Why do we continue to prioritise grand bastions of public art and culture? How can we shift focus to impactful work that helps the least fortunate in our society? Patrick Kenny explores the issues around social equity and public space, questioning what we choose to value and celebrate.

On a crisp winter‘s day, as Melbourne Design Week draws to a close, I slip into the beautiful NGV building to explore an exhibition. On the way into the city I pass the homeless, an ever-present part of Melbourne’s CBD following the end of the COVID program to accommodate them in empty hotels.

I shed my winter jacket upon entering the NGV. The warmth envelops me, almost uncomfortably so. This vast building is being heated to a cosy room temperature for the hundred-odd patrons visiting on a Sunday afternoon, and the 30+ staff there to assist them. I can’t help but compare the spaciousness, warmth and cleanliness of this open public space to the cold city streets and harsh realities faced by those sleeping rough.

The exhibition I’ve come to see offers a reflection on the geography and history of Melbourne, its buildings, streets and suburbs. It highlights architectural examples, seen as exemplars of the city’s design ethos. While these buildings are interesting, their familiarity underscores the tight-knit nature of Melbourne’s architecture community. Buildings that break-the-mould or use materials in interesting ways and, of course, those that are ‘sustainable’, are the ones repeatedly taking centre stage in media coverage. Often buildings are described as ‘affordable’ in the publications, but these claims of affordability typically lack any substantive evidence, leaving doubts lingering. The custom joinery, timber linings and bespoke lighting fixtures on display are rarely seen in projects that are truly within the budget-end of the market.

When construction costs do get mentioned in the publications it is often at the other end of the market, the top-end, where exorbitant costs are seen as almost a badge of honour. Stepping back into the chill of the afternoon, I can’t help but reflect on the intrinsic link between public spaces and social equity. The NGV stands as a bastion of public art and culture, a testament to Melbourne’s commitment to fostering creativity and inclusivity. Yet amidst the grandeur of its halls, the absence of certain voices serve as a poignant reminder of the ongoing challenges faced by those at the very pointy end of the cost-of-living crisis.

I don’t think it’s by chance that I’ve never seen a homeless person taking in the warm glow of art and expansive heating systems within these buildings. I’m quite sure the multiple security officers that are constantly patrolling the building have something to do with it. The public sector is clearly happy to pay for these people to protect the art (or even just an empty pavilion) from the homeless. But we don’t seem to collectively believe it’s worthwhile to resource adequate emergency accommodation for those sleeping rough each night.

In a city where the built environment serves as both a canvas for architectural expression and a reflection of societal values, it’s saddening that we continue to gleefully highlight and promote the pomp and vanity of the rich, while generally ignoring the very real plight of the poor that surrounds us.

News publications make note of the costs, donations and names given to expensive new public buildings, but rarely does anyone discuss how this public money could be spent on other public buildings, such as emergency accommodation, which would have profoundly greater impacts on the public.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we need to defund the arts to pay for the homeless, but I’m sure I’m not the only one to see a lacklustre exhibition and wonder how much anyone actually got from it. And when you consider the significant costs to build, heat, insure and secure these gallery spaces, you do start to wonder if some of this funding could be more beneficial elsewhere. If we’re willing to spend nearly two billion dollars for a new art gallery in Melbourne, why has “Make Room”, our latest supported housing for the homeless, struggled for years to raise the approximately $25 million required to complete the urgently needed project?

Make Room is finally nearing completion. It aims to provide safe and stable housing for the homeless and underscores the importance of leveraging architecture as a tool for social good. It‘s an important project for our city and I can only hope there will be recognition of this in the architecture publication scene. Architects almost universally see themselves as working for the greater good of society, but we can be terrible at recognising and promoting projects that can best help those most in need.

Patrick Kenny is a Melbourne architect specialising in health and community projects. He has worked on projects across Victoria, New South Wales and Papua New Guinea and has a keen interest in sustainability and well-designed, joyful spaces.