of delights. Every street is crowded with art and statues; circle around the Colosseum and you feel yourself transported back a millennium or two.

Melbourne of course does not have anything like this history. Which to my mind is a good reason for retaining what little we do have. This city does retain its old charms, in its lanes and cobbled alleys, its packed shops and varied buskers (last night I passed a concert pianist busking in Swanston Street. Wow.)

But the grand streets and boulevards that are the signature of this town have succumbed too much to glass and steel for my liking. My office is in Collins Street, in the building where General Douglas MacArthur ran the Pacific War. It's a beautiful sturdy place filled with brown wood furniture and the well-worn comfort of a century's habitation.

A few metres up the street, however, there's a building that's falling apart and in the process of demotion. The old National Mutual House, built in 1965.


1 comment:

Winston Marsh said...

Hope the Easter Bunny does you proud Ray... and a great article as usual. I expect nothing less!
Have a f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c day... Winno