The Melbourne Landmark Competition was launched in 1978 to find a southern equivalent to the Sydney Opera House. It was (mostly) not successful.
The Sydney Opera House, on Bennelong Point, is one of the world’s most famous buildings. Its iconic design, and location on Sydney Harbour, have made it an enduring tourist attraction, internationally renowned.
Its distinctive ‘sails’, a nod to the harbour, were the brainchild of Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Utzon was the winner of a public design contest, held by the NSW state government in 1955.
Previously, Bennelong Point had been the location of a tram depot, the Government was seeking a new building to better showcase the location. (Click here to read my post about the origins of the Sydney Opera House).
Utzon’s design was unusual, and would present significant challenges to build. When the project was first approved, the engineering techniques required to create the building’s sails, were unknown.
The complexity of the design lead to cost blowouts, and considerable controversy. Construction began in March 1959, but the project would remain a political hot potato in New South Wales for years afterwards, with many public figures opposed.
After a change of government in 1965, Utzon was himself removed from the project.
The Sydney Opera House eventually took 14 years to complete. The final cost was $102 million, against an original estimate of $7 million.
But despite the lengthy delays and higher cost, the finished building was exactly what the original conceivers had wanted. A modern-day wonder of the world, a landmark, something that would bring Sydney global attention.
A gala public opening was held in October 1973; Queen Elizabeth II presided, the event broadcast live on television. The controversy was forgotten, and the new building rapturously received.
Watching these events from Melbourne, the Victorian State Government wondered if a similar approach could work for them.
Melbourne also had a large, central public space, that the city had been struggling to find an optimum use for.
The Jolimont railyards, opposite Flinders Street station, had been repurposed a number of times during the history of the city. It had originally been the site of Melbourne’s first morgue, before being converted into a railway station (Click here for my video history of the site).
When the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, the Jolimont site was occupied by the ‘Princes Gate Towers’, also known as ‘The Gas and Fuel Buildings’.
These geometric office blocks had opened in 1966, in an attempt to modernise the area. But while some enjoyed the symmetrical architecture, done in a style known as ‘International’, the new buildings were polarising; many people regarded them as an eyesore.
Worse, they provided a tangible barrier between the CBD and its most striking natural feature: the Yarra River.
Alongside the towers was a concrete open space, optimistically referred to by its builders as a ‘plaza’.
Windswept and featureless, this public square had never been embraced by the city.
So if a bold, unusual public building could work in Sydney, why not in Melbourne? In December 1978, Liberal Premier Dick Hamer announced the ‘Melbourne Landmark Competition’.
Submissions were requested to create a large scale public landmark, over and around the railyards; something imaginative, that would grab the world’s attention.
Entries were open to anyone, prize money of $100 000 was offered to the winner. The eight member judging committee included the Director of the Arts Ministry, Dr Eric Westbrook, prominent local architect Barry Patten, and Professor Patrick McCaughey, then head of the Fine Arts department at Monash University.
With the high profile of the contest, and substantial prize money, entries soon began to flood in.
The submissions ranged from simple drawings to detailed plans, some of them running to several pages.
Alongside images of what the proposed landmark would look like, many entrants included detailed notes; the symbolic meaning of their design, activities that could be incorporated, potential commercial and tourist opportunities.
Many of the submissions were conventional. Parks and gardens were most common, alongside public buildings and statues.
But if the government had been hoping for something bold and unusual, they were to get more than they bargained for. A number of the submissions were highly eccentric.
Animals featured in a number of entries.
One imagined a ‘Freedom Bird Park’, where a giant net would enclose the railyard site, providing a home for a range of native bird species and flora. ‘Go for a walk in the bush at lunchtime,’ read the copy.
A similar suggestion was for a ‘Fishgarden’, with the Yarra shoreline transformed into a kind of aquatic zoo, with waters of different temperatures to create different fish habitats.
This proposal also envisioned educational and scientific opportunities.
If live animals would prove too difficult to incorporate, several entries featured their likeness instead.
