Grand design: Melbourne’s growing pains

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Architect and Grand Designs Australia host Peter Maddison shares his thoughts on planning for Melbourne’s population boom.

Story: Peter Barrett
October 2018

Australia’s fastest-growing city, Melbourne, ticked over the five million mark in August 2018. By 2037, demographers predict it will be a city of eight million, the largest in Australia. But what will this population boom mean for the look and feel of the city? And how can we ensure it doesn’t end up a sprawling mess, like Los Angeles?

peter maddison grand designs australia architect

Architect and Grand Designs Australia host, Peter Maddison 

Peter Maddison has been dropping in on people’s passion projects as host of Grand Designs Australia since the show began in 2010. A graduate of RMIT and a local practising architect, he cares a lot about Melbourne’s look and feel. “Population growth is not going to go away. But how you solve it is not one answer,” says Peter, who believes a relatively stable economy, great climate and available land has created the “perfect storm” of growth.

Peter says City of Melbourne planners, headed by architect and urban planner Rob Adams, have done some great things to keep the CBD liveable and “human” but in recent years the skyline has become a little “spiky” for his liking.

"Identity is really important on a building"

“It’s a bit of a design competition at the moment – everyone’s building an ‘icon,’” he says. “How many ‘iconic’ buildings can we have in this city? My worry is it ends up like Atlanta, where you have parking lots and then towers jumping up, and there’s no cohesive fabric at ground plane. And ground plane is huge because that’s where we all live, where we interact, it’s where social action happens.”

Melbourne skyline victoria EUREKA TOWER

Melbourne City, Eureka Tower.  Source: Getty Images 

Peter Maddison in front of the RACV Tiny Home


Atlanta, Georgia.  Source: Getty Images 

One of the major issues for Peter is developer-led design, typified by the “amorphous, sheer and, in some ways, uninhabitable rabbit holes” you find in places such as Southbank. “I think identity is really important on a building. It makes me feel good if I go up a street and I see my house, where I grew up, and it’s got an arch over the front entry – that’s my house. It’s got a gesture to say, ‘that’s mine’. So it’s important to have emotional connection and you do that by having an architectural gesture.”

You could fix this to some degree, he argues, by having an architect sign off on all building plans, as is the case in America. And to keep our city skyline in check, Peter is in favour of restricting heights in different areas.

Not that Peter is against all tall buildings. In fact, Eureka Tower happens to be his favourite. “There’s a lot of meaning in that building and it reveals itself over time: the surveyor’s staff, the blood running down the building in that red stripe and the eureka gold – there’s a lot of meaning and I think that’s really important.” Peter is unsure, however, how meaning might be woven into future planning processes.

Of course, the major challenge for the Melbourne of the future comes down to planning and infrastructure. How will our city accommodate all those extra people? “It’s a very large grizzly bear to wrestle, ” says Peter.