A typical morning in the beachside suburb of St Kilda in Melbourne will have its sandy streets bustling with the area’s famous mix of grit and glamour. This art-deco labyrinth of cafés, bars, and creative spaces is the kind of spot that makes Melbourne the nation’s cultural capital. One sight familiar to any St Kilda local is the spectacular Palais Theatre but at 87 years old, its fading beauty has long been in need of some love and care.
That care will soon arrive via the surprise win of the centre-left Labor party in the state of Victoria, which means that St Kilda’s Palais Theatre is set to receive a AU$27m (€18.4m) facelift. It’s welcome news for many locals but this is just one of many times when a local cultural hub has scraped dangerously close to unwelcome urban overdevelopment.
It is vital to pay attention to a city’s cultural heritage. Of course, easy public transportation and low crime statistics make for a liveable city, but without the energy of great art and culture pumping through a place’s veins even great cities can seem a little anaemic.
Melbourne residents take pride in their hometown’s place in the lists of the world’s most liveable cities. Monocle placed it at number three in our own most recent Quality of Life survey but it’s a badge of honour that comes with its own share of baggage. In recent times many much-loved cultural icons have been lost: the Greater Union cinema, a relic of 1980s multiplex excess and a major hub for the Melbourne International Film Festival, has now become a high-rise hotel complex. Just up the road in the city centre, the old 1930s Palace Theatre, just a stroll from the state parliament, is now also the scene of a hotel development. And directly opposite that, the iconic Windsor Hotel is the subject of plans to expand upwards.
There are many cities in the world that are desperate for exactly this kind of constant redevelopment. And with its great network of trams, a rich music scene and superb coffee spots it feels like Melbourne has truly come of age. But this must not arrive at the expense of its artistic roots.
Unless Australia’s southern capital finds a way to balance its cultural heritage with its urban sprawl, those flocking to Melbourne might soon question why there are so many hotel rooms and restaurants but so few other reasons to be there.
Ben Rylan is a producer for Monocle 24.