One entry, titled ‘Yarra Croco (Dile)’, proposed a huge, stylised crocodile that would lie along the Yarra’s northern bank. The mouth of the croc would provide an entrance to the existing railway station, and tourist themed activities could be housed in its back.
Other animal ideas featured a giant koala hanging from a large pole, and a pair of kangaroos, holding dollar signs aloft, at either end of Princess Bridge.
Some entries tried to focus on something quintessentially Melbourne. And what could be more Melbourne than a giant ‘M’?
This would be a multiuse letter, with space for a variety of activities:
‘A giant sculpture 200 metres tall, which would house shopping, dining and exhibition spaces at ground level, and an observation deck and world class restaurant on the roof.
The ‘M’ would be a hollow structure, made of tubular steel trusswork, sheathed with blue reflective glass… at times appearing invisible against the sky, and clouds.’
– Submission, ‘M’
Another Melbourne themed entry sought to capitalise on the city’s love affair with sport, offering a giant cricket wicket (and ball shaped elevator), 500 feet tall, with a cocktail lounge in the bails.
Casting its shadow over the city like a giant sundial, it would be ‘an outstanding attraction to rival the Eiffel Tower, or the Statue of Liberty.’
Other entries were even more unconventional.
One was for an enormous statue of a hand, pointing at the sky, with an observation lounge in the fingernail of the index finger. The designer promised, accurately, ‘Nothing remotely like it in all the world!’
‘Melbourne’s Monumental Mammaries’, proposed a pair of giant breasts, with a selection of shops and restaurants, revolving in each nipple. Unlike some submissions, this one actively embraced any future controversy:
‘One could conceivably advance the theory that the more controversial the landmark is, the more successful it will be in its role of attracting attention.
The people of Melbourne must understand that searching for a landmark will not be easy. The structure chosen will likely offend and upset a large minority of the population, and they must clearly see this as a strength of the project, rather than a weakness.’
– Submission, ‘Melbourne’s Monumental Mammaries’
There were many other strange and exotic entries: a huge bell, a ‘Windmill Plaza’, a Babylon style ‘Hanging Garden’, a network of futuristic pods, and a giant eye staring out into space (click here to view a larger gallery of entries).
Overall, 2 300 entries were received, while the competition was open.
But as they came in, some of the judges became disgruntled.
Most vocal was Professor McCaughey, who felt people were making a mockery of the contest: he complained to the press about the ‘banal’ entries he had viewed, reflective only of the creator’s ‘megalomania’.
McCaughey singled out the submission of the giant hand statue for particular complaint, noting that it was clearly meant as a joke. In support of McCaughey’s comments, some of the judges resigned from the committee in protest.
The Labor Opposition leader, Frank Wilkes, agreed, calling the competition a ‘a farce’ and a ‘total disaster’.
But not everyone was willing to admit it had been a wasted effort. Some of McCaughey’s fellow judges praised the entries as imaginative, and said that the point had been to garner ideas, not practical designs.
Submissions were received for about 12 months, before the committee had to decide on a winner. But after extensive deliberation, the judges announced that they could not settle on a single entry.
And so they arrived at an unusual compromise: the prize money would be shared among 48 entrants, who had all submitted ideas of merit. Each winner would receive about $2 000.
McCaughey slammed the outcome publicly. He claimed this result was a ‘face saving move’, recognition that the standard of entries had been ‘poor’.
Among the winners: the giant hand.
The contest had cost the state government about $2 million dollars to organise and administer.
The government had never committed to actually building the competition’s winner, but the result left them without a tangible proposal for the site. The Gas and Fuel Towers would remain, at least in the short term.
‘Unperturbed by this turn of events, the Victorian government will push ahead with its plans for a city landmark.
Mr Hamer said the government would establish a permanent committee to oversee the completion of the project.
Whatever it is, it will eventually stand on a massive roof over the Jolimont railways yards, peering over the tranquil banks of the Yarra.’
– The Age, 19 December 1979
The Gas and Fuel buildings would last another 20 years. They were not demolished until 1997, when the Kennett Government had them removed as part of the Federation Square redevelopment.
Patrick McCaughey would later serve as the director of the National Gallery Victoria, between 1981 and 1988.