A WINDSWEPT WASTED OPPORTUNITY


Not even among the windswept Marxist wastes of "reconstructed" East Berlin as it was in the 1960s could there have been a more depressingly horrible streetscape than St Kilda Junction. In some ways it is worse than East Berlin was because it is Marxism meets Detroit. There weren't many cars in 1960s East Berlin whereas in St Kilda Junction there is hardly anything but. This intersection of six busy streets is utterly subordinated to motor traffic. Buildings were torn down to make way for the cars. As for pedestrians, it must have been an irritant to the planners not to be able to eliminate such nuisances entirely from their motorists' paradise, though perhaps it was some consolation to be able to direct people wishing to cross the junction on foot into a maze of filthy tunnels full of rubbish, graffiti and the odour of stale urine. So labyrinthine is the configuration of these subways that it takes twice as long to cross the junction through them than it would if it were still possible to cross it above ground.

Every generation has to live with the mistakes of the previous generation's experts. (Look at education, where the legacy of 1970s pedagogical theorists can be seen in students leaving secondary school barely able to read and write their own language.) Road planning experts were a particular blight of the second half of the twentieth century. For them the car was to be the key to the cities of the future and anything that obstructed its passage through the urban landscape had to be removed. The buildings traditionally thought to constitute a city would henceforth have to be fitted into the interstices of roads and freeways wherever there was a square inch of available space. Planners bewitched by the car dismissed the possibility of confronting the growth in urban traffic by investment in public transport. Their view was that public transport had had its day and was not worth wasting money on. Trams on their fixed lines got in the way of the car and, who would want to use a train when he had his own transport waiting in the garage? This level of farsightedness produced the Lonie Report, in which planning experts blithely proposed that Melbourne should shut down most of its suburban rail network. For that inconvenient section of the population too young, too poor or too decrepit to have a car a few buses would be allowed, since they could "move with the traffic". It is safe to say that no planner of the era imagined that the traffic itself would cease to move, coagulated into one solid mass by its ever intensifying volume.

Experts charged with replanning Melbourne for the car were forever trooping overseas at the taxpayer's expense to "study trends". England was a favourite destination with its big Victorian cities even worse adapted than Melbourne to being turned into jungles of highways. Not that difficulty of adaptation was to be allowed to stand in the way of "progress" in places where dedicated futurists were in charge of municipal planning departments. British and European urban road schemes were lapped up by our visiting local planners, eager for inspiration. Particularly inspirational, surely, was the fate of Birmingham, a city not dissimilar in architecture to Melbourne. Here, in their quest to make the city entrusted to their care as car-friendly as they could, the city fathers decided to out-blitz the Germans. They destroyed the heart of Birmingham to make way for a colossal ring roadway, leaving the few buildings of the historic city centre that weren't demolished totally isolated from the surrounding city. The ring road took thirteen years to build - the amount of demolition required was phenomenal - and was finished in 1971, three years after the opening of the "new" St Kilda Junction on the other side of the world.

The confluence of six roads into the junction had been identified as early as the 1950s as a "congestion problem", i.e. a bottleneck. Together with a new freeway along the Yarra it was designated an urgent priority and the traffic planners at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works rolled up their sleeves and got to work on it. The History of Prahran notes that in 1956 the Victorian government, under Sir Henry Bolte, gave the MMBW wide powers to design and construct new roads, and by extension, to override local councils. MMBW planners were well up there with Birmingham's in their taste for demolition. Whole residential streets were sacrificed to their schemes. An important element in the reconfiguration of the junction was the construction of an underpass to carry traffic between Queens Road and an extended Dandenong Road. Several streets disappeared entirely to make space for this, or lost their houses on one side. Remaining residents would not only have to put up with the noise as the traffic sped through the underpass but were to be, as the History puts it, "hemmed in" by its concrete walls and access ramps. There were a number of protests at the time, which must have been hurtful to the planners at the MMBW who had tried so hard to overcome the problem of traffic congestion by easing the congestion of residential density as well.

The new St Kilda Junction is thus a monument to the old MMBW, a body now dismantled and subsumed among various other public authorities. It is a monument too to the powers of observation of its planners in faithfully recording every destructive detail of the "trends" they travelled far and wide to see.

