It is hard to express how dull the centre of Melbourne was in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1970s the Melbourne’s CBD was bleak and busy but only 9 to 5, after hours and on the weekends it was deserted. It was like John Brack’s painting, Collins Street at 5pm only with updated fashions. Then in the mid-1970s the property boom collapsed and this lead into the recession of the early 1980s where unemployment was over 10% for the first time since the Great Depression. As manufacturing declined people were leaving the state. Along with the economic decline came a physical decay of the city: abandoned factories, empty warehouses and neglected infrastructure.
The centre and inner suburbs were in trouble as people were abandoning them. Almost nobody lived in centre of Melbourne, the population had moved to the suburbs followed by the supermarkets, department stores and shopping malls and that threatened retail in the city centre.
Culturally Melbourne was a post-colonial backwater near the end of the earth. There was no art gallery scene, a few theatres and music venues. All there were was a lot of pubs, another fading relic of the gold rush a century before. Melbourne’s music scene took advantage of the surplus of pubs, leading to the Little Band scene and Melbourne’s artists found cheap spaces for studio.
Meanwhile successive state governments since the 1970s planning how to change the city from a post-industrial ghost town into a spectacle and event orientated city. A city that hosted major cultural events, festivals and other spectacles that would attract interstate and international tourists reviving the central city with hospitality and retail. It was not going to be an easy task. Melbourne did not have a signature building or a landmark, aside from the Yarra River. In 1979 there was a 1979 ‘Landmark Competition’ for Melbourne but nothing came of it. Melbourne would have to redevelop key inner city precincts, changing the city section by section. This is why the battle over Vault in the new Melbourne City Square was such an important battle.
Melbourne’s City Square marked the start of a redevelopment of the 19th century inner city. Originally no city in Victoria was designed with a civic square because the then Governor George Gipps didn’t like them believing that they encourage democracy. They certainly inhibited land sale revenue. Debate about the lack of a city square in Melbourne had started by the 1850s but nothing had been done because of cost and the fear of providing a gathering place for protesters. The idea of square was revived in the 1920s as part of civic beautification and a number of sites proposed but as the centre of the city had been completely built construction of the square would require demolition. Finally in 1961, lead by Lord Mayor Sir Bernard Evans, who was a notable architect, the Melbourne City Council settled on a site. By 1968 the council had acquired all the properties and by 1974 they had all been demolished.
Melbourne City Square was only built when democracy was no longer seen as a threat by the government. Actually democracy was still seen as a threat, the City Square became a centre for demonstrations, including the Occupy Movement in 2011. It also quickly became the one of the original hang-out places for Melbourne’s emerging hip-hop scene attracted by the graffiti wall that was part of the original design and a record store.
Meanwhile, Melbourne’s inner city suburbs were facing their own battle to survive in a post-industrial city. They needed to reinvent their identity on a far more limited budget; artists and other culture workers became the storm trooper for real estate, establishing toe-holds in the inner city suburbs. The infusion of ‘trendy’ culture helped drive up retail rental on the shopping strips and real estate prices.
Melbourne is now an international cultural centre and tourist destination. It has an almost complete calendar of festivals and major cultural events. The city is full of spectacles including temporary sculptures and an endlessly changing display of graffiti and street art. If you think that current circus of a city is bad then consider the alternative, that Melbourne would have become Australia’s Detroit.