The first century Roman scholar, Vitruvius, argued that the City is a material and spatial manifestation of the culture, politics and economics of its citizens. This article asserts that beneath the place myths that have generated the buildings and streets of all cities lurk hidden stories of their ecological and cultural past.
One hundred and seventy five years ago, the swampy northern bank of the river ‘Birrarung’, was buried beneath a grid of streets by English colonisers to create the city of Melbourne. Public and private zones were spatially divided, speaking at once of hierarchies of power and wealth but also of a commitment to unhindered movement. Streets that followed the folds of valleys regularly flooded, creating inconvenience to early settlers. As time has passed, seasonal tributaries have been progressively buried deeper underground to create stable, dry surfaces. Emily Potter argues that there is an ‘ever-widening gulf between … our place myths – and what is environmentally and socially sustainable.’ In searching for ‘firm ground’ (literally and figuratively) we deny the essential instability of our occupation of this land.
This work is a conversation between architects (an academic and recent graduate) that sets out to reveal and redeem one of those hidden, watery lines that lies beneath Melbourne’s urban fabric: Williams Creek. This tributary once flowed down Elizabeth Street to join the Yarra in a conjunction of significance in Indigenous dreamtime stories. Now it is polluted and hidden beneath bitumen in a storm-water drain.
Water has a complex and often hidden history in Australia. Its recent past as a colonial outpost of a lush and verdant Britain led to many early town design decisions that seem, with the benefit of a couple of hundred year’s hindsight, at remarkable odds with Australia’s natural climate and ecology. While the sites of most of Australia’s capital cities were selected on the basis of their relationship to water, early settlers and subsequent city builders were quick to pummel natural waterways into new configurations. They created artificial waterways to suit their own ends, ignorant of the ecological consequences or cultural implications for Australia’s first inhabitants. As a result, the built- fabric of Australia’s cities hide much of their watery past. The first century Roman scholar, Vitruvius, argued that The City is a material and spatial manifestation of the culture, politics and economics of its citizens (Dripps, 1997: 4-11). What does such transformation reveal about the inhabitants of Australia’s capital cities?
Water’s hidden history in Melbourne
The focus here will be Melbourne. Prior to European settlement the Yarra River, or Birrarung, as it was known by the Wurundjeri, was a ‘river of mists and shadows’ (Annear, 2005:xi). It had a fresh water upper reach that was abundant with fish. The Birrarung’s cyclic flooding over its swampy banks sustained the ‘larder’ of bushtucker on which the Wurundjeri depended for food (Dean, 2008). In 1835 the first white settlers rowed up to the point where Queens Bridge is now located, unable to progress any further due to the 1m high water falls that protected the Yarra’s fresh water from the salty estuarine water at its base. Within a space of 60 years, the population of immigrants, mostly from England, had grown to one million. Industry lined the Yarra’s banks from Abbotsford to Richmond, discharging its untreated waste directly into the river. Despite the enormous population boom once gold was discovered, no sewerage collection or treatment system was constructed until 1898. The Yarra was described in the late 1800s as the ‘filthiest piece of water I have ever had the misfortune to be afloat on’, and Melbourne earned the nickname of ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’( Lewis, 1995: 68).
Freshwater Falls had by this point become problematic, preventing access upstream to the spreading township. They were destroyed with dynamite. While at the time, given the state of the Yarra it may not have seemed detrimental to add salt to the mix of pollution; it has ecological consequences to this day, long after much of the pollution by industry has been cleaned up.
The destruction of Freshwater Falls is only one aspect of Melbourne’s natural water system that has been significantly altered. Many of Melbourne’s waterholes and waterways have been hidden in the drive to occupy this land at a density previously unknown. Enterprize Park was formerly a deep basin carved out of the river bank by thousands of years of pounding by Freshwater Falls. It is now covered by a deck. Birrarung Marr once was a wetland, rich with biodiversity. Now it is a public parkland covered with granitic sands. Southbank too was formerly a marsh. It is now paved in bluestone and the home of a sprawling retail and restaurant precinct.
In one hundred and seventy five years, Melbourne’s wetlands and tributaries have been buried beneath a grid of streets. Public and private zones are spatially divided, speaking at once of hierarchies of power and wealth and of a commitment to Cartesian order. One of Melbourne’s key north-south streets, Elizabeth Street, which followed the folds of a valley, regularly flooded, creating inconvenience to early settlers. As time has passed, this seasonal tributary has been progressively buried deeper underground to create a stable, dry surface. Emily Potter argues that there is an ‘ever-widening gulf between … our place myths – and what is environmentally and socially sustainable.’(Potter, 2007: 249). In searching for ‘firm ground’ (literally and figuratively) we deny the essential instability of our occupation of this land (Potter: 249).
