My not-so-secret Melbourne ….

The Saturday Age has been publishing a series on the special 'secret' places that people treasure in their city.  Some of the places that resonate with me are so well known they don't seem unique enough to be given the accolade of a 'secret' place.  Why should St Kilda Pier for example, qualify as special?  The answer is when time and place are joined.

St Kilda Pier on a late summer afternoon with the great openness of the Bay and the sun setting over Williamstown accompanied by pink skies and ascension clouds worthy of a Cinquecento painting is a magic experience.  I'm content to be in the company of strolling fellow citizens, and usually there are kite boarders performing their ballet for good measure.  Each sunset is unique and raises questions about the world and my place in it!

The more I thought about it I realised that not many of my special places were buildings or monuments as such but more often locations, places that can be experienced not so much for themselves as for their total environments at particular times; the world doesn't start and stop with buildings for most people. 

In Tokagawa times there was a famous circuit of experiential sights near old Kyoto where pilgrims had one great aesthetic experience each day.  They weren't monumental but small special things like the ducks rising off a particular lake in the early morning, a certain temple in the mist, the cherry blossom in a special garden, the reeds on a specific lake in the moonlight and so on; it's a very Japanese concept. 

Apart from St Kilda sunsets we don't seem to have anything quite like those evanescent, reflective pleasures in our liveability calculus, most of our so-called livability quotient is more urban and often they require being able to afford them. 

The 'secret' Melbourne places nominated recently in the Age by RMIT mandarin Leon van Schaik for example, are all buildings in Swanston Street, and include the concrete dome of the State Library, Griffin's Capitol Theatre, the Roy Grounds' NGV water wall, and the ARM extensions to the Shrine of Remembrance. He also likes the over-promoted lane ways and their grafitti.  While kids of all ages like the water wall, these choices just don't seem personal and felt enough, and van Schaik offers no sense of what makes them so special for him, except perhaps that the library dome was the biggest when it was built in 1913! 

On the other hand Alan Selenitsch, an architectural academic from the older university nominated a less conventional approach recently. His 'secret' is a great view of the fabled towers of the magic city as you approach the CBD over the Westgate Bridge.  These skyline city views are one of the few times that such a collection of on-the-whole pretty ordinary buildings looks so marvellous.  But what makes this particular view even more special is that it's only available from a moving car for about 300 metres and however many seconds, a view you'd have to be ready for or you just might miss it.  And it's a view that would be seen in a different light every day of the year; I like that and can just imagine his anticipation every morning.

The dedicated urban space I like best is not the City Square or Fed Square but the work-a-day space in front of the State Library in Swanston Street.With students on the lawn, the Greek Revival facade and Joan of Arc exhorting us to follow her, it always buoys my spirits. It's a great every day place that works well without any need for the 'staged events' of Federation Square to attract people.

Guilfoyle's Royal Botanic Gardens is another always-there place, but it's also one of my special Sunday morning numbers. I like making a brisk circuit to check up on my favourite trees; species like the Queensland kauri with its indigenous dot painted bark.  It's my special individual trees on an irregular circuit that are important to me rather than the overall views, and there's coffee after-wards at the Observatory Café surrounded by young families, something I appreciate more as I get older!

My alternative special Sunday morning place is Westgate Park with its abundant bird life.  It's a testament to the Port people who created this life-affirming place out of the rubbish of a construction site, and with the backdrop of that remarkable high bridge, it sometimes has the mysterious empty aura of an Antonioni film.

And Birrarung Marr was only designed and created a bit over a decade ago but gets better and better as it matures.  If I'm early for a movie at ACMI, I take a turn around this special place; last time I was there, a wetlands area had developed which looked wonderful.  It always makes me want to be landscape designer in my next reincarnation!

I haven't mentioned any buildings yet, and there are many in the CBD that I like, but one of the places I always go out of my way to again and again are the Block Arcade & Block Place connecting Collins, Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets.  It's a very conventional choice but it's a great piece of Victorian city planning beloved by many; I like the gravitas of the arcade and the propriety of the tea rooms of my grandparent's generation.

When I mentioned the Block Arcade, my friend Paul Coghlan promptly nominated a record shop in the arcade called BasementDiscs as one of his secret places. I don't know this shop yet, apparently it has a really great selection of music but the entrance is easy to overlook. I like that it's a bit secret, and I suspect that's what theAge is after, places so special that you have to seek them out!

My secret equivalent to this shop is the Don Camillo restaurant in Victoria Street near the market. I like the walls covered with photos of footballers and scenes of an earlier Melbourne that I never knew, and I like all the old regular customers too; the National Trust should classify it and them as part of our heritage!

Leon van Shaik nominated Juan Davila's take on John Brack'sCollins Street at 5 pmas his special Melbourne artwork.  My 'secret' artwork is located in St Kilda* and isn't nearly as well known as Davila's painting. 

The centrepiece, a bronze model of the sun 1.4 metres in diameter, is located next to Serge Thomann's skate park, and the rest of the solar system is strung out around the Bay. The closest planets to the Sun are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter in that order and they're spaced along the bike path for the half a kilometre to Luna Park. Each planet is set on an eye level bluestone plinth and its distance from the sun is to scale.  For example the nearest and smallest planet Mercury is 58 million kilometres from the sun, so it's 58 metres from the St Kilda sun and is smaller than a pea. Combined with the sunset it really puts things into perspective, but watch out for the heads-down bike riders!

Carpe diem.  Go and see the 1913 concrete library dome! 

Don Gazzard LFAIA.
Mid March 2014

*The concept was that of Christopher Lansill and the detail design was by the artist Cameron Robbins.