MELBOURNE AS IT IS, AND AS IT OUGHT TO BE.
Australasian, I (1850): 137-146The author of this essay has not been identified, although it may have been G. H. Wathen, the editor of the journal in which it appeared. Redmond Barry, a Melbourne judge who was associated with this short-lived journal, is another possibility. In this excerpt from pages 138-142, the author's recommendations for improvements in Melbourne have been omitted. What remains is a statement of principles that should govern the planning of towns on a continent where the first European settlement had only taken place just over sixty years earlier.In every new country the survey, appropriation, and disposal of the Crown Lands , and the direction of the Public works, are amongst the most important functions of government; inferior only to the maintenance of order and the dispensing of justice. The direction of the national works, including Roads, Bridges, and Public Buildings, is deemed of such importance in Europe, that in almost every Continental Country the Minister of Public Works is one of the first Officers of the State. The erection of the new Houses of Parliament has taught us how much we need such an officer in England: for while the architect, Mr. Barry, is subjected to the frequent inquisitorial examinations of Committees of the House of Lords and House of Commons, of Commissioners of Woods and Forests, and Commissioners of Fine Arts, each of all these august bodies declare themselves free from all responsibility as to the prodigious expenditure upon the New Houses. They have power to harass the architect, but have not power to guard the public purse. Doubtless we too in England should long ago have had our Minister of Public Works, were it not for our fond attachment to prescriptive usage. But however necessary such an officer may be in France or England, he is far more needed here. Instead of inheriting the labours of fifty generations, we have to commence and carry out everything for ourselves. We have dispossessed the natives of their lands, but have taken possession of neither cities, nor vineyards, nor oliveyards. Whatever is done now in planning towns, laying down lines of road, selecting sites for townships, &c., receives augmented importance from the impress it must give to the future. The main streets and approaches of a new town are, so to speak, the skeleton to which everything done subsequently must be referred and adapted. Collectively they form the rough sketch of the future city. If your first sketch is defective or deformed, not all the depth of Rembrandt, nor the splendour of Titian's coloring, can hide or compensate for the original blunder: and so, if your first plan for a new city is defective, you may adorn, and alter, and contrive, and patch, but you cannot rectify the fundamental error. The survey and disposal of Crown lands and the formation of country roads is a subject of much importance, and we hope to recur to it on a future occasion; but shall at present limit our remarks to what concerns towns, their suburbs, approaches, and public buildings.
Whoever is accustomed to meditate upon the ten thousand wonders of the natural world must have been struck with the fact, that in every case beauty is not superadded to utility, but arises necessarily out of it: in other words that the requirements of beauty, are identical with the conditions of existence. Take for instance, a wide spreading, umbrageous tree: deprive it of that foliage which gives it so much grace, and you have at the same time deprived it of the means of subsistence; for by its leaves it drinks in its required supply of carbonic acid from the air. Thus too the exquisite symmetry of the greyhound and the racehorse is in every particular essential to the existence and comfort of the animal. Such is the case through the whole range of animal and vegetable life. In inorganic bodies we find beauty similarly dependent upon, and arising out of their very constitution, that constitution being most wonderfully adapted to the wants and comfort of man. The gorgeous coloring, the ruby and the gold, of a summer sunset are but the necessary result of meteorological laws, and of the very constitution of the atmosphere; those laws being adjusted with the utmost nicety to our wants. The clouds which beautify the sky, form at the same time the machinery for fructifying the earth, and replenishing the rivers from the exhaustless ocean. So might we multiply instances, all exhibiting infinite wisdom, combined with infinite goodness.
This principle of oneness in the requirements of beauty and utility is also observable in the works of man. Thus in architecture, beauty, convenience, strength, and economy, all more or less depend upon architecture's cardinal virtue--simplicity. A confused and embarrassed plan will not only produce an unpleasing effect, but will also prove inconvenient, expensive, and probably insecure. Similarly, in the laying out of a town, it will be found that all that conduces to convenience and health, conduces likewise to architectural effect and magnificence.
The old mediaeval towns of France and Germany, (those of England have been well nigh swept away by time and improvers) are often a mere collection of tortuous lanes and alleys, with perhaps a specious `place' of `platz' in the centre, where the eye may soar to the towering summits of the timeworn cathedral spire. As you perambulate the streets you can scarcely discover a straight line or a right angle. We would not propose this labyrinth of lanes for a model city. But the opposite of wrong is not always right. Whoever laid out the plan for the metropolis of our VICTORIA, whether Sir R. Bourke or his surveyors, has produced something as far removed from the ideal of a great city as the old Gothic towns in question, and, at the same time, far less picturesque and interesting. The rule actually adopted for laying out an Australian town is indeed extremely simple, involving the smallest modicum of skill and knowledge. It is this. Draw a parallelogram, divide it into smaller squares or parallelograms, (`blocks' in surveyors' phrase) by lines traversing each other at right angles. Your design is now complete, and ready to be despatched for execution to any locality where the fiat of government may call a town into being. The natural features and levels of the site need not be taken account of. The site must be made to suit the plan--not the plan the site. We have all heard of Carpenter's Gothic; by what name shall we distinguish this system of town-making, according to which the plan of a city is made exactly like that of a coal-pit, both being laid out on the panel-system?
