One of Melbourne’s most historic meeting places received some overdue attention with the recent launch of the Sandridge Bridge precinct. This section of the Yarra River has been the site of countless meetings of peoples and cultures over time, although the significance of the site has been largely understated for many years. The new precinct now celebrates this history through public spaces, artwork and installations located on and near the bridge.
Jointly funded by the State Government and the City of Melbourne, and designed and managed by the City’s Design and Culture division, the redevelopment of this precinct includes a new linear public space on the north bank, a refurbished Queensbridge Square on the south bank, and the superbly adapted Sandridge Rail Bridge incorporating a major new artwork linking the two.
Originally, the area was of great importance to the local Indigenous people due a waterfall at this point on the Yarra, just above the current Queens Bridge. Walking across a rock ledge above this waterfall enabled the coming together of the different ‘nations’ for trade and cultural exchange.
The existing Sandridge Rail Bridge, completed in 1888, is the third successive rail bridge at this location, and is historically significant as an early example of a large, steel plate girder bridge. It was constructed on its skewed alignment over the Yarra to provide a direct rail link between the city and Station Pier at Sandridge (now Port Melbourne) and St Kilda. For many newly arrived immigrants, the bridge provided their first view of the city when travelling to Flinders Street Station and the nearby Immigration House. Just downstream, in a large pool that became known as the turning basin, John Fawkner’s schooner, The Enterprize, landed and his men encountered the local Indigenous people for the first time. Therefore the site has long been a natural and cultural meeting place.
Wrestling with a variety of ideas
The Bridge was permanently closed to passenger rail services in 1987 when replaced by an alternative light rail route. With the demolition of the brick viaduct and the rail line south of the bridge, it had since remained unused. In subsequent years, State Governments wrestled with a variety of ideas and potential uses for the heritage listed structure, including a ‘London Eye’ style Ferris wheel and a shopping strip reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio. Eventually the simple idea of re-establishing the bridge’s role as a link across the Yarra River was chosen. With the subtle insertion of a ramp along the eastern side down onto the south bank, the bridge has become a new pedestrian and cycle path, reinforcing the link between the high quality public spaces along both banks. The western side reveals the restored metal skeleton for rail and bridge enthusiasts. Between the two, the installation of ‘The Travellers’ has more than simply tied the various components together.
‘The Travellers’ is a series of ten large (around 8m in height) polished stainless steel sculptures designed by Lebanese artist Nadim Karam. The first figure, representing the Indigenous peoples of Victoria, stands fixed on a huge basalt boulder in Queensbridge Square. Each of the other nine sculptures located on the bridge represents a different period of immigration to Australia, ranging from the beginning of white settlement up to present day immigration. These nine figures are mounted on travelling bogies and move along the length of the bridge in a procession which recalls the train journey from the bridge’s previous incarnation.
Complementing ‘The Travellers’ is a series of 128 glass panels running the length of the bridge. Eight panels provide statistical data on Indigenous peoples and languages, and the remaining panels provide details on the immigrants that have migrated from more than 150 countries to become Australians. This statistical information was provide by Dr James Jupp, author of The Australian People, and is based on 2001 census data.
Collectively, these new major public spaces and art installations offer a dynamic tribute to this meeting place and historic crossroad. The themes of meeting and the journey prevail throughout, and a broken link is re-established with the Sandridge Bridge reintegrated back into the fabric of the city.
Also in UDFQ 75: September 2006:
- The Suburban Backyard - its meaning and use in the contemporary suburb
- Interculturalism and the built environment
- Is money all that matters in Sin City?
- What value is urban design?
- ‘Petrol hits $5 a litre’
- Urban Design Fast Track WA
- Sustainable cities need strong local government
- Prestigious design competition for Antarctic Gateway
- New King George Square goes sub-tropical