Melbourne’s RMIT University Centre for Urban Research and its bluestone campus proved a thought provoking site when it hosted the 14th Urban History Planning History Biennial Conference ‘Remaking Cities’ in 2018.
The eclectic mix of architecture at the RMIT La Trobe Street Campus ranged from venues that were located in magnificent Victorian colonial building used for the administration of justice to those that were examples of ultra-modern late 20th century style of architecture.
The venues were an inspiring setting for the discussion of the lofty ideas surrounding an array of urban issues. From the former Melbourne Magistrates’ Court (1842) and City Watch-house Russell Street (1892), Melbourne, and the Francis Ormond Building which was formerly the Working Men’s College (1886) and the adjoining Supreme Court building (1890).
The Storey Meeting Hall of the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (1887) has been remade in modern form reliving its iconography as an important symbol of Melbourne’s social and political protest movement.
Morning and afternoon teas were taken in the alumni courtyard, which was previously the car park of the Russell Street Police Headquarters. The venue provided food for thought located next door to the Old Melbourne Gaol (1842). If these bluestone walls could speak they would tell harrowing tales from the the colourful past of the site.
The conference theme of ‘Remaking Cities’ was inspired by Melbourne as an exemplar of cities that are continually remade. Melbourne was a manufacturing centre, a site of land speculation and a place re-made on the land management practices of the Kulin nation.
The process of re-making Melbourne is underpinned by the processes of settler colonialism, speculation and taking of territory. These factors cast a long shadow of how a shared future might be achieved and the role of the planning processes within these processes.
Industrial growth and development are themes that have been central to the Australia’s nineteenth-century cities, including Melbourne, and their subsequent decline by the late 20th century. The post-manufacturing period provides a whole new set of challenges for cities like Melbourne as the financial, service and cultural sectors drive urban growth.
The three day conference provided a forum where keynote speakers and delegates struck a workable balance between the scholarly and the practitioner. The keynote speakers were: Kate Torney, CEO State Library of Victoria; Cathie Oats, Trove director of digital services; Jefa Greenaway, director of Greenaway Architects; Chris Gibson, Professor of Human Geography at UOW; Ben Shrader, author and historian from Wellington, NZ; John Masanauskas, City Editor of Herald Sun.
This was a heady mix that was matched by the mix of 72 presentations from scholars, practitioners and community members across three separate streams. Delegates came from interstate and overseas (New Zealand) with a strong contingent of local Melbournites.
There were sessions ranging from: planning histories; postwar campus; heritage; land speculation; music; maps; housing; rivers and wetlands; parks and gardens; museums; governance; transport; commerce; streetscapes; quarries; urban agriculture and food systems; placemaking; to Indigenous planning and policy.
Camden historian and CHN blogger Ian Willis presented a paper called ‘Utopia or dystopia, a contested space on Sydney’s urban frontier’.
The conference organising committee put out a book of abstracts and will publish the conference proceedings later this year.
The conference reception and dinner were held at The Old Melbourne Gaol in Russell Street. The bluestone walls are rich in meaning from the 133 hangings on the site and the execution in 1842 of two Palawa brought to Victoria from Van Dieman’s Land by GA Robinson: Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener.
Delegates were invited to dine beneath the gallows that famously ended the life of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly on 11 November 1880. Kelly is certainly one of the icons of Australian history and has inspired poetry, song, film, art and literature. He has variously been called a bushranger, larrikin, bushman, underdog and arguably an anarchist. The venue was heavy with the atmospherics of its history and delegates could wander in and out of the cells where they could walk the ground from the past.
The bluestone walls provided a ghoulish backdrop to the sounds of Melbourne trio The Orbweavers.
The conference organising committee are to be complemented on doing a grand job.