Emporium Melbourne: the price of progress

Melbourne’s latest shopping centre, the reinvented “Emporium Melbourne” opened its doors recently. Everybody’s talking about it, from breathless promoters of consumerism right through to  heritage and architecture commentators.

Here’s my bit, no cash prizes for guessing which side of the opening day shopper queue I fall on.

Didn’t we already have an Emporium?

Why yes, Myer’s Lonsdale Street store was “The Emporium” but when conjuring up something new is too hard, why not simply “re‑imagine” something old.

The new Emporium Melbourne occupies the site of Myer’s Lonsdale Street store and the remainder of the block east of that store up to Caledonian Lane.  That area includes several separate titles on Lonsdale and Little Bourke Streets, plus two laneways (Arcade Alley and Lynch Place). All of these buildings have been facaded, or entirely demolished. The laneways were sold to the developer (this is becoming quite common for the City Of Melbourne ) and their space incorporated into Emporium’s retail space.

The most notable building demolished was Lonsdale House which stood at the Lonsdale Street end of Caledonian Lane.

Caledonian Lane was, in that Melbourne way, a tourist attraction in its own right mainly due to the extensive stencil and graffiti work and the existence of St Jerome’s cafe. St Jerome’s had a small space on Caledonian Lane towards the rear of Lonsdale House, plus an outdoor area which was actually part of the lanes that once connected Lonsdale and Little Bourke.

Here’s a historical flickr gallery of the Caledonian Lane area when St Jerome’s operated.

St Jerome’s existed at a time when we preferred to use the term ‘bohemian’ over the less precise blanket label ‘hipster’ to describe venues that attracted a clientele seeking an alternative to the mainstream, even if their lives were by and large mainstream. It may not have been everyone’s idea of a great place to visit, but St.Jerome’s place in Melbourne’s cultural development is significant and much of how we make recreational use of the city today was defined by it and a handful of other CBD venues.

So, they came in like a wrecking ball?

They sure did, the entire Emporium site is surrounded by the facades of buildings that once occupied the space, (or entirely new buildings). We are told to be thankful that we at least have that.

The developers were granted the right to bulldoze Lonsdale House to allow wider driveway access to the Emporium and to incorporate an entrance into the centre unconstrained by the restrictions of buildings that happened to be already there. (The Age, July 27 2009)

And how have we benefited from the demolition of this building? Well, I can’t say. Lonsdale House was disused, and Caledonian Lane was (although not without character) largely a bin alley. However even after this massive redevelopment, Caledonian Lane seems destined to be no more than an access way for commercial vehicles. It’s a wound on the edge of what is now a very large building. 

The complete destruction of Lonsdale House is quite clearly a huge loss for Melbourne – a testament to the lack of imagination of retailers, land owners, commercial architects and the spineless acts of city planning bureaucracy. Even in this era of rampant Facadism, a way to keep Lonsdale House remained unreachable.

But surely it’s not all bad?

I’m not suggesting we should be making our own garments from hemp we grow in our backyards. A city needs to provide for all those who make use of it, selling of goods. is an important part of this.  I’m criticising the unnecessary deletion of heritage for that lesser need.

Beyond the facade we are delivered a series of passageways which although thankfully incorporate natural light extensively remain a dizzying barrage of sameness made navigable solely by the variety added by tenants.

It has resulted in a new set of Melbourne clichés. It’s as if the designers sought to maximise the ability of casual social media era photographers to capture and share visually appealing moments.

After a few walks through Emporium, here are a sample of the sort of photos that the environment demands be taken. You’ve most probably already seen similar on Instagram. Variations on these will no doubt appear but they will largely be the result of different types of camera, lenses or processing.

Emporium Melbourne Interior

Emporium Melbourne Interior

Emporium Melbourne Interior

Emporium Melbourne Interior

Emporium Melbourne Interior

Hey, that looks all right

Sure, it’s not “ugly”, but does it have Melbourneness? Could a new development have the features that make Melbourne a consumable and diverse city?  We’ve seen large developments like QV remain unsuccessful even though they’ve devoted some of their space to open areas and new “laneways” working their way into the centre.

This hasn’t worked because it’s not possible to plan and manage the sorts of lanes and points of access that make a city feel alive. That give the user a thrill, that make them feel that they are exploring rather than being funnelled into a retail area.

Let’s consider Degraves Street, just one of the parts of Melbourne that attract people, without any overseeing “management”. Sure it may be food and beverage that attracts people there today but its proximity to infrastructure, ease of access and an evolving and fast reacting mix of services offered that have made it the place people think to go to.

Degraves and Centre Place also incorporate things that managed centres would avoid. There are random elements such as the barber on Centre Place and the Christian Science Reading Room on Degraves. These are not the result of a corporation managing the “retail mix”or seeking to maximise return on investment by ensuring high earning tenants are in place returning the highest possible rentals. But these out of place shops are curiosities, that add interest, even if they are not “interesting” to everyone. (It wasn’t that long ago that Centre Place contained a Polish language bookshop).

Attempts to siphon off some of the success of Centre Place by adjoining developments have failed.  271 Collins Street broke an opening into the end of Centre Place several years ago which has done nothing to draw the Centre Place crowds into its doors – it’s just another shiny wound.

Emporium Melbourne Exterior
Emporium Melbourne Lonsdale Street facades.
Caledonian Lane
Caledonian Lane, view of the backs of Swanston Street tenancies are all that remains of the pre development use of the laneway.
Emporium Melbourne Interior
The (nicely) reconstructed walkways connecting the Myer and David Jones Bourke Street stores to Emporium reveal that facade no longer matches the floor levels.

Here’s somebody clearly enjoying the view from Emporium. (one of only a few opportunities you get to look out from the new development)

The view from Emporium

Curtin House from Emporium Melbourne
Here’s the best view from Emporium.

This view towards Curtin House on Swanston Street is from where Lonsdale House once stood. From here you can see the warts and all Melbourne that keeps people buying Jetstar tickets and jumping on a Zone 2 train. The idea of re‑purposing rather than rebuilding is evident wherever you look.

This success is not the result of stick in the mud stubbornness, that can be as bad as the wrecking ball. Heritage doesn’t have to mean strict historical preservation, but development should respect heritage, whether it’s in a physical or social form. It should make it more available for those who seek it, understand it, respect it or who one day will.

This respect to heritage isn’t as simple as researching the font or colours originally used in a building, or hack-sawing off a piece of the balustrade to include in the history nook on the second floor (for real, it’s actually there). These things should be a starting point, a kernel rather than a band aid stuck over the cut until you’ve had time to forget the trauma.

Good luck keeping what’s left Melbourne, because what we are building seems less and less likely to ever be worthy of preservation.

More Links

Richard McKenzie – Emporium unboxing video
Matthew Joseph – images of Emporium


  1. Hi,

    your analysis of the Emporium development absolutely nails the development v heritage issue facing Melbourne (and pretty much everywhere else as well). The Heritage discourse is by nature focused on the ‘significant’ buildings and places under threat. However, it is the insignificant background buildings and places and the way that these are used and accrete meaning and feeling over time creating an understanding of ‘Melbourne’ (that is conveyed as a pastiche in real estate marketing) that are most likely to be lost.
    Great work.


  2. I will be returning to Melbourne after leaving 30 years ago. It makes me so sad to see so many beautiful old buildings being destroyed. When I return I plan on emulating my hero the French photographer Eugene Atget and documenting what remains of the City before developers destroy it.

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