The Block Arcade.

The Block Arcade.

Emporium Melbourne is disorienting, even for a shopping centre. Entering its cavernous Lonsdale Street foyer, you’re unsure where to go. And the building offers so many striking sightlines that from any of its seven levels, you can look up or down to glimpse dozens of routes you opted not to take.

Other shoppers drift past, reflected in the tessellated feature ceilings and glossy tiled floors, wandering along the upper-level catwalks or lower-level concourses and crossing the angled bridges that overlap the central light-well to form a braided pattern when viewed from above or below. It’s like being in an ant farm designed by Escher.

The CBD’s newest retail palace doesn’t seem quite ready yet. Emporium finally opened on April 16 after three expensive, union-delayed years of construction. It houses 225 retailers, but only 170 are trading so far. Everywhere you turn, ''coming soon'' hoardings cover blank storefronts.

Coles Book Arcade and Emporium.

Coles Book Arcade and Emporium.

''It feels very ... sterile,'' a rumpled, long-haired young dude says to his friend as they walk by. He’s right – Emporium has the same impersonal sleekness as a luxury hotel or casino. Both its boosters and its detractors highlight its ostentatious newness. Emporium is bemoaned as a demolisher of heritage buildings and displacer of idiosyncratic small businesses. But with its international brands, worker-friendly opening hours and fancy-schmancy ''cafe court'', it’s also hailed as a revolution in city shopping.

Centre manager Steve Edgerton argues that Emporium’s multi-level bridges and tunnels connecting it to neighbouring shopping precincts put 188,000 metres of city retail space under ''one roof''. But unlike its vaunted competitor Chadstone, it’s not a shopping ''destination''. It’s a journey.

Suburban malls are self-contained by design, capturing and recirculating human traffic like air conditioners recycle air. But city shopping spaces work more like waterslides: they suck pedestrians in and spill them out along arcades and concourses. QV’s laneways still feel artificial a decade on because they don't follow the natural paths that people want to take through the city. They’re an eddy, not a stream.

Emporium Melbourne.

Emporium Melbourne. Photo: Luis Ascui

Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman has called Emporium ''a new corridor that’s opening up through the city'', which will ''change the foot traffic flow from what has traditionally been east-west, to north-south''.

But Emporium isn’t really new at all. It’s only the latest in a palimpsest of retail development that has repeatedly carved out spaces for Melbourne shoppers to immerse themselves in the pleasures of cosmopolitan modernity.

And these structures have always followed pedestrian desire lines north-south between Flinders and Latrobe streets. Campbell Arcade, which connects Flinders Street Station and Degraves Street, was built in 1956 but mooted as early as the 1920s. In 1929, the Launceston Examiner quoted one Mr Tuxen, engineer and surveyor, proposing Centre Way as ''a natural avenue of approach ... from the busy shopping centre in Bourke-street. Again, we must consider the natural tendency of the people to take the shortest route''.

City shopping has long clustered around Bourke Street’s GPO, now itself a retail precinct. Royal Arcade (1869) is Australia’s oldest extant shopping arcade, and one of around 18 in the world surviving from before 1870. But from the Victorian boom onwards, competing developments have pulled shoppers north and south, both claiming to represent the ''true'' heart of Melbourne.

Traders within Swanston, Collins, Elizabeth and Little Collins streets campaigned successfully to name the Block Arcade (1893) after their precinct, which was known in fashionable circles simply as the Block.

And in 1906, Edward Cole extended his landmark Cole’s Book Arcade from Bourke Street (currently David Jones’ menswear store) to Collins Street via Howey Place. The land was sold in 1929, but the beautiful iron and glass roof Cole installed over Howey Place remains.

The Australia Hotel (1939-1970), on Collins Street opposite Centre Place, is almost forgotten now. But with its bars, restaurants and two basement cinemas, it was the fanciest hangout in town until the groovy Southern Cross Hotel opened in 1962. Robert Menzies dined there often enough to have an omelette named after him; Harold and Zara Holt held their wedding reception there.

The Argus predicted in December 1938 that the accompanying arcade of 42 shops - at the time the largest in Australia - ''will form a new business and social centre in the city’s heart'' and ''become a natural pedestrian artery from Flinders street to Bourke street”.

It did. An early 1990s pedestrian survey found an average of 26,000 people used the Australia Arcade every day. When the Australia on Collins shopping centre opened on the site in November 1992, it was carefully planned, in Age journalist Keith Dunstan’s words, to ''catch the arcade flow''.

