“The promise of arts organisations working together, (the critic) suggested, can become a “daily grind of competing boards and directors stifled by bureaucracy”.
“Even more problematic, however, was the tendency for such complexes to result in something more akin to an arts ghetto, shut off from the broader community. The Arts Precinct thus places functional convenience above the desirability for the arts to be surrounded by, and more importantly, owned by, a community.
“Are we at risk of throwing good money after bad, chasing an undoubtedly appealing, but ultimately chimeric civic dream?
“We should be much more open and energetic in considering alternatives. The continuing disquiet surrounding Melbourne’s Docklands development, which I have seen variously described as “soulless” and “uncharismatic” may present as much an opportunity, as a problem. Docklands, west of Melbourne’s CBD currently lacks a cultural centre or facility of any significance.
IN RESPONSE, by a University of Melbourne representative:
“Name a city that you love. It’s likely you’ll be thinking of somewhere that concentrates activity and human presence. There are some who will think of Brasilia or Canberra for their architectural distinction, or other places that have been part of a utopian vision which, while beautifully designed, in the abstract seem somewhat ill conceived in the living.
“Others will think of the French Quarter in New Orleans, or in Shanghai, or the Latin Quarter in Paris; Soho in New York or Convent Garden in London. Yes, these are now over-hyped but they are still great places to be.”
Alas, arts precincts don’t make cultural cities
By Peter Tregear, Professor and Head of School of Music at Australian National University
Published on theconversation.com.au, 28th February 2014
Disclosure Statement (from The Conversation): Peter Tregear does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Melburnians are oft to claim that they reside in the “arts capital” of Australia. Such self-perception (justified or not) reflects and helps to elevate the profile, quality and ambition of artistic activity…
Melburnians are oft to claim that they reside in the “arts capital” of Australia. Such self-perception (justified or not) reflects and helps to elevate the profile, quality and ambition of artistic activity in the city. But does it also leave the city vulnerable to bad policy?
One long-standing government policy response which aims to match this ambition with reality has been the ongoing investment in a cultural precinct in the city’s Southbank, which includes a cluster of organisations such as the Melbourne Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, the Malthouse Theatre, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).
The strip of land bordered by St Kilda Road and Sturt Street is aiming to become the arts equivalent of the sporting precinct on the north side of the Yarra River.
Thus we saw the release earlier this month of a Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint by Arts Victoria, which encourages development – around the existing arts cluster – that “talks to the street” and gives more attention to the pedestrian experience. That has since been followed up this week with an announcement by Premier Denis Napthine of a A$42.5 million major redevelopment project centred on the campus of VCA at Southbank that aims to open up the institution to the broader community.
The blueprint appeals to planners looking to enhance those much vaunted “synergies” between substantially public-funded institutions. After all, what could be more sensible than the placement of one such institution after another, and (yet) another.
Convenience vs community
But if there is one sure law of urban planning, it is the law of unintended consequences.
In a New York Times article marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York 2009, the music critic Anthony Tommasini noted that if such a sprawling multi-disciplinary performing-arts complex were proposed in New York City today, “it would never be built”.
Setting aside cost and planning obstacles,
[the] idealistic assumption … that orchestras, opera companies, ballet troupes and theatres would have much to gain by becoming partners in a centralised complex would not stand up to challenge today.
The promise of arts organisations working together, he further suggested, can become a “daily grind of competing boards and directors stifled by bureaucracy”.
Even more problematic, however, was the tendency for such complexes to result in something more akin to an arts ghetto, shut off from the broader community.
The very idea of the Arts Precinct, Tommasini argued, has arisen out of a fundamentally negative view of the modern city as crowded, chaotic and forbidding.
It offers instead the apparently attractive prospect for arts lovers to travel in the safety of their car from the suburbs, have a meal, attend a performance, and return again, without having to set foot in the heart of the city itself.
The Arts Precinct thus places functional convenience above the desirability for the arts to be surrounded by, and more importantly, owned by, a community. (I made a similar argument recently in a Platform Paper about why Performing Arts Schools should ideally be located on the main campuses of their host Universities, not isolated from them.)
