The “Sec­ond City”? We don’t think so...

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How does a city ob­sessed with an oval ball have enough pas­sion left over for cool de­sign and a crank­ing food cul­ture? Larissa Dubecki hits the streets and gets be­tween the lay­ers of Mel­bourne’s ur­ban soul.

THERE’S A STORY told about Flin­ders Street Sta­tion, the grandly de­cay­ing land­mark – de­signed around the time of Fed­er­a­tion – at the cul­tural axis of Mel­bourne. The ru­mour goes that the ar­chi­tec­tural plans shipped from Lon­don were some­how mixed up with blue­prints in­tended for Bom­bay – which is how Mel­bourne wound up with an or­nate, grandiose and sprawl­ing cen­tral sta­tion with a vaguely “days of the Raj” feel.

It’s a great tale, though sadly apoc­ryphal (the other great sta­tion leg­end – that there’s an un­der­ground bowl­ing al­ley and its closed-off up­per lev­els con­tain a ball­room – is won­der­fully true). How­ever, it shows that Mel­bourne’s de­sign ob­ses­sion, rather than be­ing new, has been en­demic for well over a cen­tury.

Like all great cities, Mel­bourne is a palimpsest – a se­ries of lay­ers, the past dis­cerned in shad­owy out­line be­neath the present. It cer­tainly isn’t a boxtick­ing desti­na­tion. Sure, the first-time vis­i­tor can see the Shrine of Re­mem­brance and the con­tra­dic­to­rily named Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria then swing

by bright and shiny Fed­er­a­tion Square or the UNESCO World Her­itage-listed Royal Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing. Only a hack could fail to make Brighton Beach’s colour­ful bathing boxes look pretty on In­sta­gram. But the truth is that while some cities re­veal them­selves to you in­stantly, oth­ers need coax­ing.

If Mel­bourne’s old charms have been some­what buried – Ava Gardner was once fa­mously mis­quoted call­ing it “the per­fect place to make a film about the end of the world” and the so­bri­quet stuck – the past 20 years have seen a re­nais­sance of un­der­ground art, de­sign, food and cul­ture that has pro­pelled the city over­ground.

Visit the top end of Bourke Street, the bustling Euro­pean core of the city where foot­path ta­bles spill over with din­ers eat­ing cala­mari fritti and bis­tecca, and imag­ine the week­end ghost town of 20 years ago.

“I can re­mem­ber kick­ing a footy in the mid­dle of the road on a Sun­day af­ter­noon,” says Jerome Bo­razio, who revved up Mel­bourne’s cul­tural cap­i­tal in 2004 with the sim­ple yet rev­o­lu­tion­ary act of open­ing a tiny bar in a gritty laneway be­hind the Myer depart­ment store, us­ing milk crates for seats.

The milk crate is em­blem­atic of the ana­logue plea­sures of the Mel­bourne brand (the ground zero of yarn bomb­ing, nat­u­ral home of the fixie bi­cy­cle, scene of the Bryl­creem quiff re­vival that is the Lon­don Bar­ber Move­ment); it’s a de­sign mo­tif bor­rowed by end­less cafés and bars – much to Bo­razio’s be­muse­ment. “My at­ti­tude was: it’s a bar and you should be stand­ing up but if you want to sit down, have a milk crate.” St Jerome’s bar was lost to the development of the Em­po­rium shop­ping cen­tre but its left-of-cen­tre le­gacy lives on at St Jerome’s – The Ho­tel (ho­tel.qan­, which of­fers lux­ury camp­ing in the CBD on the As­tro­Turf roof of Mel­bourne Cen­tral shop­ping cen­tre.

“Mel­bourne has an amaz­ing, unique style that’s dif­fer­ent to ev­ery other Aus­tralian cap­i­tal city,” says Bo­razio, who has spent the past 12 months scout­ing

the na­tion for the lo­ca­tion of his sec­ond ho­tel. “Hav­ing tra­versed the coun­try, where do you think we wound up? Mel­bourne.”

His em­pire flour­ishes in the city’s quirkier spots – none more so than Pony­fish Is­land (pony­fish., a float­ing bar in the mid­dle of the Yarra River that’s ac­cessed via the pedes­trian bridge con­nect­ing South­bank to Flin­ders Street Sta­tion.

The river precinct is rich with his­tor­i­cal recla­ma­tion. To the east of Pony­fish is the out­door Ar­bory Bar & Eatery (ar­ run­ning along Flin­ders Street Sta­tion’s for­mer San­dridge rail­way line. Fur­ther north, River­land bar (river­land­bar. com) in­hab­its Fed­er­a­tion Wharf’s once-de­crepit blue­stone vaults. This pre­vi­ously Dick­en­sian stretch of the Yarra has trans­formed in a few short years from a no-go zone into a must-do.

