By coincidence, two major city brewery sites are currently being redeveloped in both Sydney and Melbourne. The venerable Kent Brewery on Broadway, founded in 1835, is being transformed into Central Park, a new residential precinct. A similar transformation is taking place with the Carlton Brewery site at the top end of Swanston Street in central Melbourne.
Brewing was the first manufacturing industry to reach industrial scale in most European countries, and breweries were among the first factories established in Australian cities. Hence they often occupied prime inner city sites. In 1985, about 20 years before Kent Brewery closed, the Powerhouse acquired a huge collection of brewery and hotel artefacts from its long-term owner Tooth & Co.; I’ve been the curator responsible for this collection for most of the time since. In 2004 I curated an exhibition for the City of Melbourne titled Melbourne Breweries: the First & Last factories, highlighting Melbourne’s still extant brewing heritage.
Some of Melbourne’s old breweries and maltings had already been converted to other uses notably the Victoria Brewery, remade as a residential and lifestyle development with the aspirational title of Tribeca. The legendary Philippe Starck was involved as a design consultant, so this brewery makeover helped to set the mould for today’s generation of urban renewals. Kent Brewery’s impending reconstruction as Central Park calls on a similar list of high-profile names to both design and promote the development; these include Sir Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Richard Johnson, Alex Tzannes and Tim Greer.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the main urban regeneration projects were ‘slum clearance’ –demolition of inner city houses and construction of public housing. In the inner suburbs of Melbourne, especially, tower blocks replaced terraces but Sydney also saw much of the same benevolent ruthlessness. Brewery sites, along with docksides and other former industrial sites are the focus of today’s boom in urban redevelopment. The slum clearances were justified on social grounds. This has been replaced by is the ubiquitous evocation of designer names and credentials to justify and promote these developments. According to its developers Frasers Properties,
The very first stage of Central Park sets the scene for what is to come: two iconic residential towers rising above a retail centre, connected by terraced gardens to the main park beyond. World-class architecture, richly veiled in living green walls, this first residential stage encapsulates all that Central Park has to offer: bold, beautiful and globally significant new directions for 21st century living. Designed by award-winning Parisian architect Jean Nouvel, ‘One Central Park’ reminds us that nature can thrive in the city. Its façade is the canvas for a collection of breathtaking vertical gardens by French artist Patrick Blanc, delivering what architect Bertram Beissel describes as “a flower to each resident, and a bouquet to the city”. The French do have a way with words.
The Carlton Brewery site will host Pixel, Australia’s first carbon-neutral office building, as well a residential tower and a new design school for the adjacent RMIT campus. Here the designer evocation takes a quaintly Melbourne twist. The architect of the Design Hub is RMIT alumnus Sean Godsell:
The former brewery site has been a missing piece in this part of town. Its re-development, starting with the RMIT Design Hub, is fantastic for Melbourne. Melbourne is the design capital of Australia and considered one of the world’s pre-eminent design cities. The Design Hub brings together in one building postgraduate design researchers in fields as diverse as aeronautical engineering, industrial design, fashion, furniture, architecture and more.
Melbourne’s Second City syndrome ensures that ‘design capital’ joins ‘sporting capital’ and ‘most liveable’ among other self-awarded titles.
In an industry dominated by development and property companies its easy to be cynical about the role of design. Using the design and construct formula companies such as Lend Lease, Meriton, Mirvac, Australand and Multiplex control the design agendas closely. Project managers delegate the design process as well as the construction, marketing and other elements of major urban projects.
Property companies are among political parties’ most generous donors; the price appears to be privileged access to decisions over prominent sites. Meanwhile, architects are chosen as part of the builder/developer package, and employed by the developer or builder. Governments can sign a contract with a developer who offers the best deal for public land. In the process they sign away financial risk and design decisions for an agreed payment and delivery date. Only star architects such as Renzo Piano and Nonda Katsilidis have a greater chance to control their designs. These high profile names also create a more sympathetic consideration of proposals at odds with building and urban ordinances.
None of this means that the architectural and urban outcomes will necessarily be poor, though there’s also no doubt that the role of designers is sometimes to justify and ameliorate financially-driven outcomes. Melbourne’s Docklands project created a climate of cynicism for this reason and so has Sydney’s Barangaroo project. The economics of creating Barangaroo’s northern park (aka Point Keating) virtually demands that the southern end will be overdeveloped.
But this debate is also an international one. Architecture writer Owen Hatherley has declared that the current generation of urban renewal has produced ‘the new ruins of Great Britain’:
‘Here in the UK, with a tiny handful of exceptions, we’ve been keen to parcel off these spaces to the cheapest available firms, and to let the property developers lead the way on what was, for the most part, publicly owned land, out of the fear that they and their money might disappear if they were in any way challenged…the result is astoundingly cheap-looking architecture, with the developers assuming we wouldn’t notice the meanness and cheapness if they put a wavy roof on top and plenty of contrasting materials on the façade’.
You could argue that a few developments in Sydney and Melbourne are similarly disappointing, with the important difference that the GFC has left few of them uncompleted and unwanted by buyers and tenants. No one doubts that new residential developments here will find a market; to the contrary their main failing is arguably their creation of well-heeled monocultures, rather than the inner city diversity featured in their marketing.