What was lost in the way of architecture to create the replanned junction? At the corner of Fitzroy Street and Barkly Street there was the appositely named Corner Hotel, a decent late nineteenth century building in a restrained Italianate style. The 1980s office blocks that have replaced it and its neighbours along Fitzroy Street are pure Iron Curtain. To the east of the Corner Hotel on the sharply angular site where Barkly Street joined what was then called High Street stood the Junction Hotel, also Italianate but much more florid, with a handsome corner tower and cupola. This went, along with the whole of the western side of High Street, now renamed and treated as a prolongation of St Kilda Road.

Where High Street met Wellington Street there were shops, and right on the corner R. T. Taylor Pty Ltd, licensed grocer, whose claim to fame was that on the verandah roof on the Wellington Street side of his shop perched a diminutive signal box, with a tramways official inside, to control the movement of trams in and out of the junction. The box always looked precarious, as though the verandah would give way under it, but it survived to be taken down by the wrecker. Between Wellington Street and the foot of Punt Road were two of what would now be called Melbourne icons: Hamburger Max, dispensing hamburgers late into the night for the truck drivers passing through the junction, and the Taiping, Melbourne's most prominently sited Chinese restaurant, which though now closed somehow managed to linger on in its grim Edwardian building into the first decade of this century. It and the building next door where Hamburger Max was are all that's left of the original buildings in the junction.

The most noticeable sight in the old junction was at the angle of Punt Road and St Kilda Road. This was another garage, in Spanish Mission style, straight out of Beverley Hills in the 1920s. High above it was a huge neon sign advertising Atlantic Ethyl petrol. Ethyl was represented as a female head with her hair streaming out behind her, the golden tresses, when the sign was lit up, moving rhythmically as in the wind. The hairstyle itself, frozen in time, was in the manner of Jean Harlow, Hollywood's big star at the time the service station was built. When you consider the fuss made in the 1990s about the Skipping Girl sign in North Richmond, it is a shame that the heritage lobby had not got into its stride in time to order the preservation of this even more spectacular ensemble.

To deplore the ugliness of St Kilda Junction and a thousand places like it is not to deplore the car. Few of us could live the same life without a car. No one but Green cranks would want to disinvent it and even they are ambivalent, in practice if not in utterance. But like fire the car is a good friend but a bad enemy. It is an enemy of civilised urban life if planners are allowed to subordinate the city to a means of transport which is meant for moving within it. The car ought to be at the service of urban life, not the other way round. The mistake of those 1960s and 1970s planners was in seeing the dismantling of the city as the only way to create space for cars. Yet there are at least two other ways. One is to limit the number of cars in the streets. Everyone wants to drive a car for convenience but it has been shown time and again in cities once choked by cars - and is now becoming evident in Melbourne where it was reported this week that trams are fuller than at any time since the 1950s - that if public transport is made a genuinely practicable alternative people will use it. Enforced restriction on the use of cars is undesirable in a democratic society, and though as part of the price of belonging to such a society we all have to accept some degree of limitation on our right to act with absolute freedom, it is better if people can be persuaded to reduce their car use because public transport is the easier alternative. It is a hopeful sign that that is the new orthodoxy among planners.

The other way the planners might have chosen would have been to put principal highways underground. At St Kilda Junction it should have been the cars in the tunnels, not hapless pedestrians. If this had been objected to on grounds of cost, tolls would have had to be considered. Current experience shows that people determined to go by car will go by car and pay the toll; for those who won't the toll can be a further disincentive to taking the car out, as long as the public-transport alternative is a real one.

It might be remarked in passing that there is no reason why traffic schemes should go hand in hand with ugliness, though admittedly there is not much existing evidence to demonstrate this. Gifted designers are needed of the kind who in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries made much railway infrastructure aesthetically pleasing. The nearest we have got to that with roads are the "spaghetti junctions" in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, which have a certain geometric beauty, though they are no places for pedestrians.

It is probably fair to say that St Kilda Junction was a missed opportunity. With cars underground it could have been a pleasant and unusual public space, something like Melbourne's own Place de l'Etoile. There is nothing to see there now, unless you have a taste for the idiot graffiti - correction, urban art - in the underground passages, all tediously repetitious jagged shapes and lurid colours (though you need a peg on your nose if you wish to linger and admire). Above ground it is dusty, noisy and ugly. And in spite of all that has been sacrificed to make way for the car, it can still be a bottleneck.

9 March 2013

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