Multiplicity as a catalyst for renewal
We can learn a lot about ourselves by understanding how our cities have evolved and been shaped over time. Cities are rich places, characterised by layered histories and the many experiences of the people who live in them. This richness and multiplicity make urban renewal projects both complex and rewarding for those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be involved in realising them.
We have a number of tools which we return to repeatedly when working on renewal projects. Firstly, we recognise that in order to embed diversity in a place, we need to acknowledge the many voices and range of experiences of the people who spend time there. We also need to understand the histories of the place, both its pre-colonial histories of Country and the more recent built and natural histories. Additionally, we understand that renewal projects are best undertaken by many people who share a common goal.
These elements must be balanced against the interests and investments of all those involved, which also inevitably shape renewal projects. It is up to us as architects to mediate the breadth of interests and find a common narrative that weaves the elements together into something which echoes the richness of the place, providing opportunities not just for renewal, but for regeneration.
If there is one principle that we want to pass on to the next generation of architects, it is that architecture is created by many people and architects are just one of the hands. We urgently need to move on from the myth of a ‘hero Architect’ with a capital ‘A’.
If people contain multitudes, then so do our cities. Part of our role as architects is to honour the many voices in the design process, distilling and curating them to find common themes and moments of intersection. So-called ‘city shaping’ projects require the authorship of many, and architects have a responsibility to ensure the renewal process is an inclusive one. This is why community consultation and codesign are so important in this context. Through deep listening you will find opportunities for inspiration.
We have personally been involved in the Queen Victoria Market Renewal for close to ten years. We learned a lot about the Market through ongoing consultation, starting with a process called a ‘People’s Panel’, which was made up of Market traders and community members. We came to understand that for many of these people, the market is an inclusive community meeting point and much of its value comes from its role in facilitating authentic, person-to-person interactions. This insight foregrounded our design approach in considering how we could retain the social value of the Market and even enhance it by creating more spaces to facilitate these interactions.
When we approach a renewal project, we try to let the place do the talking, understanding that the best places are uncovered rather than created.
After all, there are no ‘new’ places to be ‘created’. Places are shaped by what they are today, what they’ve been in the past, and most importantly, what we need them to be in the future. Any new imprint on the city needs to recognise these historical storylines and either retain and manifest the stories once told or reinterpret and build upon them.
At QV, an urban retail, commercial, and residential village occupying an entire city block in central Melbourne, much of the urban form was created through an interpretation of Melbourne’s laneway network. The site, formerly the old Queen Victoria Hospital, was divided into a series of discrete precincts comprising squares, arcades, and laneways. This arrangement replicates the richness and diversity of the surrounding city fabric and addresses the adjacent 19th Century Queen Victoria Women’s Centre and State Library of Victoria buildings.
The challenge for the team here was negotiating between the old and the new, acknowledging the need for retail shopfronts and commercial spaces, and balancing this with our responsibility to create a type of civic architecture which would respectfully express and inhabit the historical city block.
Returning to the Market for a moment and the lessons it can provide: Markets are as old as cities. In many instances, they are self-organising and ad-hoc, activated by exchange in all its forms – social and cultural as well as economic.
In the early days of Melbourne’s colonial history, it was a market town with different types of trade occurring at various sites. The Queen Victoria Market site itself has had many incarnations as a cemetery, a livestock market, and a wholesale fruit and vegetable market occupying a series of laneways. For centuries before that, it was an important meeting place for the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung People, close to the significant landmarks of Flagstaff Hill and the creek line that runs under Elizabeth Street.
We are reflecting on all these histories as we work on the design of Gurrowa Place, a new mixed-use development planned for the southern edge of the Market precinct. It is inherently a process of exchange, a process of engaging in the give-and-take of balancing many voices and their competing interests with the desire to create a legible and rich public realm which pervades and stitches the market precinct back into the CBD.
A framework for regeneration
We recognise the public realm as something that is in a constant state of flux and understand that any large-scale renewal project needs to apply open-ended design thinking. This is why we consider our role in these projects as providing a framework and not a series of built impositions within the landscape with the public realm as the leftover in-between.
In our recent work leading the design team working on Gurrowa Place, we think of this framework as an urban reef, an organic structure that brings an ensemble of elements together. The urban reef is a system of clear yet complex spaces, enabling a multiplicity of histories and current-day requirements to be hosted. Through establishing a flexible collection of spaces, making it a resilient model which will continue to embrace and accommodate the life of the city as it inevitably evolves.
This system of well-proportioned lanes and passages is paired with a large open space that can tell the stories of its past. As a whole, the project reconnects with the Market as well as providing a whole new set of opportunities and reasons for Melbournians to come together.
Through listening, observing, and reflecting on our cities and their evolution, we can understand the importance of civic spaces like markets and their to our public realm.
Reflect and Learn
Recently, we had the opportunity to look at the context of Market Square in Geelong. A late 20th century mall noted as a market in name only, it was built on the site of the colonial market which was central to the town’s thriving wool trade. One of us grew up in Geelong and it’s clear that the city has long been missing a vibrant centre, possibly because of this erasure of the old market – a space for commerce and interactions at a human scale.
We are constantly learning from these cities, helping us understand the inherent cultural value of sites such as the Queen Victoria Market. The lesson for us is to be additive not reductive, to renew, not replace, to add layers, while preserving the intangible social value of what is there now. As Architects, we should be resolute in renewal, restoration, and reconciliation. To reflect on the past, believe in the present, and design to sustain the future.
Note: The name ‘Gurrowa has’ been proposed for the project, which is a Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung name meaning a place of exchange and interchange – being reflective of the purpose of the market, the development vision and conversations had.
This article was first published in Architect Victoria – Urban futures + Systems thinking in architecture Edition 3 / 2023