Wednesday, 17 April 2013

the 10 best places to sit and relax in Melbourne's CBD (and the stories behind the city): part 1 of 2

Melbourne is a great city for a walk, and no jaunt in the city is complete without a good sit.

The problem is, the majority of outdoor seating in Melbourne's Central Business District (CBD) is reserved for patrons of cafés and restaurants.  And while there are many stunning parks surrounding the fringe of the CBD, these are often out of reach of the average stroller.


Enter: me.  This is the first article in a two-part series detailing some of the best spots within the confines of the CBD to place one's bum, along with a historical story about each location.  Places are assessed by answering a simple question: "would I eat my lunch and read a book there?". 


#10 – City Square

Seating: concrete, limited grass, giant wooden wombat.

This one almost didn’t make the list.  The “seats” in City Square are no more than boxy concrete rectangles, most of which are spattered with seagull shit and arranged at a really odd shin-level height that tricks your brain into saying “I can sit on that” in spite of the severe pelvic damage that may result.


However, City Square is simply too darn historical to not feature on a list of public seatery.  Until the square opened in 1968, Melbourne never actually had a central public square.  Original city surveyor Robert Hoddle planned a square of great handsomeness in the 1840s, but his plans were shelved by colonial authorities who didn't approve of the pesky democratic ideals a civic square might foster.

Nevertheless, Melburnians were quick to make up for lost time after City Square finally opened.  Highlights over the years have included Vietnam war protests, AC/DC music videos, and more recently, in October 2011, the inaugural meeting of the Victoria Police “British Poll Tax Riots Re-Enactment Society”, an event that was unfortunately marred by the inadvertent double-booking of the square with Occupy Melbourne.



#9 – Madam Brussels Lane 

Seating: Wooden tables and benches.

Caroline Hodgson emigrated to Melbourne in June of 1871.  Upon arrival, her husband, Studholme Hodgson (prospective parents take note, here is a name that needs to be revived) promptly joined the police force and was posted to rural Victoria, leaving poor Caroline all alone in Melbourne.

What a shock to the system!  The best contemporaneous accounts of women at the time—the complete works of Charles Dickens—suggest that most ladies in Caroline’s position would have spent their days woefully sobbing beside a conservatory window about what miserable, lonely creatures they were.


Not our Caroline, however.  She promptly changed her name to “Madam Brussels” and opened two brothels bearing her name on Lonsdale Street, in the midst of what was then one of Melbourne’s most multicultural districts.  The proximity of Parliament House ensured that her establishments became extraordinarily popular (to the delight of many a parliamentary member), and Madam Brussels (both house and woman) remained a fixture in the area for over thirty years.

Although the brothels are long gone these days, immigrants still flock to the area for something even more exciting than opium-infused burlesque houses—the Australian Citizenship Test, administered at one of Mme. Brussels’ old addresses, in which prospective Australians demonstrate their commitment to this great country’s ideals by answering questions about the national flower.


Caroline Hodgson’s contribution to turn-of-the-century Melbourne society has been honoured with a small laneway connecting Lonsdale and Little Lonsdale streets: Madam Brussels Lane, which contains some public tables and benches for passers-by to relax upon, netting the laneway a spot at number nine. 


#8 – 360 Collins Street

Seating: park benches, concrete, rocks.

At 360 Collins Street, there is a skyscraper.  It is 142 metres tall—quite tall, but not tall enough to make the prestigious Wikipedia list of the top 27 tallest buildings in Melbourne.  If this skyscraper were to move to Adelaide, it would be the tallest building in the city!  But who wants to move to Adelaide?  Certainly not this skyscraper, embedded as it is into the Earth's crust and lacking the sentience to make such a foolish decision.


Ahem.  Out the back of this skyscraper (adjoining Little Collins Street) is a small plaza that could’ve easily been roofed over to form a food court serving sixteen different variations of the noodle and other dull corporate lunch fare.  Thankfully, it’s been left as a wide open space containing ample seating and a bit of greenery.

Collins Street itself takes its name from Colonel David Collins, who arrived in Australia with the first fleet and served in various high-ranking colonial government positions before being tasked with founding the first European settlement in present-day Victoria.


Upon sailing into Port Phillip Bay in October 1803, Collins completely failed to spot the Yarra River and instead attempted to settle at Sullivan Bay, just outside of what is now Sorrento.  Foolishly ignorant of the property boom that would grip the area a mere 209 years later, Collins left after a couple of months, declaring the area “too sandy” for his liking, thus becoming the first and last Englishman who came to Australia to get away from the beach. 

