As a general rule, humans aren’t very good at looking above our heads. In fact, we’re pretty much biologically hardwired not to. Which is understandable from an evolutionary standpoint: up until the last few thousand years or so we didn’t really have all that much cause to look anywhere other than directly forward. That’s where the faces of other hominids were and that’s where most of our predators were too. The sky was a mostly empty place, canvassed in sufficient detail by our peripheral vision, a tool suitable only for spotting the occasional low-flying pterodactyl, falling coconut or rogue chimp.
Against this backdrop, the sheer vertical impulse of so much human architecture must be considered somewhat of an anomaly then. The capacity to add a second storey to our mud huts occurred without a concurrent advance in human optics, leaving us in an odd position where so much architectural beauty and grandeur – and, of course, brown-brick horror – happens in the barely noted spaces above our heads. We’re doomed by biology to spend the vast majority of our pedestrian lives only ever paying attention to the storefronts as they face on to the street. Which is to say, the upper levels could be home to a multi-storey Puppies, Fireworks and Candy Emporium and still we’d probably just wander unthinkingly into the Discount Chemist on the ground floor and buy ourselves a new loofah.
Which brings us (circuitously) to Melbourne and, more specifically, its CBD. I’m originally from Perth, a city with all the architectural heritage of a Duplo set, so even after three years here, wandering around Melbourne remains a generally remarkable experience. I mean, some of these buildings are over 50 years old! Will wonders ever cease? But I have found in my time here that one of the singular, passing pleasures of being a Melburnian lies in those moments when my gaze is dragged up and I realise anew how spectacular Melbourne is when considered at elevation. I think there’s a unique sense of Melbourne history, of place and urbanity, that gets activated when you wander idly and start to take note of the upper reaches of these grand old edifices. It situates you, reminds you of some of the city’s more remarkable aspects, ones that aren’t necessarily always invoked by the rigidly contemporary world of its oft-cited bars and cafes and shopping precincts and plentiful 7-11s.
I particularly enjoy the eastern reaches of Elizabeth Street, a stretch of the city where the facelessness of the retail outlets is often matched by the spectacle of the buildings that rise above. The block between Little Collins and Collins has some superb ones, the old City of Melbourne Building (Corner Little Collins Street and Swanston Street) in particular having a dirtied-up excess of Dickensian charm. Flinders Lane also rewards the upwardly gazing walker, with the obvious majesty of the Nicholas Building (Corner Flinders Lane and Swanston Street), giving way to the vaulted windows of Ross House (247 Flinders Lane). You also notice plenty of balconies jutting out about the laneway, and you think to yourself “Wow. People actually live in these places. While I will never live in these places. Because I am poor”. It’s a humbling experience.
You can cut down Collins Street a bit, past the geometric, Gotham City-esque monument of the old Commercial Bank Building (327-343 Collins Street) and its smaller, prettier neighbour at 345, to get to the intersection of Collins and Queen Streets, surely one of the most singularly attractive and interesting intersections in the city. There’s high grade Deco in one direction, exceedingly rococo Gothic in another (see the former Stock Exchange Building at 376-380 Collins Street), solid Victorian in the other. In the summer there are leafy trees. And then, in one corner, there is an awfully ugly outtake from the ‘depressing tall oblong’ phase of 1960s building design. Taken together it’s a reasonable microcosm of all the best and worst things about the architecture of Melbourne’s CBD, a summation of the last century of urban building design in a single intersection. And as you look up at their rooves, sharp and detailed against the sky, it makes you wonder anew why you gave up that business/law/banking career and with it any chance you ever had of getting to work there.
But these are small examples, designed to illustrate an idea, rather than a history. All of these buildings and many more are seen and noted every day as people go about their lives. But so often they just drift by as we rush around, beautiful edifices lost in our periphery. Which is why sometimes it’s worth breaking with biology and casting your eyes up for a moment to see what’s there. It’s a small but deliberate act, but in being deliberate it breaks routine and makes one notice. And I’ve found that, in Melbourne, there is almost always something worth noticing.