Revealing the hidden through architecture
While Vitruvius believed that the (ancient) City spatially and materially manifested the political and economic beliefs of its citizens, such meta-narratives rarely hold today. It is true, that dominant voices rise up above the more tentative to express what may seem a universal view – the concrete towers of Southbank, jostling with the casino, dominates the Yarra’s southern edge, for example. But the contemporary city, our Melbourne, carries many threads of conversation. Our laneways give voice (and wall) to minor poets; our streets and squares tell many a tale. Robyn Annear’s book, Bearbrass, which she subtitles ‘Imagining Early Melbourne’ to make clear that it is not a conventional history, suggests the same was true of early Melbourne. She calls it a collection of apocrypha, evoking the other meaning of the word: ‘something hidden, a secret’. ‘Bearbrass’, which was the name given to Melbourne’s early settlement between 1835 and 1851, ‘is a hidden place’ she writes, as ‘it relies for its existence on the imagination of the observer…The book is intended, most of all, as a counterbalance to modern Melbourne, as a way of saying: ‘There is more to the place than car parks, concrete and cafes’( Annear, 2005: xii).
While architecture has tended to be the voice of the powerful: landowners and authorities; we would like to offer it as a medium through which marginal voices can be made visible. The project discussed here, ‘Uncovering Williams Creek’, is by Cliff Chang. This is his Masters of Architecture Design Thesis, which I supervised in 2008. Cliff began his architectural and urban ‘fabrications’ with Annear’s stories of Melbourne’s hidden waterways. His design is a collection of adjacent, sometimes unrelated stories manifested in a range of material installations and buildings, fabrications of a different sort, connected by a line of unexpected landscape. While Annear tells stories of Melbourne’s hidden past, Cliff imagines a future for Melbourne’s built fabric that both reveals its watery substrate and cleanses it. It looks towards a future that is not only more sustainable ecologically, but is a poetic reminder of a lost past.
Uncovering William’s Creek: a creative proposition
This project sits in a broader scholarly and creative context. Emily Potter and Stephen Loo’s creative collaboration Brine, which explored Adelaide’s water histories, was a performance staged in the SASA gallery space in April 2009. They had framed it their paper, ‘Recollecting water histories of South Australia’s Port Adelaide: An experiment in sustainable place-making’ which was presented at the ANZAScA conference in 2008. The Melbourne City Council’s Laneway commissions have tended to explore hidden stories of Melbourne. Bianca Faye and Tim Spicer’s application of gold leaf to the plumbing pipes of the Nicholas Building, Welcome to Cocker Alley, is one that makes precious another hidden water story in Melbourne.
Cliff Chang’s project is concerned with imagining a new thread, spatial, formal and material in nature, weaving through the city offering reparation to our environment and reminding us how we got here.
Creative works such as this are a type of scholarship that responds to research, grows out of it, grapples with it, yet it is a praxis that is distinct from it. Creative works necessarily take a leap sideways into the unknown and are an act of invention rather than discovery. Research is a linear process, beginning with a hypothesis and charting a direction for discovering new knowledge that is formed into a generalization. Scholarly creative work resists anticipating where the process will lead and even the path one will take. The process, is discursive, iterative, messy; the outcome poetic, provocative, specific.
Representing this project will be done by a series of images. The commentary will provide context as well as explicate the nature of the creative research exemplifying at times a creative response poetically:
Buried below Melbourne’s Elizabeth St lies a body of water known by many names – at one time, William’s Creek. Today it is the city’s main stormwater drain – completely hidden from the public and the single largest contributor to pollution along the lower Yarra River – Williams Creek is sick.
This project aims to redeem and heal the city’s relationship with William’s Creek through the creation of an Urban Wetland – a hybrid mechanical and natural system which fits within the existing systems of the city as a new layer: A profuse green sprouting along the spaces between tram tracks.
Alongside the urban wetland, a series of watering holes are proposed. These watering holes comprise both social and mechanical elements: supporting the wetland’s function. Mechanically: a system of pumps, filters and tanks, syphoning water from the main drain below to be purified in the wetland.
Socially: discursive public spaces; remembering histories and providing an outlet for the desires and dreams of a waterway, a city street and its people. The urban wetland comprises seven watering holes, these are: a reservoir, a midden, a lake, a riverbank, a cloud, a riverbed and a waterfall.
The Reservoir: A Poetic Response
Store of memories,
The reservoir weeps.
Tears down its face,
Wet a parched Street.
The Reservoir: Context
The headwater of the urban wetland, the reservoir is both a store for water as well as memories. The main mechanical system for this wetland, its internal programming is dedicated to this purpose: plant rooms, storage tanks and an office from which the wetland’s performance is monitored.
Externally, it is a sad building, its form downcast. On its eastern façade, Melbourne’s history with water is carved. Water flows down this façade from a series of weep holes – washing away at these memories. Here, water from the underground creek is first exposed.
A Poetic Response
Its hull a midden,
A galley lies within.
At its stern.
Water and light meet, swirling.
Their dance: project into the ship.
A midden is a preserved deposit of shells often found along riverbanks. They are the archaeological remains of cooking and eating. This cooking school adjacent to the Queen Victoria Markets is situated beneath an existing public square in an excavated midden (See Figs 11 &12)
On the square, a series of steps form a casual watering hole – a bar in opposition to the existing temperance fountain on site.
