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Feature article

City, Scale, Patina

I remember the first time I went to Venice more than 10 years ago. Immediately I was taken by how the city made me feel. I was excited. I wanted to explore, get out of my little bed and breakfast, and meander through the myriad of canals, hidden laneways, and surprise boutiques. As a wide eyed spring chicken with little critical knowledge about the built environment, it wasn’t until after a subsequent visit (and rigorous architectural education) that this excitement made a bit more sense.

WORDS BY Yvonne Meng

Venice is rich, and by that I don’t mean through monetary wealth, but with a human richness only cities of age can offer. In the cracks of the buildings, worn and uneven cobblestone, each corner and surface had a story embedded within. This is a city of personality and of a scale proportioned to the body. What’s more, there are no cars. Venice is for people, albeit mostly tourists these days.

Humans mould their environment. In touching the surfaces, adapting the fabric and repairing the damage, these layered actions allow the body to engage with, and in turn characterise the space. Because of this, cities are never just a static object but rather a growing, learning organism in its own right and it evolves as much as its inhabitants.

In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand suggests age as a factor that gives buildings respect. Old buildings are mature and resilient, and their persistent presence till today has earned our sense of trust. In the case of Venice this holds true. Respectable Venice wears the scars of many centuries and the resulting urban patina evokes its own unique character. It also draws us in.

Here in the Melbourne CBD we are lucky to have a wealth of spaces that have their own quirks and personalities.

We have interstitial pockets where hipsters sit on milk crates sipping flat whites, and trendy eateries in laneways off laneways (and probably past a few bins for added Melbourne-esque coolness). We have trams, street art, alfresco dining, and more. In short, there is a lot of life around. Yet Melbourne is not so old, and while it is a completely different urban grain to Venice, it still manages to conjure up its own buzz without the accumulated centuries.

Actually, the activity we know harks back only a few decades and prior to the mid 80’s it was, as Norman Day so famously declared, ‘An empty, useless city centre’. Furthermore unlike the informal, organic nature of Venice’s streets, Melbourne CBD adheres to a planned grid structure.

Worn Venice building facade.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Collins street, Melbourne.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Venice apartment and clothes line.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Venice entry.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Venice church.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Downtown Brasilia.

photograph: anonymous, sourced from Wiki Commons

Worn brick in reappropriated Melbourne laneway.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

Crossley St, Melbourne.

photograph: Yvonne Meng

We understand space through its relationship to our body. In Venice, layers of time produced tactile surfaces and we take comfort in the patina as a sign of trusted human use. Melbourne did not have the luxury of time, though parts of it found richness quickly through a different way. Planned human-scaled interventions facilitated organic activity. Activity means people, and from a sustained bodily engagement the city is developing its own idiosyncrasies. Commissioned street art is quickly painted over by others, so the skin is in constant flux. Reappropriated laneways make the otherwise dreary back streets hospitable, and the residual presence of humans signifies that this is a safe place. It’s also walkable and ergonomic. While traipsing through the streets, things which can engage are in close proximity. When we need to stop, there are regular intervals for our bodies to mould to an ubiquitous street bench.

It is the finer grain, human scaled detail that gives both Melbourne and Venice life. Without it, how can the body relate to the space? It can’t. One only needs to look at Brasilia or Canberra as cases of urban design that look great from a helicopter but neglects the one to one. Aerial elegance took precedence over people, and urban planning favoured motor vehicle transport over pedestrians on the street.

In light of a growing Melbourne where development will inevitably descend, newly formed pockets won’t necessarily have an instant complexity of urban life. That is not to say it needs to wait for centuries for that to happen. It is important to sow the seeds for bodily engagement and make sure they do not get swallowed up under the broad brushstrokes of aerial planning.

Design for humans, as humans shape the city.



Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. New York, NY: Viking, 1994.