The Dubai of its day, Ballarat was a nineteenth century celebrity city.1 A single gold-strike led to an influx of thousands of diggers in a fortnight. Four months later surveyors imposed a city grid across West Ballarat, while East Ballarat grew into an instant tent city of five kilometres of chaotic canvas forking along the roads to Geelong and Melbourne. Within five years of the strike, Ballarat made itself grand with civic scale buildings to match the wide streets, with grand hotels, an imposing post office, two cathedrals, a gaol and a hospital.
Currently, Ballarat is the fastest growing regional city in Victoria and is predicted to double in population by 2050. The Victorian government’s ‘Plan Melbourne’ aims to siphon off expansion with centres like Ballarat a target. Ballarat already displays signs of the classic doughnut effect of ex-burb development. Dormitory suburbs loom ever larger; a commuter’s paradise with no traffic lights all the way to the capital one hour and fifteen minutes down the western free-way. Far from the classic grid of grand streets, the forecast is Ballarat will ‘regionalise growth’ at its periphery.2
Having been created in a prosperous instant, Ballarat has spent the majority of its civic life concerned with preservation. Timely recessions aided conservation, dampening the adverse effects of twentieth century development. Today, few large scale buildings rupture the nineteenth century street-scapes. Even so, the good manners of preservation selectively edit. Erased is Ballarat’s industrial heritage; lost are the landscapes of mines, tunnels, gravel tailings, stamp batteries, chimneys and poppet heads. A hazy retrospection prevails as the orthodoxy. Golden legacies might just pickle an otherwise bright future.3
Ballarat’s array of memorials commemorate nuggets found, queens lost and wars won. These are the passive statues and plaques that clutter most country towns. The Titanic Memorial Bandstand and Replica Sugg Lamp on Sturt Street, among others, are unselfconsciously active monuments. The contemporary city almost entirely lacks the infrastructure of active monuments like these. That is, spatial experience that is at once a piece of civic infrastructure and an intervention in the cityscape.4
Around the corner from the grand streets and down a gritty lane is one such experimental intervention of ours that has engaged with the adjacent plaza and the life of the city. The Annexe at the Art Gallery of Ballarat transforms a simple brief for an ‘events marquee’ into a flexible response to site and program providing an enclosed multi-purpose space for talks, workshops, installations and functions. Operable glazed panels free the facade for summer gallery openings and transform the project into a bandstand for public performances toward the adjacent plaza. De-materialising the glazed perimeter reorientates the interior to the urban context. Triangular awnings signal the new insertion from the distant end of Police Lane and form interstitial verandas; stepped seating forms a stage and allows for casual occupation of the plaza.
While expanding the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the addition creates a new frontage to historic Camp Street and the adjoining plaza of Alfred Deakin Place. Key parts of the city fabric were re-engaged and reinterpreted. Shifting across hybrid postures of public hall, veranda and bandstand, the project formally and programmatically recalls local typologies. A modulated roofscape and painted timber linings recollect roof forms of Ballarat’s nineteenth century back-of-house spaces where humble, timber lined, saw-toothed additions stand in contrast to the grand facades of the main streets. Concurrently, the intervention re-shapes the future reading of these latent typologies and validates their importance to the city.
Far from pickled planning, Annexe demonstrates how contemporary architecture might actively intervene in the preservation cityscape and revive public space. This project also engages a point-to-point sequence of urban experiences carving an alternative route across the city via lanes and secondary streets. The next point on the trajectory is a plot that looks over East Ballarat from Camp Street. This has been the site for a series of design studios Searle x Waldron have led, exploring how small projects might merge civic intervention, active monuments, urban infrastructure, and transform the city on the site of the government encampment from which troopers rode out to quash the Eureka Rebellion of 1854. Envisioned is a proposition that re-traces historic sight-lines across the nineteenth century city and goldfields, with a lookout and vast public stairway connecting the Arts Precinct to East Ballarat.
The Annexe at the Art Gallery of Ballarat explores the notion that a small project can have a large urban impact. In the grand city of Ballarat, a series of such architectural interventions would adhere a new layer of legibility, re-frame typologies, re-engage the community and align new point-to-point trajectories across the city. It would also cast an interstitial armature around the city and inform future development implicit with population growth. Where contemporary architecture has authenticity it also acts to reinforce the context and preserve the surrounding historic fabric. Specific additions to Ballarat’s golden legacy may well be just what is needed to un-pickle this future, activate potential and co-create a new civic identity.
Point-to-point RMIT design studio led by Searle x Waldron – the studio explores opportunities for a pivotal site connecting East and West Ballarat with a lookout, city museum, urban plaza and stair – reflecting on history, authenticity and experience; moving in a point-to-point sequence across the city.
Nick Searle is a director of Searle x Waldron Architecture – a collaborative practice co-founded with Suzannah Waldron. With a focus on the public realm, the practice explores design and research agendas through local projects, international competitions and by leading design studio’s at RMIT University’s architecture program.
1. The news of the strike spread everywhere in a sort of instantaneous way – spread like a flash to the very ends of the earth. A celebrity so prompt and so universal has hardly been paralleled in history, perhaps. It was as if the name BALLARAT had suddenly been written on the sky, where all the world could read it at once.’ Mark Twain – ‘Following the Equator’ – Chapter XXIV, 1897.
2. Ballarat is identified as one of ten regional centres earmarked for growth in a network of cities across the state. Plan Melbourne also aims to export growth from the capital to peri-urban growth towns on route including Ballan and Bacchus Marsh.
3. Twain encountered this attitude as early as the 1890s and wrote: ‘They were young and gay, then; they are patriarchal and grave, now; and they do not get excited any more. They talk of the Past. They live in it. Their life is a dream, a retrospection.’ Twain, Op cit.
4. Public art and the pop-up installation could be viewed as poor substitutions for the active monument. Public art lacks utility and is commonly deployed to fill voids not activate them. Whereas the pop-up is inflexibly transient and by definition misses a lasting opportunity to inform the city.