For those interested in studying the relationships between architecture and urbanism, Melbourne, Australia, provides a good example of a city that deftly blends the two. Visitors to Melbourne's main thoroughfares—or high streets, as they are called there—will witness urban spaces reminiscent of many Western cities. Sneak back into one of the many alleylike spaces hidden within the downtown blocks, however, and another world emerges.
Built during the Victorian era, Melbourne's laneways enabled the movement of horses and supplies though the densest parts of the city. Today, these intimate passages have become destinations, offering a vibrant life of commerce and entertainment not visible from the main streets. The laneways come in a wide variety of types—from gritty, graffiti-tagged alleys to delicate, glass-covered arcades. Because of their connective role, laneways are not discrete spaces, but rather flow into one another as well as the wider streets beyond. However, due to the laneways' intimate scale, program, and distinctive materiality, they embody an architectural character not found in other types of urban space.
The laneways are notable not just because of their successful contribution to urban life, but also for their positive influence on Australian architecture. Many buildings in downtown Melbourne have responded in kind, with designs that extend the connective tissue of the laneways within their private domains. It is not uncommon to find building footprints carved up by arcades that slice from one end to another, connecting different sides of the block as well as different levels and interior courtyards. This phenomenon occurs not only in retail buildings, but in commercial, institutional, and residential ones as well.
The result is a far more creative and energizing experience than that provided by the expected lobby+elevator core layout found in the typical urban building today. Non-Australian architects, planners, and developers would therefore benefit by looking closely at Melbourne's laneways, as they provide a rare example of a pragmatic contemporary urban network that is also highly attuned to the human scale.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.