Lack of critical debate
Tommasini is not alone in voicing such concerns — there is an emerging consensus of opinion among commentators and academics around similar projects, such as the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Los Angeles Music Centre.
Given the shared challenges, it is surprising that the planning principles driving the Melbourne venture have attracted so little critical debate. Certainly this was the case around the time when I first wrote on the topic for the inaugural issue of the Melbourne Review in 2011.
The lack of such debate until now might be in part because voicing such criticism can feel a little like apostasy. The Southbank blueprint while quietly acknowledging a lot of these problems (with the use of words such as “trapped” and “alienated”) nevertheless seems from the outset to presume the solution.
Is this because government interest and investment in the arts must be seized before it is questioned? Yet, with the total cost of all proposed redevelopment work in Southbank estimated a few years ago at as much as A$1.2 billion, a robust public debate is surely also essential.
The sum is potentially so large because the problems faced by Southbank are considerable (as anyone who has spent any time trying to walk through it only knows too well): the area is cut off from the rest of Melbourne’s centre, and indeed parts of itself, by immovable objects such as City Rd and the CityLink expressway and poorly situated high-rises, as well as being vertically challenged by a descent of several metres below the level of the city’s main southerly boulevard, St Kilda Road.
Similar geographical challenges are faced by the Dallas Arts District in Texas, and the LA Music Centre, both of which are also cut off in part by major inner city freeways – but the blueprint makes no mention of these, or any other similar examples, that might sound a cautionary note.
In Dallas, it has been widely acknowledged that its location has served to emphasise the Arts District status as an enclave of high culture separated (symbolically as much as physically) from nearby communities.
The design of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall was a concerted effort to try and counteract similar problems in Los Angeles.
In Melbourne, the design and location of the Melbourne Recital Centre, has only added to the challenges faced at Southbank (a fact quietly acknowledged in the blueprint).
How cultural cities evolve
Are we at risk of throwing good money after bad, chasing an undoubtedly appealing, but ultimately chimeric civic dream?
We should be much more open and energetic in considering alternatives. The continuing disquiet surrounding Melbourne’s Docklands development, which I have seen variously described as “soulless” and “uncharismatic” may present as much an opportunity, as a problem. Docklands, west of Melbourne’s CBD currently lacks a cultural centre or facility of any significance.
I wonder what might the impact have been if the Melbourne Recital Centre had been located there, designed by an architect best able to make use of the potentially stunning waterside locale?
Or what if they had taken advantage of the until-recently vacant block of land at the top end of Swanston Street, north of the CBD. Imagine what it might have said about the city’s cultural ambitions were its central axis to have been punctuated by the Shrine of Remembrance at one end, and a major arts facility at the other!
In this instance developers Grocon came up with something just as powerfully symbolic, a 32-storey portrait of Wurundjeri tribal leader and artist William Barak.
But maybe that’s how cultural cities really should evolve. Culture is, after all, not a destination. It should not be confined to planned precincts, but be given the space to be expressed in myriad ways and myriad locations – to be propagated ultimately by and through the imagination of all residents.
Do you work in urban development and planning? If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, email the Arts + Culture editor (of The Conversation)
Alas, arts precincts maybe can make cultural cities
By Su Baker Director, Victorian College of the Arts at University of Melbourne. From theconversation.com.au, 5th March 2014
The release last month of a Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint by Arts Victoria, that promises further development of the cultural precinct in the city’s Southbank, hasn’t come without its fair share of criticism, including views aired by Peter Tregear on this website last week. He questioned whether it was good public policy to invest more public funding into this precinct.
As director of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) – an institution that will benefit greatly from this planned infrastructure development – I welcome the blueprint, which you could argue is an obvious stance for me to take. But I see this development as much overdue, and believe cultural activity can make the precinct. Here’s why …
Name a city that you love. It’s likely you’ll be thinking of somewhere that concentrates activity and human presence. There are some who will think of Brasilia or Canberra for their architectural distinction, or other places that have been part of a utopian vision which, while beautifully designed, in the abstract seem somewhat ill conceived in the living.
Others will think of the French Quarter in New Orleans, or in Shanghai, or the Latin Quarter in Paris; Soho in New York or Convent Garden in London. Yes, these are now over-hyped but they are still great places to be.
