At the tramstop

[Green Left Weekly, #608, December 1, 2004]

Waiting for the tram at the busy Melbourne Central stop on Swanston St., I look across at the State Library. It's a lovely building and very easy on the eye. A classic Victorian construction (it was built in the 1850s), one enters it through a row of neoclassical columns; and behind the roof line rises the great dome of the celebrated reading room.

In front of it is a good expanse of lawn and in sunny weather people are spread about relaxing and enjoying themselves. A broad imposing set of steps rises from the street to the entrance. There are several statues and they are interesting to look at whatever one may think of their subject matter — there's St. George on his horse slaying the dragon, a mounted Joan of Arc and Sir Redmond Barry (the notorious hanging judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death in 1880 and died shortly after him). Pigeons find the statues very attractive and it is a constant struggle to keep them free of droppings. Most demonstrations start in front of the State Library because it is just about the only piece of substantial public space left in the CBD.

But the library is today somewhat overshadowed by a veritable monstrosity of capitalist "development" that is now taking final shape along its southern side. In the Kennett era the Queen Victoria Hospital was demolished and for many years now Grocon (owned by the Grollo family) has been constructing a massive steel, concrete and glass complex on the site (which occupies an entire city block). BHP-Billiton has a tower all to itself, there are residential apartments and a huge retail complex.

The early stages of construction of this edifice were undeniably fascinating. First they dug an enormous hole — some five to seven stories deep — and then, after consuming stupendous amounts of cement and steel, the complex gradually rose up out of the pit and then far above it.

But today, physically juxtaposed to the old State Library building, the comparison between the two is devastating. The library is spacious, people-focused and on a human scale (despite the fact that it's by no means a small building). The Grocon complex is incredibly ugly, a nondescript modern eyesore. Its sole function is to get the greatest possible floor space out of the site and maximise the money that can be made from the developer's investment.

The Melbourne CBD is essentially a collection of lesser complexes of this kind. Each capitalist owner strives to maximise the revenue they can extract from their site. Spacious lawns? Forget it! That's simply wasted space. The most you'll get is a very modest forecourt and often not even that. In more than a few instances around the city, the "heritage values" of the original building on the site have been "preserved" by keeping the old facade so one gets the totally ludicrous spectacle of a modern glass and steel tower sitting on top of or growing out of some old Victorian or Federation structure.

The net effect of each individual owner striving for the maximum gain from their site can be seen by looking at the city skyline. It's a motley jumble of buildings crowded together, each competing for the best aspect but each overshadowing the other and combining to create a picture of complete ugliness.

In the context of capitalism, "urban planning" is a complete joke. How can one plan anything serious when the city is divided into "lots" on which each capitalist "entrepreneur" is sovereign. At most, "planning" achieves a certain harmonisation of the separate interests involved, with the interests of the rich and powerful always given first priority. Actually planning the CBD or a suburb — let alone the whole city — in any real sense is impossible in this framework. Certainly any planning to maximise the quality of life of the ordinary people who live and work there is excluded.

Just look at the state of permanent war in Melbourne’s suburbs as "developers" — capitalist sharks would be a more accurate description — constantly put forward proposals to cram as many units as they can get away with on this site or that. Some of the worst proposals are stopped but the process as a whole cannot be stopped. It is impossible to say, let's not build anything here or there but instead let's create a park or some gardens which would make people happy and life more pleasant. That would an impermissible interference with the sovereign rights of property.

Anyway, back to the State Library. On the pavement near one corner, across from the tramstop, is my favourite piece of street art. The corner of a bluestone classical building sticks up, all that remains as the rest of the structure has apparently slid, Atlantis-like, beneath the street. One can make out the letters "L-I-B-R-A . . ." across the entrance. Often in the evenings and at weekends skateboarders use its slanted back surface to get some extra momentum and at demonstrations people hang things on it or scrawl messages across it. But it is a striking comment on the death of culture in our profit-crazed society.

My tram has arrived and I move forward to board it. As it pulls away I continue with my thoughts and ponder what a wonderful transformation of the city would be possible if human needs rather than private profit were at the centre of our society.

In my mind I see the letters on the bluestone edifice as "C-A-P-I-T-A . . ." It reads just as well. Capitalism is doomed; one day it will be as extinct as Atlantis. The question is: will the human race be dragged down with it, or will we succeed in getting out from under and building something better to replace it — a socialist society of universal solidarity and wellbeing?