Grocon's Portrait building, Swanston Square, Melbourne (source: Stephen Rowley)

Portrait, Grocon’s new 31 storey apartment building on Melbourne’s former CUB site, seems like the perfect design to terminate the city centre’s important civic spine along Swanston St.

It’s visually arresting and culturally important: it celebrates the life of indigenous leader and artist William Barak who it’s believed was present when a treaty was signed in 1835 with Melbourne’s founder, John Batman.

Yet as the first exhibt snapped yesterday by planner Stephen Rowley shows, the building’s lower levels are obscured by RMIT’s new Design Hub when viewed from Swanston St, near or far. Mr Rowley tweeted:

William Barak building is beautiful, but did nobody twig they didn’t have the corner site?

What’s curious is Grocon’s original rendering of Portrait in 2010 showed the Design Hub as either located behind Portrait or somehow transparent (see second exhibit).

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It turns out, however, that Portrait is not on the axis of the spine; the axis continues through the site as open space. It terminates on the far side in a modest proposed building with no pretensions to balancing the grandeur of the Shrine at the other end.

This fading, waning or fizzling is one way of dealing with the design challenge of such an important civic construct. Yet it can’t work because “petering out” doesn’t capture attention; the eye is inevitably drawn to the right by Portrait and Design Hub and, in due course, no doubt to the left hand side by the building proposed for that part of the site.

An arguably more obvious solution would’ve been to locate a building with exemplary “landmark” design qualities and cultural associations squarely on the axis. It seems to me the architects of Portrait, ARM, have come up with one that could’ve filled the bill if it’d been located 20 or 30 metres to the left.

In any event, Portrait and Design Hub make odd neighbours. They have entirely different architectural vocabularies. One’s curving, grungy and literary; the other is austere, formal and perfect. One’s alive, one’s abstract. Despite their proximity and similar ages they don’t “talk” to each other.

In fact they’re both buildings that need lots of clean air around them; they’re loners. This is particularly true of the Portrait’s southern facade because it has to be read as a picture.

I think the streetscape would’ve benefited if both buildings shared a little more DNA. But most of all I think this was a lost opportunity to create something significant. There should’ve been bolder action to address the spine; it should’ve been approached as if it’s Melbourne’s equivalent of Bennelong Point.

Render of Portrait building as proposed in 2010 with RMIT's Design Hub seemingly invisible (source: The Age)