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Living by the Water: From London to Melbourne

Stephen Crafti, leading architecture and design writer, compares the parallel development of London’s Canary Wharf and Melbourne’s Docklands, and reflects on how each has found its voice.


Sydney has its harbour, but many of Australia’s cities such as Perth and Melbourne, look to their rivers, whether it’s the Swan River in Perth or the Yarra River, in the case of Melbourne. So when Docklands started to develop in the 1990s, it’s not surprising that people were attracted to the water’s edge. After the Docklands Stadium (now Etihad Stadium) was completed in 1996, there was greater impetus to develop this unique waterfront land. With a strong move towards residential development, one that combined public art and some of the areas significant maritime and industrial buildings, the precinct is now a drawcard for Melbourne.


Melbourne’s Docklands is unlike other wharf-like developments, such as Canary Wharf in London, where the starting point was to create a business precinct. Canary Wharf became one of the city’s financial centres, initially with 1.5 million square metres of office and retail space provided. “People who did live there had to get out at weekends because it felt quite isolated and lonely. A lot of bars and restaurants only opened Monday to Friday,” says James Hyman of Cluttons real estate agency, of when Canary Wharf was in its infancy (The Wall Street Journal).

This is no longer the case with now more than 100,000 people working in Canary Wharf and in 2014, planning permission was granted for additional offices and shops. Given that the developments at Canary Wharf started in the late 1980s, there’s a uniform architectural style throughout (unlike Melbourne’s Docklands) that has evolved over a number of years. Also unlike Melbourne’s Docklands, Canary Wharf was not initially conceived for residential purposes, but essentially as a business district. It’s only now that residential towers are moving forward, with leading architecture firms shaping the skyline: a 68-storey tower, including 888 apartments, designed by Foster + Partners is due for completion in 2020, while Hertzog & de Meuron have also designed 500 apartments within a 57-storey tower at Canary Wharf. The new Crossrail, an east-west train link offering a direct service to London’s West End and to Heathrow airport, will continue to make Canary Wharf that much more desirable, both as a work and residential precinct.


With Docklands starting out as a residential enclave, rather than primarily as a business centre (although Docklands has now drawn many of the city’s businesses to relocate), residential amenities such as schools, libraries, shops, restaurants and cafes have been at the forefront of its success. Diverse residential architecture such as Banksia, designed by McBride Charles Ryan, and Elm & Stone, by DKO Architects, will further enhance NewQuay as one of Melbourne’s most vibrant residential hubs.

Unlike Sydney, which has a number of waterfront suburbs, Melbourne has until recently been recognised for its other attributes such as its many laneways, wide boulevards and generous parklands. Those fortunate enough to live in Docklands enjoy water views equal to any great harbour city in the world, with the universal delight of seeing yachts bobbing on the water from one’s living room or bedroom. Aqui Promenade, designed by Woods Bagot, offers panoramic views of Melbourne’s skyline in addition to landscaped parklands below; Banksia residents benefit from the same caliber of amenities.

“A substantial urban green space provides a central character to what will be the heart of NewQuay,” says Andrew Buxton, Managing Director MAB Corporation. A scenic boardwalk adjacent to the parklands will draw in the city’s skyline, as well as it ever-changing marina.


When the idea of apartments at Docklands was first mooted in the mid-1980s, the demographics predominantly comprised young professionals wanting to leave the work commute behind. However, fast-forward to the present, and NewQuay has widened its ‘demographic net’ to include those with young families, those with adult children, empty nesters and single people who enjoy the social benefits of living on the edge of town. As well as the water views and harbourside cafes and restaurants, it’s only a short tram ride away from the Queen Victoria Market, CBD and Southbank precinct, or an easy cycle to St Kilda. Those who love their sport occupy the enviable position of being moments from Etihad Stadium. Distinct from Canary Wharf, which will have its Crossrail completed by 2019, these amenities were in place from the very beginnings of Docklands, well before any residential towers took shape.


Unlike Canary Wharf, which is just now finding its ‘voice’, those living by the water in Melbourne’s Docklands benefit from the initial vision set out by government and by MAB Corporation; a place to live in and not, as with the Canary Wharf experience, ‘a place to escape from every weekend’ after working there for the entire week. A number of the original industrial and maritime buildings were integrated within Docklands from the start of the process, giving the area a sense of history and original ‘grain’ that makes an environment that much richer from the outset. As Docklands becomes more established, even more specialist services will gravitate to the water, with the simple fact that larger populations, with broader demographics, will call Docklands home.


Stephen Crafti is a leading Melbourne architecture and design writer. Since the 1990s, he has written and commented extensively about interior design and residential architecture in books, on radio, and in numerous newspaper and magazine titles, including a regular column in The Age.


Image from the Wall Street Journal.
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