Lessons from an Underpass Park
By Matt Novacevski
As far as placemaking goes, it’s at least a 9/10 for difficulty. The hard edges and a relentless hum stand out while the bland coldness of concrete closes in, flexing its materiality over all else.
Yes, it’s the freeway underpass. An oft-despised or forgotten side effect of car-centric modernist planning, it has a habit of appearing near river banks. The underpass is what is left when the freeway forges hard barriers, prioritising movement to somewhere else and creating a distinctly modernist kind of nowhere all too common in our cities.
In Griffith Review 60, Tony Birch writes evocatively of the erasure of place that accompanied the Eastern Freeway’s construction along the banks of Birrarung, the Yarra River, in the early 1970s. Birch describes a destruction of ‘country’, the “obliteration” of a vital section of the river. For the lonely soul of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1992 hit Under the Bridge, the underpass is at once refuge and the scene of a fina
As placemaking concerns itself with injecting meaning and life back into the negative, lost spaces of modernism, the underpass presents particular challenges and limitations. These places are almost uniformly cold, uninviting and characterised by a sensory bombardment of blankness and traffic hum.
In Auckland, a city long grappling with a legacy of motorways, various approaches have been tried: public art and sculptures to inject layers of colour and whimsy, and even cafes and small stores built on to the edges of concrete pylons to create an active edge.
In Cremorne, a Melbourne suburb marked at all angles by major roads, rail lines, rat-running traffic and highway underpasses, a partnership between Cremorne.Co and RMIT University’s communication design course has trialled a pop-up market in a challenging triangle section under an underpass, bordered by yet more major roads and (once again) the Yarra River. There are many lessons we can learn from this endeavour.
On one wall, the show is stolen by Rakali, the cheeky native water rat that would have been common along these banks. Rakali’s story is told through a mural and a storyboard, reminding us that here too is life; that time and the stories of the river below can even reverberate through concrete.
Forming an edge to the river is the market itself: cheery craft stalls and a small community library adorned with fairy lights illuminating the night. On a concrete wall, a projector plays stories of Cremorne, literally inscribing ripples of meaning as the noise of conversation competes with the traffic hum above.
The market may be packed up, but its memory and the homage to Rakali remain. That’s the thing about blank concrete: it’s a canvas for our imagination and an invitation to make place anew by bringing forward hidden layers of time and story.