Victoria Market ‘mega-wall’ will literally divide Melbourne in pursuit of profit

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For the past 100 years, the Melbourne CBD has followed a consistent urban form. Within the Hoddle Grid, there has been a series of buildings each separated from one another. This isolation has given the towers an identity – even an iconic presence in some cases.

In the new $1.7 billion development proposed for the Queen Victoria Market precinct this principle has been ignored.

The redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market site would comprise a row of new buildings: from left, a student accommodation tower, a build-to-rent and affordable housing building and an office tower.

This large site, a rare opportunity in terms of scale and position, became available through state decree to the City of Melbourne, and thus belongs to its citizens. It is an island untouched by other buildings at its boundaries. Long and narrow, it generally courses east-west, with a rare capacity to receive vast amounts of sunlight across its long north face. It also sits in the north-west sector of the city, an area otherwise deprived of entertainment or performance venues akin to those at Federation Square.

My particular interest in this site goes back to 2017, when I proposed, with the community-based group Friends of QVM and a Queen Victoria Market stallholder group, to enhance the market with an open theatre development and associated resources at the Market Square frontage to Queen Street, together with a car park. This proposal offered a range of opportunities. It would have provided an educational resource and a showcase for music, public speaking or performance by a resident or visiting cultural/arts group.

But instead of a design that enhances our city, the proposal that has ultimately been bestowed on us is for a mega-wall – an indiscriminate pile of incohesively assembled compositions. Impolite, ignoring its neighbours, contemptuous of its surroundings and the public and also of the historic market linking our early European settlement with today, it conveys the appearance of all architectural effort being exhausted in achieving a maximised yield over this territory.

There’s no inspiration, no vision splendid, no grand gesture for the community demanded by the City of Melbourne, simply an aggregation of economics, selfishly grabbing the box seat of open-air space beyond at the expense of offering spatial interplay with other neighbouring and distant players on our urban chessboard.

An artist’s impression of the three new towers in the market precinct.

This assembly of individual facades, each alien to the rest, with no measure of iconic identity, is characterised by unimaginative grid compositions, all dull, uninspiring, incapable of engaging observers.

The development is broken up into adjoining parcels, yet the gap between the individual towers is so uncomfortably small it reads as a continuous wall, a barrier or shield, not offering visual relief, vistas through or connections beyond. It blocks visual penetration from most orientations and separates the remaining city to the south from the pulsing low-profile oasis of the Queen Victoria Market.

There appears to be no street frontage to the tightly placed slabs of towers as they seem to abut, overpower and intimidate the 1930s market stores – sheds of human scale – at the market’s southern boundary. With towers up to 39 levels in height, the resultant shadow to be cast over Franklin Street and much of the development along its south boundary will predominate throughout the year with precious little relief from penetrable daylight between the proposed buildings. We can only wonder what also will be the wind behaviour and the solar reflectivity from glazed curtain walls on the proposed Market Square, supposedly the people’s place to the towers’ north.

The sad and unimaginative concept is dominant and assertive but bereft of spirit and resolve even before a shovel turns the soil. Visitors to the market know of the experience it offers – food, merchandise and social connection. But how can the proponents of this development substantiate their claims it will “enhance the traditional market experience Melburnians and visitors know and love”? Do we have to believe the establishment of Market Square comes at the commercial yield of this pile beyond?

Such a shame.

This rare site demands a better outcome, one the city and its community deserve. There is such irony that our local government, which presides over and determines so much of our urban form, can come up with no better than this for a development of such great cost.

Will the City of Melbourne’s planning application process allow adequate opportunities for community input into the development proposal? In any case, this project concept should be immediately shelved and consigned to history.

Why not offer an open architectural competition for aspiring architects to conceive schemes that comprehensively address the rich context this location offers and provide us with poetic architecture that contributes substance, meaning and pride for our urban centre?

John McNabb is an architect with senior design and production management experience including on Parliament House, Canberra, and Federation Square, Melbourne.

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