Is this the ugliest building in Melbourne?
Russell Degnan

"Too many of the world's chief buildings fail of one chief virtue - harmony; they are made up of a methodless mixture of the ugly and the beautiful; this is bad; it is confusing, it is unrestful. One has a sense of uneasiness, of distress, without knowing why. But one is calm before St. Mark, one is calm within it, one would be calm on top of it, calm in the cellar; for its details are masterfully ugly, no misplaced and impertinent beauties are intruded anywhere; and the consequent result is a grand harmonious whole, of soothing, entrancing, tranquilizing, soul-satisfying ugliness.
Mark Twain - A Tramp Abroad

Sure it doesn't address the street, has no windows, looks like a sunken, mono-coloured Rubik's cube, is probably a graffiti artist's wet dream, repulses with its little "No Standing" signs, and oddly placed not-cone, gives no indication of its function, or owner, or what you could even potentially use it for, is not likely to attract executives looking for corner offices, has no natural light inside (except maybe, the third floor), probably no natural air flows, and I can't imagine that it has much potential reuse value if whoever owns it can no longer use it.

But it is so beautifully balanced, and of such perfect scale, it really is harmoniously, wonderfully, ugly. I'll give it that.

Passing Fancy 31st March, 2005 21:13:03   [#] [7 comments] 

For the benefit of motorists
Russell Degnan

A roundabout is an intersection.

A roundabout includes give way lines.

This is why roundabout signs look like give way signs.

At a give way line:

(2) The driver must give way to any vehicle or pedestrian at or near the give way sign or give way line.

Therefore could you please:
Kindly refrain from refusing to slow down when I am trying to cross at a roundabout.
Kindly refrain from beeping and gesturing at me when I am crossing at said roundabout.
Kindly learn the f$#@ing road rules.


Sterner Matters 31st March, 2005 19:46:03   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: LXIV, March 2005
Russell Degnan

Mt. St. Leonard. In the Yarra Ranges National Park. Taken July 2003.

Melbourne Town 29th March, 2005 23:21:25   [#] [3 comments] 

Six good reasons to change the Victorian Planning System
Russell Degnan

From a personal, and professional point of view, there are all sorts of reasons why we could change the planning system. Most of them can be neatly summarised by the statement, "It is not really planning!". Tom's lament is a good example of the general malaise that sits over the profession in this state.

What I am interested in though, are outcomes. Is the system, with its extensive democratic processes, complications and inherently legal nature, despite it all, getting the job done? Here are six reasons why I don't think it is.

1. It's expensive
Legislation costs money, it costs money to pay planners, who, let's be honest, don't do anything productive; it costs money to pay lawyers, likewise; and it costs time, because if you've bought a property or signed a lease the six months it will take to get a permit could finanically cripple you why your investment sits and does nothing.

"That's the risk you take" you might say. Better that than a bad city. Consider the comment by PIA President Marcus Spiller, "[...] the main problem with the strategy was the building costs associated with suburban apartments, not people rejecting higher-density housing.". There only significant difference between other states and Victoria when it comes to building is legislation, either builders (ie. unions) or planning (ie. us). It is very easy to get planning approval for a single storey dwelling in the suburbs, it is very difficult to get approval for an apartment complex. Coincidence? But that is not all, it also causes speculation. Want to covert a couple of single storey dwellings into a row of terrace houses? No chance, you'd never recover the costs. But if you convert them to a 10 storey apartment complex then the risk is outweighed by the return.

Planners and residents might want sensible higher densities, but as it stands the planning system is actively working against that idea because of its expense and uncertainty.

2. It distracts from the public realm
By requiring a permit for private buildings, on private land, far too little attention is given to the parts of the city that really affect people: our public spaces and streets, transport infrastructure, and environment. Leafy suburbs with leafy streets have leafy public nature-strips. Complaints about density don't matter. What matters is whether there is over-shadowing at the back and whether there is a sufficiently attractive interface with the street - either against it or setback with a garden. The more planners try to plan where dense developments are allowed and should go and the less attention they pay to the interface these developments have with the street, the more residents complaints they will receive, the less diverse the housing will be in an area, and the more likely the public realm will be poor.

