Melbourne architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM) have designed many of the key civic buildings in their home city in recent years. Their work includes the MTC and Recital Centre, the Hamer Hall redevelopment, Melbourne Central, RMIT Storey Hall, and the new Swanston Square tower that features an abstracted image of Indigenous elder William Barak on its façade. Remarkably this set of key projects, as well as the Shrine of Remembrance, all sit along (or just off) Melbourne’s ‘spine’ – the Swanston Street/St Kilda Road ‘axis’. An axis is a strong straight organising line, and a favourite technique in urban design and city making.
A building that sits ‘on axis’ is in the middle of this line, becomes highly visible and important. The original Shrine building has done this since its completion in 1934; Swanston Square has recently bookended the axis at the top of the city. Today we are looking at the Shrine’s history and recent expansion by ARM, which deals with both its unique location and the idea of building memory.
The need to remember the losses of the First World War (1914-18) was felt deeply after, leading to thousands of war memorials being built across the country, from small towns to our largest cities. They are often in prominent locations and the Shrine is perhaps the most visible of all. The original building was designed by Phillip Hudson and James Wardrop, who both served in the war. Like a lot of buildings in the interwar period it’s a mash-up of architectural ideas – here grand temple fronts and stepped pyramid create an ‘in the round’ building that can be seen from every side. It draws from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Turkey (long since destroyed) which was also capped by a stepped pyramid. Egypt’s pyramids are also remembered here – the scene of the diggers training next to Giza as seen in the film Gallipoli comes to mind.
Many monuments are like sculpture, they have no interiors, but the Shrine is both monument and building. Originally it had really just two rooms inside, the main Sanctuary (with its famous beam of light) and the underground Crypt. The recent work on the Shrine, completed in two stages (2003 and 2014), has massively expanded the amount of floor space. The key challenge was to really not see any of this and certainly not to mess with the heritage protected views of the Shrine on the axis.
In 2001, ARM and landscape architects Rush Wright Associates were appointed to master plan and implement the renewal. It’s not the first time the Shrine has been updated; following the Second World War (1939-45) major landscape works created the large axial plaza in front on the Shrine, strengthening its connection to the city and axis. This time around, the landscape has also been the answer, as the grounds surrounding and directly beneath the Shrine have been fully utilised and extensively reworked in its latest reimagining. Essentially the new works dig out the artificial hill the original building sits on, creating new entries and space under the grass for a visitor centre, lecture theatre and facilities.
A whole lot of unused space was literally unearthed – rubble filled voids under the steps were left for over 60 years and are now open to all. These spaces are the heart of the new work, and create the ‘Galleries of Remembrance’ filled with artefacts and visible history of Australia’s war efforts. The new galleries leave exposed a multitude of existing chunky brick columns and concrete beams. These are truly moving spaces, ones that don’t compete with the original two rooms but rejoice in their undergroundness.
The new ‘building’ bits visible at ground level are really landscape insertions – four wonderful, jagged courtyards that let the new lower levels breathe. Before the expansion, the Shrine had problems getting people inside – the massive flight of stairs wasn’t good for veterans and the less mobile. The new courtyards provide access at ground level, bringing visitors up inside the building. This effectively reverses the circulation, the Crypt is now a space seen on the way to the Sanctuary rather than the other way around. Now a visit to the Shrine often finishes with coming out of the Sanctuary at the original entry, now a grand back door looking over the city.
Each of the four new courtyards has the same shape but a different character. The northern two were finished is 2003, the southern two last year, completing the symmetry of the new works and reinforcing the lines of symmetry through the Shrine. The two western courtyards are sunken gardens, within a wider network of gardens that form Melbourne’s Domain. The two eastern courtyards are for entry – the general public come through the north-east courtyard, a solemn entry space with the words ‘lest we forget’ inscribed in the red pigmented concrete walls. The use of sunken courtyards recalls both the trenches (a war fought in the ground), but also the neighbouring Sidney Myer Music Bowl (1959), which also pushes itself into the land to find space.
A giant red poppy is pinned to the city rather than the soldier, shading the south-east courtyard, a dedicated entry for school groups. The Terrace Courtyard to the south-west recalls Australia’s misadventures in Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s, in its use of south-east Asian planting. It also features the names of every Victorian town, and embedded into its concrete walls is the pixelated camouflage used today by Australian soldiers (the wars go on).
The outward facing sides of the courtyard walls use the same stone as of the original building, their angled nature creates reverence back to the original. Here at the Shrine, ARM and co have restrained themselves formally but maximised the symbolism and meaning that comes with such a highly charged place – they understand what it is to be ‘on axis’.