So, what does make a great city? That’s a question that preoccupies many a mind greater than mine. But what I do know is that life in the kind of city I like exists in waves of change around a human-scaled core. It has an authentic function and human activity.
As highlighted already, I welcome those plans. They recommend enhancement of the precinct. In short, that will mean creating pedestrian pathways in and around the existing arts organisations already in residence in Southbank: the Melbourne Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, the Melbourne Recital Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Malthouse Theatre, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Chunky Move, and so on.
A A$42.5 million development project (funded significantly by the University of Melbourne Campaign) will also be incorporated, centred on the VCA’s Southbank campus, which aims to open up the institution to the broader community.
Over and above my own declared interest, I’d suggest this will further enhance the cultural amenity for the people of Melbourne and bring long-term vibrancy through the making of art and the public experience of this.
Professor Tregear makes good and salient points about the history of such urban design decisions in other places. While accepting that so-called “precincts” can be artificially created and are often ill-conceived, it is important to recognise that, in this case, there is a clear urban design impulse of creating focus and critical mass. Melbourne has a positive history of doing this, from the original layout of the city to its more recent renewal, of revitalised laneways and residential living.
Notwithstanding the supposed galling chauvinism of Melburnians and their claims to living in the cultural capital of Australia, there is some real sense that the concentration of activity in the city has an impact of its livability.
While being a grateful recipient of support for the VCA’s infrastructure improvements, which include developing the Dodds Street police stables into a visual arts wing at the VCA, I assert that when the activity of an area has authentic and generative purpose the likelihood of success is improved.
The aforementioned planning blueprint is conscious of the potential pitfalls of urban planning that doesn’t respect locale and the stakeholders involved, of which there are many in this case.
Yes, there may be a danger in making a Disneyland of the arts, but there are also important discussions about the integration of residential and daily life with creative activities that have a positive social impact.
Work, study and play in Southbank
Similarly, while it is too early to say much about the impact of the all-night White Night festival on Melbourne’s culture, for which more than 500,000 people flooded into the city over the weekend of February 22 to enjoy the artistic atmospherics, the community spirit demonstrated on such occasions indicates how an arts precinct can create social cohesion and optimism, a quality sorely needed in these times.
To my mind, much of the success of White Night is due to the Hoddle Grid, the layout of Melbourne’s CBD, the human scale of streets and buildings and the nooks and crannies discovered along the way. Such an experience in Melbourne’s Docklands, west of the CBD, with its wide-open spaces, would not be the same. This is the current challenge for the City of Melbourne and if these other urban design principles are applied it may succeed.
One of the core markers of success built into the Southbank plan is the centrality of the VCA – again, I declare my obvious personal interest – and the constant flow of talented young artists who train, learn and build strong links with established artists working in companies located nearby.
The average age of Southbank residents is 29, but the spectrum is wide. At the end of each academic year thousands of people flood into the VCA campus and see the work of emerging artists (at least 3,000 visitors see the VCA School of Art exhibitions on opening night alone), hear the music of young performers and watch dance, theatre and film.
This happens every year, in generational waves. It is this dynamism that will keep the precinct idea alive. The VCA is at the heart of this idea of precinct. And for this reason I have faith.
Notwithstanding my own bias, I believe this matches closely with new thinking in higher education about how the relationships and interaction with industry, the profession and audiences (in the case of the arts) are critical to the survival of both the learning institution and the presentation venues such as concert halls, art museums, galleries, theatres and cinemas.
University campuses themselves need to get with the program and become integrated with their local community as well as being highly valued in international rankings. Those things are not incompatible. Think global, act local.
So, I believe the Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint to be not only a great plan for the public, the residents and citizens of the city, whose taxes pay for this infrastructure, but for the institutions themselves. It is educationally sound.
In the case of the students studying in the arts, to be adjacent and in learning partnerships with their professional mentors and potential colleagues, exposed to great examples of excellence – what’s not to like?
Adding to the social benefits of engagement with and entertaining the broader population is the focus of creating hubs of creative, innovative activity, open to entrepreneurial partnerships, new work and advanced practices.
Bring on the precinct.
Do you work in urban development and planning? If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, email the Arts + Culture editor.