3. It is confrontational
When Rob Hulls came and spoke at RMIT a few weeks ago he claimed that other states were envious of our planning system. A politician and lawyer would say that wouldn't he? In the legal and political worlds the first aim is to win the argument. Only when you can't win outright (or can't be sure) do you negotiate. The planning system is inherently confrontational: you apply then succeed or fail, if you object then likewise. Where negotiation occurs it is outside the system itself, and a sure sign of its failings that almost all statutory planners would say it doesn't occur often enough. A developer will always want to do something with a site, the general public will almost always want something done with a site - empty land, and derelict buildings are the worst kind of land-use. That should be a starting point.

4. It distracts from the role of infrastructure planning
Infrastructure is what drives a city, in its roads, sewers, water and electricity connections, and other urban elements. This is why people live in cities. But except for developer contribution plans, where does this come into the planning system? it doesn't, it is run by a myriad of little and large bureaucracies across state, local and federal government. Most of these bureaucracies will tell you they are driven by demand for their services. This is crap. It is also the subject of another, as yet unfinished artlcle. But suffice to say Melbourne 2030's biggest problem is that it is wholly inadequate in this area, and no strategic plan will work until it is addressed.

5. It hurts the professional status of planners
To quote again from Rob Hulls, he is the minister for saying "No". People don't like that. They think, probably with some justification, that planners are petty bureaucrats, obsessed with irrelevant details, and committed to making it hard for people to do what they want for no apparent reason. In the respect ratings planners rank down there with lawyers and politicians. You can talk about all the good you are doing for the community all day, but the reality is the community thinks planners are an encumbrance, and they primarily think it is an encumbrance because the system encourages them to see planners that way. They don't approach planners for helpful advice on the best way to enhance the neighbourhood, or to get an energy efficient home, or any number of things planners could tell them. They come to planners to hurdle them, and planners are there to trip them up.

6. It isn't effective in enhancing, retaining, or shaping our built heritage
Cities are living things. Our planning system treats heritage like a dead thing. If it is dead, then it must be retained. If it is mostly dead then it is slightly alive, and must be partly retained. Neighbourhood character is a concept for defining when a neighbourhood is dead. It turns them into painted landscapes. We should want our towns and cities to be alive. Not by tearing buildings down, but by using what we have well, and by reshaping what isn't to better and complementary uses. There needs to be an economic incentive to do this, and there needs to be an attitude shift to accomplish this. Neither of those are possible under our current system.

I'm sure there are other reasons as well?

Sterner Matters 29th March, 2005 22:41:46   [#] [4 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXIII, March 2005
Russell Degnan

Mornington beaches from Schnapper Point. Taken March 2005.

Melbourne Town 21st March, 2005 21:12:09   [#] [1 comment] 

Nick Cave - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Russell Degnan

In terms of Australian song-writing, very few come even close to Nick Cave. The emotional depth of his dark, sad, even violent songs is just awesome. His creation of enveloping moods and his complexity rivals classical composers like Tchaikovsky or Beethoven; pop artists can only dream. But what to make of the double album, Abbatoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus? The white cover with pictures of flowers on it is a bit of a giveaway that - for the most part - this is a really fresh, gorgeous album. The complex melodies, and time structures are there, but whatever was driving Cave's early work has dissipated with marriage and kids.

And I love it. To do this review I've had it on half the afternoon and I'll leave it on for longer still, because there is barely a bad song. More impressively still, unlike other artists of his vintage, he hasn't drifted into a sameness of structure and style. If anything, this is a new direction. The use of the London Community Gospel Choir on several songs, and a lack of vocal intensity from Cave makes it something completely different. Worth getting.