An opening at the northern end of the site exposes an underground body of water to the square above and creates a courtyard wetland for the school below.
A Poetic Response
The wetland expands
A lake fills, light sparkling.
In the dark;
The memory of a lost tree
A place to pause
Rivers inundate from time to time, spilling out onto their surroundings. In doing so they imbue the land with fertility and leave behind vestigial lakes. This new public park is such a fertile land – an overflow catchment for the wetland. It is comprised of a lake, a garden and a living wall. The vegetation in the park is selected to provide food and shelter to native birds and pollinators.
Lost Tree Remembered
Facing Elizabeth St, the living wall forms a backdrop to St. Francis – Melbourne’s oldest church. This was also the site where a giant Red-Gum terrorised the church for so long. The same tree was also used as a bell tower when Melbourne was still called Bearbrass. This tree is remembered through a light projection against the living wall at night.
A Poetic Response
The riverbank –
A stepped amphitheatre.
The subterranean creek –
Its mood, in the music:
Impassioned and surging,
Vibrant or subdued.
The riverbank appropriates the steps of the General Post office as a performative space. Williams creek plays on the pipes here – the mood of the music based on the speed and volume of water passing through the system. Impassioned, vibrant or subdued, the creek is given a voice.
A Poetic Response
Lake in the sky.
To bottle its taste.
The cloud is a representation of Lake Cashmore, a lake that once existed near the junction of Elizabeth and Collins Streets. The cloud is a net sculpture shaped by the wind but pinned to the site. Its shadow, the shadow of a lake that once was. In the mornings, dew collects on the cloud’s fibres, raining down in gentle droplets on the street below.
Second cloud: The fountain embodies the idea of water as being the taste of clouds. As more water is used, the LED cloud becomes smaller and smaller. Once the cloud disappears, no water is to be had until the cloud reforms – this not only allows for interaction, but acts as a safety cut-off to prevent water wastage.
A Poetic Response
Rush hour current
Bubbling, RipplingEchoing a watery past.
The riverbed is an underpass connecting Flinders Street Station to the Elizabeth Street and Flinders street tram stop. A transit space – the underpass connects to the memory of a waterway, channelling the human current through the experience of an underground riverbed – an echo of the real creek some metres below.
The jagged boulder forms are tanks for the storage and further processing of cleansed water – some glazed and illuminated to reveal these activities. Openings along the boulder forms become spaces for buskers to perform – the hard surfaces creating a highly resonant space.
A Poetic Response
Catches the light.A seven colour celebration.
The waterfall announces the junction of Williams Creek to the Yarra with a show of light, sound and water. A series of nozzles create a fine mist, refracting light and adding volume to the falls.
From the end of the Flinders Street Station Underpass a continuation of the tram tracks are laid, transforming to reveal wetland and water. A shallow pool at the head of the falls forms a place to contact the cleansed water before it joins the Yarra.
This waterfall celebrates the end of the urban wetland and the uncovering of Williams Creek (Fig, 31).
Mapping the Site
Chang’s fabrication marks the path of the hidden William’s Creek, with an unexpected line of living green: grasses that both clean contaminated stormwater and remind us that the creek is still there. The trajectory is marked by architectural moments: a ‘weeping’ reservoir that stores the water, ‘a shell midden’ that contains a new public watering hole in conversation with the Temperance fountain. The junction of Collins Street, we are told by Annear, is the site of the now missing Lake Cashmore, a winter pond that damaged many a leather shoe. The shadow of a lost redgum is a reminder that it was once the belfry for St Francis church before it was felled in 1878.
The story ends with the river-bed as it snakes under Flinders Street station erupting in a waterfall reminiscent of an evermore ancient history. The conjunction of tributaries with their rivers was important and provided places in Wurundjeri dreaming. The meeting of Williams Creek with the Yarra has been reduced over the past 175 years, to become the Main Drain. Cliff re-imagines this conjunction with a majesty that also conjures up memories of the missing Freshwater falls not far downstream.
Research about the city might lead to a critical history or geography that can be recounted through text, or might lead to the science that can solve its environmental problems. Scholarly creative works sift through research such as this and set out to imagine a new thread, spatial, formal and material in nature that could weave through the city offering reparation to our environment and reminding us how we got here.
Annear, Robyn (2005) Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne (Melbourne: Black Inc.).
Dripps, Robyn (1997) The First House: Myth, Paradigm and the Task of Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press).
Dean Stewart, tour guide for Walkin’ Birrarung: Yarra River Cultural Tour, The Koorie Heritage Trust, 7 March 2008.
Lewis, Miles (1995) Melbourne: The City’s History and Development, 2nd ed. (Melbourne: The City of Melbourne).
Potter, Emily (2007) (ed.) Fresh water: new perspectives on water in Australia (Carlton: Melbourne University Press).
(1.) Innocence by Seanmcgrath, Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcgraths/3548064229/ Image used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en.