Apple building
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For anyone who loves Melbourne, there’s such a cornucopia of crap coming down the line, that it’s difficult to choose among. In Russell Street, there’s been a pitched battle to save the 1920s Theosophical Society building — a fine Manhattan-style metropolitan building, which is part of a pre-war block — from demolition, for a (in my subjective opinion) joyless, sterile, historyless glass and steel box hotel that would replace it.

The laneways/heritage precinct on Little Bourke near the Elizabeth Street corner is about to be wrecked, because the building that anchors it — the Chicago-style “moderne” century-old Melbourne House — is to be demolished to be replaced by, guess what, a sterile new hotel.

Up near the Victoria Market, work has already begun on the Munro’s site — a block of small buildings from various eras, with a terrace of shops in Therry Street facing the market, and an essential part of the market’s charm — which will be mostly replaced with a bland, monotonous skyscraper frontage that would have looked dated as a mall in Knox City in the 1990s. The lesson other cities have learnt — that you retain heritage at street level and integrate the new — has been forgotten. Particularly galling, since we taught a lot of other cities that, and the council owns the Munro’s site.

And in Flinders Street, Melbourne Metro is pushing to unnecessarily eviscerate most of the deco/modernist 1940s Campbell Arcade/underpass to create a tunnel from the new Town Hall station to Flinders Street. Since Campbell Arcade leads into Degraves Street, Centre Place, and then, via “The Walk” to Little Collins Street, it could be rendered as the start of the laneways network, restored and invested in. That would require joined-up thinking, not much in evidence at the moment.

But for sheer nihilistic, headbanging stupidity, you can’t go past the latest move by the privatised Fed Square management, which is to put in an application to demolish the “Yarra Building” (the Alfred Deakin building, as was) ahead of a Heritage Council ruling on the whole of Fed Square, due in a few weeks’ time.

Demolishing a single building is, of course, in pursuit of putting an Apple Store – or whatever they’re calling it this week — in the middle of Melbourne’s primary public square. The project, rammed into cabinet by the now departed (from cabinet) subfaction of Philip Dalidakis and John Eren, and waved through by a supine premier and Planning Minister Richard Wynne, turns that public square into a shopping mall — from a space where people exist as citizens, to a giant commodity, where people exist as commodities, sold to the corporation.

It’s a measure of how corroded by cynicism and neoliberalism Labor has become that this proposal got anywhere at all. Apple tried the same thing in Sweden with Stockholm’s central Kungsträdgården last year, and was told to piss off — the city and the country’s Social Democratic leaders still capable of remembering why they are that in the first place. Doubtless those pushing the Apple Store had nothing but the best interests of Melbourne and Victoria at heart — doubtless — but my God, the Apple execs who negotiated it must have gone back to their steel and glass hotel and laughed liked drains at the deal they got.

This is the capital city of about the 30th largest economy in the world (GDP of $399 billion); essential to this, apparently, is a glorified computer store at the centre of its public space. That’s the trouble with state Labor governments: they’re made up of mediocre union hacks, suburban warlords and scheming high-school teachers, who think they’re ahead of the game. When they go up against real players, they get cored and peeled like a Granny Smith. Nine months after the deal was done, Apple issued a profit warning. The dimwits in Spring Street would have, in past years and decades, sold the square to Borders, Dick Smith or Atari, if they’d had half a chance.

By a process of arse-covering — the deal has already been done; Fed Square is under private management — the full measure of this nihilism comes to pass: a building is demolished to trash a public square, so that the Heritage Council can’t rule that it belongs to the Victorian people in common. What an absolutely fantastic and characteristic result of this absurd process. They should get the jerks who illegally demolished the Corkman pub in to do it. The circle would be complete.

Well, there’s still time for an ostensibly Socialist Left government — which, in its usual style, covers its neoliberalism by small (though worthy) social measures, the latest being banning “gay conversion” therapy — to show some basic commitment to the principles that underlie the labour movement. That principle is that we are only fully human, only citizens, if we are not wholly consumed by the market. And we require genuine public spaces to do that. One building, in one square, is really a betrayal of the whole city. Having won an electoral triumph, Daniel Andrews and Richard Wynne are about to build a monument (in the shape of an iPad! Would you guys be interested in an exciting Mangrove Flats timeshare I’m starting up?) to their own political cowardice. It will be there, to be pointed to, for decades to come.

Peter Fray

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