I decided to observe a space at Southern Cross Station, which is located on the western edge of the Melbourne Central Business District. At the northern end of the building, there are 41 wide stairs that connect an elevated walkway to the intersection of Swanston and Bourke Streets. What I sought to understand is how the stairs go beyond being just functional infrastructure. What are the transactional values of the space and how it contributes to the Growth Engine1 of the city?
Over one morning and one evening, I sat on the top step, looking down into the city street below. I arrived at 7.30 am, and the winter sun was reflecting off the buildings down Bourke Street. The overhead lights have already been turned off, making space dark, framing the street below. From my position to the left, there is a glass wall rising at least two storeys above the stairs. The glass is held in place by a framework of dark grey painted steel. Behind the glass wall, there are three crowded escalators, two travelling down to the street.
In the morning light, the people seem silhouetted against the grey wall behind them. To my right is another glass wall with the train station beyond. Bright yellow office modules and take away stores are directly behind the glass wall. At the end of the wall at the bottom of the stairs is a flagpole with the Australian flag hanging limp waiting for a breeze. The roof overhead is made of the same grey steel and sits high above the stairs. The roof stretches out high above the forecourt below. Concrete traffic bollards are lined up about a metre from the edge of the road in the forecourt at the bottom of the stairs.
The space is what Logan and Molotch2 would call a “fictitious commodity”. Below me on the right-hand side of the forecourt is a temporary glass case filled with colourful fashion designs to promote the upcoming fashion festival. If you stand at the bottom of the stairs looking up, you will see the advertising vinyl stickers on the risers of the steps. Each strip of vinyl graphic contributes to a giant advertisement. The space is strangely quiet. The air is filled with the sounds of car horns, regular “ding” of a tram bell as it rattles around the corner from Bourke street. The occasional muffled announcements of trains departing escapes from the Station. There seems to be a lack of voices from the passing crowd. The smell of coffee and toast float in on the breeze from nearby fast-food vendors.
While waiting for the crowds to arrive, a cleaner works his way towards me. He shuffles along with his dustpan and small broom, sweeping up dropped cigarette butts as he goes. As he gets closer, he notices my camera in my lap and asks me if I’m a photographer. After chatting for a few minutes about how he would love to be a photographer, he explained to me since arriving in Australia from India a few years ago he had worked as a cleaner. This space has become an important economic place for him. He thought that “this place is cold and hard, too many people in a hurry and very scary at night time.”
The crowds arrive in waves, dressed in dark coloured warm clothing, many staring at their phones. The fast walkers arrive first. The crowd splits, most travelling down the escalators behind the glass wall. The others walk down the steps towards the pedestrian crossing and the city below. The next wave of slower walkers arrives at the stairs. Unlike the first wave, who were all walking alone, this group have many people walking in pairs or small groups. The number of people arriving at the area at the top of the stairs slowly builds, peaking around 8.30am. It was interesting to note how many people were wearing headphones. Without the natural soundscape, would this change the sense of place?
My evening session began at 5pm as the main rush of people drained out of the city. Apart from the change in direction the most significant behaviour change from morning to evening was how people lingered at the stairs. A small number of people would sit waiting for others on the lower steps, either alone or in pairs. Some just stood waiting to meet others. I notice two people sitting on upturned milk crates behind me. They sat chatting with each other in between scrolling through their smartphones and smoking. As I went to leave, I stopped to ask if what they thought of the space. Despite being tucked next to a vending machine, they felt as if they were “in the way” and the space was no-more than place to sit and relax while they could.
I have some have experience asking those in public for permission for a photo. It is never an easy task to seek consent to encroach on personal space. Even though the stairs are under video surveillance, asking for a photo breaches that personal space. I tried to make my observations no more intrusive or unethical as the other surveillance. I used a wide-angle lens or used 2 or 3-second exposures to illustrate movement in the space. I was fortunate to have permission to photograph the workers but because this is about the space their photos were not included.
The stairs are more than a functional infrastructure. It is a place to work, study, greet a friend, rest or even seek shelter from the rain. Our connections to this space constantly broken down, each of these states of place is temporary3 yet sometimes repeats. This makes the stairs many “places” to many people, even in a single day. It is a connective and transformative space. An important space, which is part of collective spaces, that helps define Melbourne and its inhabitants.
- Watson, Sophie, and Gary Bridge. The Blackwell City Reader. Blackwell Readers in Geography 2nd edition. Blackwell Publishers 2010.
- Urban fortunes: the political economy of place. Logan, John R.; Molotch, Harvey Luskin c2007 © University of California Press
- Zukin, Sharon. Naked City : The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford University Press, 2010.