Collins left behind little trace of his settlement—apart from escaped convict William Buckley, who fled into the bush from Sullivan Bay, stole an Aboriginal grave marker, and inadvertently convinced the local tribe that he was (despite being a white, 6'6" bricklayer from Cheshire) the reincarnated spirit of the deceased.  As a result, he went on to live happily amongst the local Aborigines for 30 years.  His incredible story of survival and adaptation against all odds is said to have inspired the popular expression "Buckley's chance".


Perhaps feeling nostalgic for the people that sentenced him to 14 years of transportation for possessing a stolen roll of cloth, William Buckley returned to colonial society and died falling off a horse and cart.  He was described after death as "unintelligent and untrustworthy".


#7 – Federation Square

Seating: concrete steps, concrete seats, astroturf cubes.

Even in Melbourne's earliest years, the public wished that a world-class landmark might be bestowed upon our fair city:

“After flowing on in silence and solitude for some thousand years, the Yarra has suddenly seen a populous city 'rise like an exhalation' on its banks. Fourteen years have not yet elapsed since Melbourne was founded; yet has it already passed through three stages of progress… Whatever, therefore, is done NOW must give it impress to the FUTURE...

Every year that the work is postponed the sacrifice demanded will augment, while its fruits will become less and less... We know not who may be the first Governor of Victoria: but whoever he may be...his vice-royalty may yet be distinguished by such a complete re-modelling of the city, that, when he leaves us, we may inscribe to his memory, in the future Great Square of the City, the proud epitaph of Wren under the cupola of St. Paul's, ‘IF YOU ASK FOR HIS MONUMENT—LOOK AROUND YOU.’”
 – Anonymous, The Australasian, Issue 1, 1850
 

And then, Melbourne finally got its "great square", and the public said:

“What drugs were the designers of this monstrosity on. Please whatever they were make sure no one else on the planet can get any of them.”
 – Ron000001, tripadvisor.com, 21 March 2013


“I lived in Melbourne when this extremely UGLY mismatch of a building was built.
It is truly revolting and not within the street scape…NEVER liked it and never will, biggest mistake ever made in a beautiful city…Hopefully one day it will fall down. YUK!!!!!! I RATE IT A HUGE NEGATIVE ZERO”
– jilly, melbournism.com, 7 March 2011

Look, I quite like Fed Square.  The surrounds are great, there’s sometimes a little campfire in winter, and, with binoculars, you can view the Flinders Street Goths at a safe distance.  Plus, things could have been much, much worse.  In 1979, the "Landmark Competition" was held in an attempt to solicit public designs for the area that is now Federation Square, with a $100,000 prize offered to the winner. 


The competition eventually collapsed into farce as no winner was awarded from a pool of entries that showcased Melbourne's originality and inventiveness, including: a giant M (above), giant cricket stumps, a giant koala, giant capitalist kangaroosa giant index finger, and most notably, giant tits.  


#6 – Bank Place

Seating: a semicircular park bench.

A good sitting area can't always be measured by the quantity of bums on seats—sometimes it comes down to the quality of seat on the bum.

Connecting Collins Street with Little Collins Street, Bank Place is a tiny, pedestrian-only laneway described by my friends at Wikipedia as "an oasis of heritage pre-war buildings".

It contains a sole public seat—a curved bench that might seat five people comfortably, or eight people uncomfortably, or twenty-two cats at varying levels of comfort.  It's small, quiet, and an excellent place to sit, ponder, and people-watch.


One stalwart of Bank Place is the Mitre Tavern.  Claiming to be the oldest building in Melbourne, this little pub dates back to at least the 1850s, and has been operating as a tavern since 1867.  While the Mitre's modern-day patronage seems rather straight-laced, it was known as somewhat of a bohemian hotbed in times gone by.

For proof of this statement, have a look at this hipster:


This is Harold Desbrowe-Annear, founder of the "T-Square Club" for artists and architects.  Led by Harold, this club formed part of the international "Arts and Crafts Movement"—a design ideology that rejected machine-design and machine-production in favour of more historical, simple and traditional hand-crafted forms that emphasised the methods and the materials used.  In short: the T-Square Club were vintage as.

These days, however, the Mitre is no longer suited to pockets of deep, hip people, as it has been overrun by suited people with deep hip pockets. 


So then—join with me next week for the conclusion of my seat-of-your-pants tour of Melbourne!  Speculation about the top five and arrogant noting of typographical errors are equally welcome in the comments box below.

Update: part 2 now available.  Go.  Go now!

3 comments:

  1. You forgot to capitalise the s in Collins Street.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And Little Collins Street, it would seem. Thanking you.

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  2. Thanks mate. We needed a place to meet me and my country dwelling friend-just for a couple of hours without constantly paying for food or coffees. Times are tough with both of us. so thank you. Now Im gonna try to find the second part of this article you have promised here. Cheers

    ReplyDelete