None of these for­tu­itous meet­ings of history and hopes can be ac­cessed by car, which in­tro­duces an­other point es­sen­tial to the en­joy­ment of Mel­bourne. It’s a city best ex­plored on foot, thanks to a ser­pen­tine net­work of laneways and ar­cades that can feel like an ur­ban so­phis­ti­cate’s ver­sion of Snakes and Ladders. It’s the only way to dis­cover the Art Deco, stained-glass wonder of the Cathe­dral Ar­cade on Swanston Street, with its edgy lo­cal fash­ion bou­tiques. Or the echo­ing and mys­te­ri­ous Ni­cholas Build­ing di­rectly above it – a ver­ti­cal vil­lage con­nected by a jud­der­ing el­e­va­tor where ate­liers, stu­dios and gal­leries form a thriv­ing cre­ative hub. Among other ac­tiv­i­ties, life-draw­ing classes are held there three evenings a week (life-draw­

The vis­i­tor might note that Mel­bourne is a con­trary beast. The term “world-class” is bandied around with weary­ing reg­u­lar­ity but as a lived-in city it’s all about small scale and bou­tique. It’s a place in thrall to home­grown quirk, summed up as the twin peaks of fash­ion – the dark and di­rec­tional Al­pha60 la­bel (al­ is the de facto uni­form of the cre­ative class – and a boom­ing food, cof­fee and bar scene

based on a fiercely fought com­pe­ti­tion to find the most out­landish real es­tate. Hence the im­prob­a­bly small Switch­board café (220 Collins Street, Mel­bourne; 03 9619 1111), housed in a for­mer switch­board room and win­dow dis­play in the his­toric Manch­ester Unity Build­ing; and new­comer White­hart Bar (white­hart­, which wins the Mel­bourne de­sign-trope tri­fecta by colonis­ing a for­mer car park in a dead-end laneway us­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers – the ar­chi­tec­tural an­swer to the milk crate.

They’re not al­ways easy to find – which is ex­actly the point, says Miss Pearls (aka Paula Sc­holes), host­ess at one of the city’s orig­i­nal rooftop bars, Madame Brus­sels (madame­brus­ on Bourke Street. It’s de­signed like an English gar­den-party fan­ta­sia, com­plete with wait­ers clad in ten­nis out­fits. “It’s all about feel­ing re­warded when you find the small door­way, the hid­den laneway… Mel­bourne re­ally makes you work for it.”

The prac­tice of per­am­bu­la­tion will in­evitably re­veal Mel­bourne’s strong suit in street art, a sub­ject with which the city has an un­easy re­la­tion­ship. Only re­cently the coun­cil or­dered the re­moval of a work by lauded artist Vin­cent Fan­tauzzo, while a piece from shad­owy UK-based artist Banksy fa­mously fell vic­tim to an overzeal­ous cleaner.

Hosier Lane is the flash­point of the street-art scene. Look back to­wards Flin­ders Street for the money shot: the hon­ey­comb steel and glass of Fed­er­a­tion Square’s The Atrium, sand­wiched be­tween stern 19th-cen­tury walls. ACDC Lane and Duck­board Place are among other trib­u­taries also af­ford­ing aerosol riches.

Street artist Kaff-eine swapped her ca­reer as a pub­lic ser­vant for art sev­eral years ago and hasn’t looked back. Look out for her trade­mark whim­si­cal fig­ure high up on Rut­ledge Lane. Her own favourite piece is by Ger­man duo Her­akut, in Fitzroy North, op­po­site the Ed­in­burgh Gar­dens on Brunswick Street: a fey, two-storey im­age of a girl rid­ing a mon­key – “It’s beau­ti­ful, poignant, pow­er­ful street art” – that pro­vides an ar­rest­ing back­drop to the fullthroated sup­port of grass­roots foot­ball on the Fitzroy Reds’ home ground each win­ter week­end.

Even art of a more cod­i­fied kind em­braces the city’s love of the unique. In the well-heeled, leafy sub­urb of Kew, the Lyon House­mu­seum (ly­on­house mu­ is an ap­point­ment-only gallery where one of the largest pri­vate col­lec­tions of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian art is dis­played in the home of ar­chi­tect and owner Cor­bett Lyon. Once you’ve di­gested the thrill of works by the likes of Howard Arkley, Polly Bor­land and Cal­lum Mor­ton, you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate Lyon’s clever ploy to dis­so­ci­ate art from the tra­di­tional gallery.

On that note, you might also want to visit Mor­ton’s red scaf­fold­ing-like in­stal­la­tion boldly fram­ing the door­way of St Kilda’s Bar Di Sta­sio (, a wickedly in­vei­gling kind of place where peo­ple pop in for a quick drink, only to emerge five hours later. Bon vi­vant owner Ron­nie Di Sta­sio can of­ten be found sit­ting at the bar with his poo­dle, Roscoe. The bar-restau­rant is re­ally Mel­bourne in a nut­shell: art, booze and the best spiced pi­geon cherry pie you’ll ever eat. What more could you ask for?

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