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City Square

Early critics of Melbourne's grid plan were unimpressed by Surveyor Hoddle's lack of attention to the provision of public space. The anonymous author of an 1850 pamphlet, Melbourne as it is, and as it ought to be, spared no opportunity to censure the grid's architects. William Westgarth (Victoria, late Australia Felix, 1853) wrote that Melbourne's 'poverty-stricken design has been since almost uniformly adhered to', while Samuel Mossman (The gold regions of Australia, 1852) lamented that 'Squares and circuses - which add so much to the beauty and healthful circulation of air throughout all towns - have been overlooked greatly in the original design'. The Port Phillip Patriot had advocated a carriage drive, promenade and 'two or three more public squares or circular plots', and a main complaint of the anonymous critic was of the absence in Melbourne of 'one of the first requirements of a town', a central square. A square, surrounded with colonnades or arcades, was considered to relieve any monotony of streets, to ventilate the town in a hot climate, to 'offer an agreeable promenade, a pleasant rendezvous ... a kind of public exchange'. Such a square should form the seat of municipal authority, and might be surrounded with Town Hall and General Post Office and adorned with fountain, statue and monumental column recording the city's history. The appropriate siting of such a Great Square, it was argued, was the block bounded by Collins, Swanston, Bourke and Elizabeth streets.

That Melbourne lacked a square or squares may be put down, not to a planning tradition that had no place for them, but to the absolute allegiance of its architects to commercial forces. Darling's Regulations, dedicated to a democracy of personal profit, had no provision for squares and Hoddle had no reason to vary this prescription. Subsequent calls for the creation of a square foundered both on the absence of an unencumbered site and the fear of its possible uses. A recommendation by Peter Kerr for the demolition of the White Hart Inn and Salle de Valentino on the corner of Bourke and Spring streets to form a forecourt to Parliament House, and a similar attempt in 1929, were reputedly frustrated by the fear of such a square being used for public protest. In 1886 the Melbourne City Council (MCC) wished to prevent public assembly in the Market Square, but the police could not act unless riotous conduct occurred.

A host of city planning schemes through the 20th century mooted the possibility of a new city square as a place of civic assembly and city beautification: Cathedral Square (1925), Melbourne Town Planning Commission (1929), Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Planning Scheme (1954), William Lempriere Scheme (1961). E.F Borrie reported to the MCC in the early 1960s on the prospect of creating a new civic square. After much debate, a site was selected at the south-east corner of Collins and Swanston streets, and by 1968 MCC had purchased properties on the site (the Victoria Building and City Club Hotel). The council also purchased the Regent Theatre in 1969 for demolition, but pressure from trade union and heritage groups thwarted its plan. Denton, Corker & Marshall won a national design competition for the new square, which was opened in 1980, featuring a graffiti wall, water features, the relocated Burke and Wills Memorial, and the controversial Yellow Peril sculpture. A popular site for festivals and celebrations, and processions and demonstrations, the square was re-landscaped in the late 1990s, with the area of public space reduced, and officially reopened in 2000. The opening of Federation Square in 2002 has provided alternative civic space in Central Melbourne.

Andrew May