The Awfulisers of Melbourne

The Awfulisers are back in town. Or perhaps they never left: ‘Every night and every day [they] work away, Awfulising public places‘ jots cartoonist and critic Michael Leunig alongside a lineup of skyscrapers in this weekend’s paper.

This is pertinent comment for Melbourne in 2018 in the context of its development boom. But the Awfulisers are actually an older tale. Leunig published the same Awfulisers prose back in 1991. So why today of all days to bring the Awfulisers back to life? I have a few suspicions.

First up, imagery and satire has a remarkable capacity to shape how we see and experience our cities. No cartoonist has had more of an impact for perceptions of Melbourne over the last five decades than Leunig. His style is familiar to most Australians. Wikipedia describes it well: ‘Leunig’s drawings are done with a sparse and quivering line, usually in black and white with ink wash, the human characters always drawn with exaggerated noses.’

Leunig grew up in historic East Melbourne and studied at Swinburne University in the 1960s. He is a mainstay of The Age (and Sydney Morning Herald), so much so that the National Trust declared him 1 of 100 Australian living treasures in 1999. I can recall his annual calendar attached to the pin board in the kitchen when I was growing up. Some of his more recent works have been ‘real weird’, but there are some classic themes that run through his cartoons.

The 1991 Awfulisers

Leunig has been a frequent commentator on changing Melbourne. The city has grown exponentially across Leunig’s lifetime. In certain parts of the city, one would be hard pressed to recognise his 1950–60s Melbourne today, without knowing where to look.

As today, and as in the immediate postwar period, the late eighties economic boom reshaped the feel of Melbourne. This was the era when Melbourne was going up, with the construction of Grollo’s Rialto Towers, I.M. Pei’s Collins Place, and 101 and 120 Collins Streets. A good measure is buildings over 150 metres: Melbourne had five in the 1970s and three times that by the mid-1990s.

In this booming context, Leunig published his Awfulisers on 14 September 1991:

To ‘Awfulise – Awfulisation – To Be An Awfuliser’. Under the Labor Governments of John Cain and then Joan Kirner, Melbourne was indeed changing. The CBD, particularly, was becoming denser and the related transformation and revitalisation of inner Melbourne had begun (though it would take a few more years for this to be recognised).

In Leunig’s 1991 cartoon, on the right, is the Melbourne Central Office Tower. It was built over the 1889–90 Coop’s Shot Tower. Opening in 1991–92, this project was funded by Japanese investors and incorporated the now-defunct Daimaru department store. The industrial Coop’s Shot Tower was first classified by the National Trust in 1958, two years after the Trust’s founding. It was heritage listed in 1974, the same year as Victoria’s (and Australia’s) first dedicated heritage legislation was introduced. Its incorporation into a skyscraper development reflected the new-found heritage sensibility among skyscraper developments.

Check out the ‘Melbourne Central – Our Heritage‘ website for this postcard.

But what was being lost in the process? For Leunig, the life and democracy of the city was at stake. Business imperatives were operating at the expense of people. The ‘public places’ and ‘lovely treasures’ were being commercialised, sanitised or destroyed. Familiar places so important to people were fast disappearing.

The placement of an architecturally-impressive contemporary shopping centre wrapped around the Coop’s Shot Tower represented this change. While the historic structure of Coop’s remained, the feel of it had been fundamentally altered with its placement in a glass-domed complex. The site was the right place for a shopping centre by all planning measures – central and transit orientated – but Leunig still forced important reflection at this time.

The 2018 Awfulisers

By the end of this decade the 2010s, they’ll be more than 100 buildings over 150 metres in Melbourne. The construction boom of recent years is unparalleled even compared to those earlier periods. It’s telling, therefore, that Leunig has resurrected his Awfulisers in today’s paper: 18 August 2018, twenty-seven years later.

While the prose has remained the same, the cartoon is different. The figure is no longer on the ground looking up, but is rather in the sky operating the crane. Is s/he sharing the economic proceeds of the boom? The everyday person and the street itself has entirely disappeared from this new render.

We can only see the skyscrapers from above – a preferred vantage of their advocates. This time around it’s also difficult to identify a specific skyscraper in the row of towers that make up Leunig’s city. In fact, it’s difficult to identify which city it is at all. It could be any major city in Australia, Asia, North America or elsewhere.

We must always hope that developments in the sky also improve the city on the ground. The substantial capital injection into cities that comes from skyscraper construction should do this. As much as one might critique Melbourne Central/Coop’s Shot Tower or the Rialto Towers (as I have done on this blog), their redevelopment did fund restorations and new public(ish) places.

But what happens when cities fail to sufficiently prevent the Awfulisers from Awfulising? When the Awfulisers also incorporate the politicians and policymakers, planners and architects?

Fed Square is the perfect example. In a view shared by many Melburnians, the Awfulisers – elected politicians, public administrators and renowned architects – are destroying its ‘common joys and simple pleasures’, whereby commerce is currently subsidiary to its public and cultural role. The proposed purpose-built Apple store promises to dominate the civic plaza above all else, awfulising Fed Square.

Cities are always changing. Development has a role to play in preserving ‘The parts of life we hold so dear’. With the reappearance of Leunig’s Awfulisers, we must ask ourselves whether this is actually happening today?

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