The neighbouring Sportsgirl Centre, now called Collins234, was a financial disaster that would nearly ruin its namesake tenant in 1994. But writing in The Age in 1992, architecture commentator Dimity Reed praised the ''busy city feel'' of its ''crossroads'' design: ''This is the 1990s version of the Block Arcade - stylish, well thought out, generously detailed and filled with light.''

It’s 100 years since Myer Emporium’s flagship store opened in Bourke Street. Like Edward Cole before him, but in the opposite direction, Sidney Myer expanded to Lonsdale Street by purchasing and amalgamating existing buildings in stages during the 1920s and 1930s. Myer’s bridge over Little Bourke Street was built in 1962 - the city’s first such public aerial walkway.

Due to its piecemeal construction, the interior of the old Myer complex was seriously quirky. Level one on Bourke Street led to the ground floor on Lonsdale Street. Some departments were oddly shaped, or accessed via internal ramps and corridors.

Emporium Melbourne’s smartest yet least visible achievement is its coherent floorplan that flows between Myer, David Jones and Melbourne Central - allowing even a first-time visitor to the CBD to navigate easily between these major retailers.  In a nod to its history, Emporium has retained Myer's heritage facade on Little Bourke Street, but if you look closely you'll see Emporium Melbourne floors have been realigned to make it easier for visitors to know which level they're on.  

The bridge over Lonsdale Street to Melbourne Central now feeds directly into Emporium’s ''café court'' on level three, providing a natural staging post. And at ground level, various dead-end service lanes have been converted into capillary arcades leading right through Emporium.

In 1988, a Melbourne Central promotional video boasted that the forthcoming shopping centre was ''destined to become the new heart of town: the life of the city!'' Historically, it’s a familiar claim. But the video’s now-quaint appeal to sophistication, via Japanese department store Daimaru, is recognisably the same cosmopolitanism Emporium is borrowing from its own international brands, including Japanese fast-fashion behemoth Uniqlo.

Likewise, Melbourne Central’s sense of three-dimensional space is strikingly similar to Emporium Melbourne’s. Locals may no longer thrill to its postmodern incorporation of an old shot tower under a glass cone. But tourists still crane their necks and feel the vertigo.

Australia on Collins was similarly guided by a postmodern collision of indoors and outdoors, old and new. The top level of the art deco-inspired complex was envisaged as ''Collins Street in the Sky'' – a glassed-in simulacrum of a vanished streetscape, replete with trees, street lamps and cafe tables.

Three gorgeous mosaics embedded in the floor at the three entrances of Australia On Collins create a symbolic spatial and temporal continuity as shoppers cross each threshold. The Little Collins Street entrance shows a crinolined lady and top-hatted gentleman from the 1870s, when Gunsler’s Cafe (later the Australia Cafe) occupied the site. Nearby, two fiercely shoulder-padded ladies pause outside the Australia Hotel in its 1940s heyday. And at the ''main'' Collins Street entrance, a very 1990s-looking man and lady pose outside the new shopping centre.

But a 2010 Sunday Age story excoriated Australia on Collins as one of the city's worst buildings: ''Gaudy and tacky ... a poor man’s temple to the great god of commercialism''. The Age recently reported the centre will close for an 18-month redevelopment, during which time its 100 stores will be whittled down to 60 ''large blank canvases for flagship stores'', its ''dysfunctional'' spaces and ''bad sight lines'' banished and its floors consolidated from five to four.Unfortunately, the site’s history will also be erased when the building reopens as ''St Collins Lane''. That’s a shame. Without recourse to the ''facadism'' that largely constitutes heritage preservation these days, Australia on Collins was surprisingly sensitive to its site’s history. 

Emporium Melbourne’s website trumpets it as ''a modern interpretation of a historical Melbourne icon that will stand the test of time''. Will it? Emporium’s retro-futurist aesthetic is perhaps as self-conscious as Australia on Collins, but lacks the older development’s historical specificity. Emporium references the 1920s with a generic, Catherine Martin-esque ''Gatsbyness'': an ostentatious juxtaposition of art deco forms and textures with space-age ridged ceilings and LED strip lighting.

Retail history reveals that ambitious newness yields either to ossified heritage status or white-elephant embarrassment. Still, unwanted spaces are always gutted and reshaped anew, as Emporium has itself gracefully transcended older buildings.

What most decisively shapes the city’s retail landscape is the inexorable flow of Melburnians through it. Once we discover our own desire lines through Emporium, it will melt into its surroundings, becoming part of the city’s fabric.