What then are the true principles on which a town should be planned? What the requirements to be fulfilled? Those requirements will be modified somewhat by climate and the national habits of the people, yet are they to a great extent the same in all ages and among all nations. thus in all the western nations, convenience has dictated the desireableness of forming an open space in the centre of the town, for public resort and traffic,--whether called a Forum, a Piazza, a Platz, or Market Square. Such an open square is one of the first requirements of a town. In a climate such as this, it should be surrounded with arcades or colonnades. Every one who has seen the towns of Italy knows how much of their architectural beauty they owe to such arcades. The most architectural town in Italy--Bologna--has all its streets lined with them. But they add not beauty only to the town. During the heats of summer and the rains of winter they equally offer an agreeable promenade, a pleasant rendezvous for the purposes of business and pleasure, a kind of public exchange for commerce, politics and news. On one side of the square should rise the `local habitation' of municipal dignity--the Town Hall,--mixed up with, and recalling all the historic associations of the place, and throwing its long shadows over the paved Square; its clock being the public time-keeper, and its great bell commemorating every occasion of public rejoicing and public sorrow. On another side of the Square should be an establishment more closely identified with our own times--the Post-office, the focus of international and provincial intercourse, the colonial centre of a system extending its ramifications over the globe. In the midst of the square a fountain should throw up its sparkling column, cooling the air and refreshing the ear with the music of its falling splash; or if a fountain should be impossible, an equestrian statue, or monumental column, or monolithic obelisk, might supply its place; though far interior in beauty, as indeed everything must be, to a fountain, with its silvery jet, and its shower of falling brilliants, and its melodious murmur.
The Public Buildings next claim attention. Their sites should be determined by the natural levels of the town, by their respective uses, and by the public convenience. Elevated positions, easily accessible on all sides, are the most proper. Wherever placed, they should be united with each other by broad streets, twice the width of the ordinary ways; and access should be given to them from all parts of the town, by means of similar great arterial streets, capacious enough to receive the living tide of men that will occasionally roll along with them, to witness imposing spectacles and solemn ceremonials. Other similar main streets, diverging from the heart of the town, like the rays of a spider's web, should give ready approach to the city from the suburbs and the surrounding country. The intersection of these principal streets will form open spaces of irregular form, which may be enlarged at pleasure by cutting off the corners of the converging masses of buildings. Whoever has seen such spots, when the slant rays of the rising or setting sun just catch the summits of the buildings, must have been struck with the magic effect of lengthening vistas and strongly contrasted light and shade. Such Places or squares, in conjunction with the main arterial streets opening upon them, serve to ventilate and purify the most crowded quarters; the broad streets acting as tubes to convey the fresh air from the country into the heart of the town.
Our ideal town should have a noble river, margined with massive quays and public and private buildings, which, sweeping round with the windings of the stream, should charm the eye with all the beauty of evanescent lines and ever-shifting perspectives; while the massive stone bridge, contrasting with the gossamer delicacy of the suspension, should unite the opposite banks. Finally, Boulevards, or wide open roads, with rows of trees here and there, and broad footways, should encircle the town, and separate it from the suburbs, serving at once as streets and promenades.
Such is our ideal of a city. Now turn to Melbourne; look on this picture and on that! It may be objected that it was impossible to do all this in a new country; that we had neither money nor labour to do it. Very true: but have we done what we could? Have we drawn our rough sketch aright, leaving it to time to complete the picture? Have we laid the foundations of a great edifice which might hereafter grow into an august pile? Alas, we have done nothing of all this. Melbourne boasts no large central square, possesses no main arterial streets, conducting to the heart of the town, ventilating its back lanes, and carrying health to its crowded quarters; has no broad suburban roads, giving easy access to the country, no boulevards, no great lines of communication uniting the public buildings. It has its river; but the lines of houses on the banks, instead of gracefully sweeping round with the stream, run off at a tangent from it. In short the only skill exhibited in the plan of Melbourne is that involved in the use of square and compasses. We have planned our metropolis as we should plan a coal pit. Pope's couplet, slightly modified, exactly describes Melbourne,--
"Street answers street, each alley has its brother,
And half the city just reflects the other."
After the Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren made a plan for rebuilding London, in which many of the features of our ideal city were introduced. St. Paul's was to rise in the centre of a large square, approached on all sides by streets of the first magnitude, forming great lines of communication with the West End and the suburbs. The Exchange and other city buildings were placed round another large square, and this also formed the centre to which several main street converged. Had not the ignorance and selfishness of those then in power prevented the execution of this plan the city of London would now have had good approaches and complete ventilation. Cheapside would not have offered the daily spectacle of an entangled chaos of cabs, carriages, and wagons; and the citizens would not have been so crowded together on the footways, that they could not even shake hands on meeting. Nor would the after expenditure of millions have been necessary for opening new streets, to allow of the passage of the ever increasing tide of traffic that pours through the Commercial Capital of the world. This expenditure is not even yet at an end. The Londoners have still to pay for the folly of Charles's Ministers, and that of their then Lord Mayor and Aldermen. Government and the City of London are now spending hundreds of thousands in opening main lines of communication and ventilation through the town. They are spending hundreds of thousands in doing that which we might have done at Melbourne without the expenditure of a shilling. It appears by a late number of the builder that the corporation of London have now under consideration the forming of a new main street to St. Paul's at an estimated cost of £200,000.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: email@example.com To Top of Page To Homepage