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Spinning the wheels in our quest for a landmark

Melbourne does a lot of things very well - but the Southern Star is a blight on our skyline

Melbourne does a lot of things very well - but the Southern Star is a blight on our skyline

MELBOURNE does a lot of things very well - dining, sport, theatre, graffiti even - but we struggle with landmarks. They tend to divide rather than unite us.

Sydney does them much better. It has got the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and Bondi and we've got ? the Arts Centre spire? It's probably our most identifiable landmark, but for a long time we weren't even convinced about its bona fides, critics dubbing it The Awful Tower.

We have been so envious of Sydney's landmarks for so long that at one point the Hamer government staged a competition to find one for the Jolimont rail yards that would rival theirs. Announced in 1978, it inspired entries from all over the world. Many of them are now on show at the Old Treasury Building - one of our better landmarks - and some of them are outrageous. Monumental mammaries anyone? What about a Greek column taller than the Eureka Tower? In the end the contest was canned.

The City of Melbourne website currently lists 44 landmarks, but not all of them qualify in the true sense of the word, being easily seen and recognised from a distance. The MCG makes it as do Fed Square and the Shrine, but I'm not sure No. 5 on the council list should be there: the Centre for Adult Education in Flinders Lane is a fine establishment, but I'd hardly call it a landmark. No. 36 (the list is alphabetical) is a bit of stretch too. Southern Cross Lane is billed as ''the newest lane in Melbourne's CBD'', but ''rich in historical value''. Of course, you and I know it's just another walkway behind two commercial towers that sit where the historic component - the Southern Cross Hotel - once did. We knocked that down.

But it's No. 38 on the city's list that causes me the most angst. ''Southern Star is Australia's only giant observation wheel and has changed Melbourne's skyline with its amazing, distinctive style,'' gushes the council, adding: ''[It] presents a spectacular experience that's like nothing on earth. Day or night, guests experience the euphoria of soaring flight within Southern Star's orbit.'' Wow, what would they say if it was actually working?

Southern star is the 120-metre Ferris wheel that sits beside CityLink at the north-western entrance of the city. It was supposed to open in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, but didn't finally carry orbiters until December 2008, at $29 a pop. Then, just six weeks later, it was shut down after it started cracking and buckling in extreme heat. Despite being rebuilt, the $100 million project reportedly won't reopen before Easter next year after further glitches.

The council's overblown rhetoric is right in one sense - the wheel has changed Melbourne's skyline, just as its chairman predicted. ''There are very few icons that depict Melbourne,'' Fred Maybury said in 2008. ''That's what I think the Southern Star will do - fill that void and position itself as a Melbourne icon.'' But it's more blight than landmark. And it sure isn't an icon. The wheel would sit well on the Gold Coast or at Sydney's Darling Harbour - you could take the ludicrous monorail there - and might even be OK in another part of our city. But in its present prime position it is entirely out of place. It's bad enough that we have to drive through a casino to enter the city from the south - do we really have to swing by a Ferris wheel in the north-west?

I can understand the economic reasoning behind it. Docklands developer ING Real Estate needed something to attract people to the area and Ferris wheels are a favourite ploy around the world. But because of all the mishaps and missteps, the wheel has never done its job. I feel for the small-business people at Docklands who looked to it for their financial salvation. Planners should have put in a museum or gallery, not a carnival ride.

Ironically, history is repeating itself somewhat. In the mid-'90s, after being haunted by controversy, it was announced that the Arts Centre spire would have to come down because it was cracking. Suddenly, all those who'd long opposed Sir Roy Grounds' creation, sprang into action. The Age even editorialised for its removal a full 13 years after its initial construction, saying: ''The tower is a mistake. It ought to go.'' By a fortunate act of god, the paper went on, an opportunity had presented itself - Melbourne could finally rid itself of the spire. (In the end, the Kennett government replaced it with a taller version.)

Surely the same is true now of Southern Star. Because of another act of god, several actually, an opportunity has presented itself to be rid of it.

After so many setbacks no one would blame the developers if they chose to walk away. In fact, a great many people would applaud. In its place we could put something that attracted people for something other than not-so-cheap thrills. I'm tired of the project going around and around in circles.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age, The Sunday Age and Herald Sun.

Twitter: @brucerguthrie

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