The Melbourne Hand

In 1978, the Victorian Government was looking for a way to set Melbourne apart as an international tourist destination. They had ambitions of standing alongside Paris with its Eiffel Tower and New York with the Statue of Liberty. From this, they put a call out to anyone (international architects to home enthusiasts) keen enough to enter what became the Melbourne Landmark Idea Competition.

Entrants were to design something spectacular in the truest sense of the word – something to leave visitors in awe of the city. The Jolimont Railway Yard (where Fed Square is now and all the way down towards the MCG) was to be the location. The planning department received over two thousand entries and short-listed forty-eight. No winner was chosen in the end. As you will see, it was reasoned that Melbourne did not need a landmark to set it apart…and most designs were too expensive or impractical. You can view the applications at the Public Records Office of Victoria, but here are four that I thought were spectacularly ambitious.


#1: The Melbourne Hand (VPRS2869/P2, unit 1626… if you want to check it out at PROV yourself)

American designer, Michael Hilton, thought an enormous hand in the centre of Melbourne would be just the thing the city needed to stand out. Their artist’s rendering of the design was “not intended to be literal, but only suggestive”. I can’t help but think that their aspirations were still pretty overblown. They suggested that blue tinted glass be used for the hand’s nails to create observation decks, with space for a restaurant in the thumb as well. The ‘skin’ was to be made with a weathering metal to create a shining brown patina. The designers explained that their application “symbolises nothing specifically, but many things, generally”. It’s a little difficult to tell whether they were being facetious. What would they have done if the design was actually accepted? How do you order a gigantic glass finger nail? While admitting that the design had no real symbolism, Michael Hilton stressed that the hand’s “ultimate worth lies in its enduring gravity, offset with a touch of whimsy”. They weren’t wrong.


#2: The Transparent Sphere Surrounded by Igloos (VPRS2869/P2, unit 59)

J.K. Innes described themselves as a ‘retired enthusiast’ in their application for a sphere (300m in diameter!), surrounded by smaller glass ‘igloos’ (50m in diameter). Their entry consists of a wooden mock-up board, accompanied by a hand-written document in twenty parts that details how Jolimont Railway Yard might be covered in concrete to make way for this design. It is my favourite application just for its unabashed gusto.


Ready? The plans included:

  • A humungous hemispherical ‘saucer’/ ‘acquasphere’ that would constantly be covered with water and flood-lit by coloured lights.
  • A marine aquarium, to be cared for by the Victorian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
  • Smaller igloo structures surrounding the main building, to be built with the help of Eskimos visiting from North America who could “do stone carvings on some of the walled area”.
  • Ample parking for residents and office workers.
  • Two Cobb and Co. coaches to be “drawn by mounted police horses in two abreast along paths” surrounding the main igloo Andand gardens.
  • An Australia Post Branch “reminiscent of the days of Cobb and Co.” with workers in “vintage uniform”.
  • Historical performances of what life was like back in the days of bushrangers…including a staged “robbing of the mail coach” once daily.
  • A roof-top botanic garden.
  • …The final kicker (and perhaps the main reason why it was not accepted), is that the design admits the building would also need its own power station in order to be viable.



#3: Flying Horse (VPRS2869/P2, unit 17)

You know things are getting weird when the application for a ‘flying horse’ actually sounds reasonable. Italian designers, Primo Zanca, proposed a large sloping building that visitors could ski off. They hoped it would be a “permanent Luna Park on Swanston St”… perhaps not knowing that Melbourne would make an unlikely ski lodge destination.


#4: A Crystal Pyramid (VPRS2869/P2, unit 5)

Volpato Design Group Pty Ltd proposed three upside-down pyramid structures, complete with “the Hanging Gardens of Pyramide Town”. It was to provide space for around 15,000 residents and 10,000 office workers…and included a panorama restaurant (they were a trend). There would be a lake running through the centre of the three main structures, running off into the Yarra.



Some of the designs were featured in an exhibition last year at the City Gallery, ‘A History of the Future’, curated by Clare Williamson. The exhibition catalogue can be found here.

You can access the Landmark Competition Drawings collection at PROV (VPRS2869) here.


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