After being driven down Melbourne’s freeways, looking at the varied textures of the sound barriers and the variety of pedestrian bridges, they are an impressive design statement. I don’t drive so I don’t see this aspect of Melbourne’s design in my daily life – unlike the freeways Melbourne’s public transport is not a designed environment. Thinking about Melbourne’s architecture and design lead me to borrow Leon Van Schaik Design City Melbourne (Wiley-Academy, 2006, England) from Coburg Library.
The author, Leon Van Schaik AO (Order of Australia) is the Innovation Professor of Architecture at RMIT. He was involved with Melbourne’s architectural revival, especially at the RMIT campus. He knows his subject is a strong advocate for design and architectural innovation. However, this insider status both helps and hinders the book.
At first I was not sure what Van Schaik means by “design city”. Not a designed city, like Canberra, but rather a city that encourages design – a centre for design. Van Schaik describes the complex and dynamic system of architecture and design in Melbourne. He investigates the modes of cultural production (art, jewellery, fashion, furniture design, graphic design) in relationship their to architecture. There are lots of interesting ideas and facts in the book. He even attempts to resolve the disconnection between Melbourne’s design culture and sports culture with stories of footballers turned designers (Sean Godsell and Greg Burgess) and in other passing references.
Unfortunately the text is almost unreadable, it rambles and the ideas are buried and obscured by poor editing. It appears that Van Schaik is too close to his subject to effectively organize the material in this book. I don’t know how much any of the 3 editors for the book is responsible for allowing this messy content to be published. The “Content Editor”, Louise Porter has certainly not done her job. “Much of the buildings are buried below grade.” (p.53) (Should that be “ground”?) If the content of this book were a blog then it would be on my blogroll but I expect something better, more considered and edited from a print publication.
Another contributing problem to the quality authorship, along with a problem with the editors, is a lack of decent unbiased criticism. (The demands of academic tenure tracking may have also required a hasty publication.) The insider nature of the book means that when it was reviewed in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper (April 4, 2006) it was by Norman Day, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT – a colleague of the author who gave the book a glowing review. The whole book reeks of this kind of nepotism and it reduces Van Schaik’s vision of a complex system contributing to a design culture to a club.
Photography by John Gollings is a major feature of this publication and without it the book would be significantly less intelligible.