Track Highlights
Nature Boy - An upbeat pop song is not typical of either Nick Cave or the rest or the album but he does it well.
Let the Bells Ring - The best combination of the upbeat style with the typical depths of his musical skill.
The Lyre of Orpheus - A bizarre little half talking/half singing start leads into a great deep bass, and a great story.
Breathless - The theme tune for a sunny day and a nice lie-down on a grassy hill.
Spell - A more appropriately titled song has never existed. Close your eyes and let it do its work.

Finer Things 20th March, 2005 22:33:44   [#] [0 comments] 

The technical side of Road pricing
Russell Degnan

Jason Soon at Catallaxy links to a series of economic papers on road pricing (Dec 2004 edition). The first, 'Road Pricing in Practse and Theory' is a useful summary. It concludes with a statement all planners should be aware of:

"Progress in this field is rapid, so do not be surprised if some day you find that you are paying a congestion toll (or altering your behavior to avoid one)."

For thos who don't like economics much I recommend the first link.

The big change in resource management policy in the past 20 years is the acceptance of the idea that one of the best ways to get people to use less of a resource is to charge them for it. Roads are one of the last holdouts to this idea, in part, because of the enormous complexity involved. However, sicne the success of the congestion charge in London, the idea of a comprehensive road pricing scheme is not far away. Take the Transport 2050 report by the Royal Academy of Engineers in the UK for example (hat tip: View from Benambra).

An important point to note: congestion tolls are not paying for the roads themselves. They are already paid for by petrol taxes - albeit in way that doesn't direct funds to places that people want more roads - or by specific tolls on those roads, ala CityLink. A congestion charge is a payment to remove other drivers off the road by pricing them out of the market. This leads to two problems.

Firstly, people may have other alternatives, that leads to congestion of secondary roads that don't carry tolls:

"The message of the basic model is that an efficient congestion toll must be imposed on all routes at all times of day, which is likely a practical impossibility."

Secondly, where there are no alternatives, one must be given. The money for the London congestion charge went into improvements in the bus network, meaning, essentially, that drivers into the centre of London are paying people to take the bus so they can use the roads without congestion.

Congestion charging is only one aspect of transport planning however. It still leaves out many other users - bicycles and pedestrians - as well as considerations of the best use for road-space - cafes and seating for example. But it is a start, in an interesting and growing area.

Sterner Matters 20th March, 2005 14:15:47   [#] [4 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXII, March 2005
Russell Degnan

Silvan Reservoir. Taken July 2003.

Melbourne Town 19th March, 2005 11:59:01   [#] [0 comments] 

Sia - Colour the Small One
Russell Degnan

If Sia's album is a testament to the ability Australian artists have to get me to buy their stuff with a little airplay and a cool album cover, then it is also a ringing endorsement of that policy. This is brilliant, from the opening chords of the slow Rewrite to the upbeat closing song Where I Belong that makes you want to put it on again.

The production on this album is excellent, with barely an extraneous note, allowing Sia's great voice to dominate the songs, even as they become complex soundscapes. For the most part, the songs are groovy, occasionally depressing, and towards the end of the album, some jazz influences come through. It is unique, though for a comparison, think of Goldfraap's Felt Mountain album, or the less angst-ridden works of Tori Amos. Alternatively, consider the two songs she sung on Zero 7's last album, or Beck, who co-wrote one song. One of the best albums of last year.

Track Highlights
Sunday - Great use of a clarinet at the start, setting the tone and beat that becomes the most gorgeous flute-driven chorus.
Breathe Me - Beautiful song driven by the orchestra and the piano, and subsequently losing this strength in the remix that got all the airplay.
The Bully - Co-written with Beck, and the highlight of the tracks with groove.
Don't Bring Me Down - The most moody song, combining Sia's great vocal strength with an example of how to use a string orchestra.

Finer Things 12th March, 2005 18:04:20   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXI, March 2005
Russell Degnan

This month, from the edges of the city, starting with the Organ Pipes National Park in Keilor North. Taken July 2004.

Melbourne Town 12th March, 2005 15:58:25   [#] [0 comments] 

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