Too often as we walk through the city, we have very little choice over where we can go. Footpaths are well marked; crowd momentum carries us along; road transport routes are fixed. To get to where we’d like to go, we are distributed along ready-made means, passing many a closed building along the way. When we look up, we tend to experience architecture as façade: a vast flatness receding towards the sky, like a constructed set on a massive movie lot propped up by unseen structures. Large volumes squat on large floorplates, while older buildings present an ornate face to the street, but what’s inside remains a mystery.
Redistributing ourselves across our city is not only an aesthetic experience but also a political one. When advertising images and slogans dominate the public space, the thought processes of the idle mind are subject to hijack. When the ways we traverse public space are predetermined, the thought processes of the active mind are subject to constraint. On the other hand, when ideas and spaces are open to us, we can inhabit the city in meaningful ways.
The simple gesture of opening up the city can be transformative. It offers a hospitality, a gesture of welcome. This is the great strength of Open House Melbourne, happening across this weekend (25-26 July). #curiocity is the theme and the online discussion thread, encouraging us to peer around corners and make our own discoveries.
This too is what I love about Nite Art (23 July), that night just once a year when the city’s independent galleries go nocturnal. In some cities you look for piles of bicycles locked together on single poles to find the best places to be after dark. In Melbourne during Nite Art, all you needed do was to follow crowds of people darting from this gallery to that, up stairs and down stairs and around corners and into new spaces that may not previously have existed for them – but certainly would from now onwards. At the small and highly distributed scale that retains Melbourne’s characteristic complexity, these events achieve what White Night cannot: a set of creative experiences that are made for this city.
Of course, Melbourne loves it when we play. The Melbourne Writers Festival’s Twists and Turns (2014) was one such redistribution, making a choose-your-own-adventure landscape of Melbourne’s inner streets based on storytelling by some of our greatest writers.
Kate Rhodes’ Melbourne Unbuilt (2008) was an app created for the State of Design Festival (if only it still existed!), which followed your movements across Melbourne and inspired you with an experience of what might have been. Thirteen structures that were never created could come to life before your eyes, offering a palpable sense of a parallel Melbourne which remained with you, becoming a part of your city.
My Philosophy as Public Art (2004) was a workshop series that paired philosophy students with artists working in the public space, resolving philosophical problems into works of art designed to keep asking those same questions. (Join me for an evening of such discussion with The School of Life on Monday 10 August as I present the Architecture Curriculum.)
Each of these is an activity that redistributes our movements across the city, writing new stories and making new trajectories possible. Distribution has an inestimable impact on our lives: what we commonly take to be our own choice of route is of course part of a network of planned pathways engineered to create smooth movements rather than zones of unpredictable intensity. Footpaths, roads, tram routes. News media, social media. Every day, what we see and understand and how we get around are processes that are controlled in ways we don’t immediately perceive. We risk-manage human movement, modulating it, containing emergence and constraining curiosity.
Open House Melbourne has a renewed sense of ambition under Paul Gurney and Emma Telfer, looking to institutions such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation whose excellent work I have enjoyed this year in person, on foot and by boat. Like much of Melbourne, yet with world-historic influence, the architecture of Chicago unfolds across the city to offer a textbook architecture experience at one-to-one scale. There is enormous and tantalising scope to keep reinterpreting Melbourne back to Melbourne, ensuring that we’re opening up new pathways towards the known as well as the unknown and the unimagined. Who knows what might happen.
IMAGE: Fire escape, Meyers Place. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.