After architectural studies in Capetown, Rob practiced as an architect in Zimbabwe, mostly designing private houses. After one year military service (designing a mine-proof air force vehicle!), he became somewhat disillusioned, and joined the innovative Oxford Brookes urban design course. Deciding to emigrate to Australia, Rob’s visa specified that he must work in either Sydney or Brisbane. The Queensland of Joh Bielke Peterson had too many similarities to the political culture he was leaving, so Sydney it was. But just for seven months, where he designed schools. Then a colleague from Oxford Brookes, Geoff Floyd, brought his attention to a review of the Melbourne City Council Strategy Plan.
Rob jumped at this opportunity to work with MCC, and soon found himself drinking coffee in Lygon Street. Melbourne was not what he expected. He knew it had a European background, but its cosmopolitan cultural life came as a real surprise. He was also impressed by the quality of the architecture and the public realm. With a mix of fear and therapy, Rob’s first step in Melbourne was to do a figure-ground drawing of the central city – it was a fundamental stepping stone to his understanding of Melbourne’s public realm. He talked with many people, and he listened to what they had to say about the important qualities of Melbourne. Out of it came the very influential ‘Grids and Greenery’ report – and the basis of his work for the past 20 years improving that public realm.
Council commitment to public realm
Rob says that the critical factor in those years in the mid 1980s was the commitment of senior officers and local councillors, and State politicians such as Planning Minister Evan Walker. They were prepared to take risks to achieve their goal to improve the city for people. Added to this was the creative opportunism: an excess of central city office space in the late 1980s which led to the Postcode 3000 residential initiative resulting in 8000 units over 15 years, and the removal of railyards which enable the construction of Birrarung Maar Park.
The MCC Technical Notes series guides incremental changes of lanes, trees, kerbs, street furniture, and the ‘housekeeping’ aspects of the public domain and reinforce Melbourne’s strengths, and the dominant blue stone provides a canvas for colourful arts and culture activities. Rob is proud of the quiet way in which 35 hectares of road asphalt have become part of the pedestrian environment (don’t tell VicRoads!) – with trees, 400 sidewalk cafes, and property value increase in places such as Swanston Street. Rob says, “Good streets equals a good city”, and notes the current weakness of Melbourne’s Southbank area in this respect.
Lack of State Government commitment
Melbourne City Council has continually backed its in-house planning and design team, which Rob sees as being vital to enable the continuity which led to the Council receiving the inaugural Prime Minister’s Australia Award for Urban Design Excellence in 1996. He contrasts this with the lack of strength and continuity of commitment to urban design at State Government level where he says. “There’s not even a Government Architect to advocate for quality design”. Rob sees his work as a team effort: strategic alliances with architects and urban designers and others who work outside the ‘silos’, with a shared way of thinking about the public realm.
So what’s next? Rob, as Director of City Projects, Arts and Culture, says he has the best client in the world, with politicians and the administration sharing a creative agenda – and providing $40 million a year to improve the city. Congratulations, Rob and good luck for the next 20 years.