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Southbank remembers its father

12 Mar 2015

Southbank remembers its father Image

By Sean Car

The Honourable Evan Walker, a visionary architect and former Labor planning minister who was responsible for shaping Southbank into what it is today, passed away last month aged 79 following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Southbank Local News caught up with former Labor Premier Hon. John Cain to pay tribute to the man dubbed the “father of Southbank.”

“His ideas and his initiative was the genesis of Southbank,” Mr Cain said. “It was a convenient, industrial, commercial adjunct to the City of Melbourne on the other side of the river. He changed all of that.”

“There were long-term Crown leaseholds and most of the land was occupied under those terms and conditions. When I say long term they were 99-year leases so they had to be converted or reconsolidated and the streets had to be realigned so it was a long, long job.”

“But Evan had the persistence and the foresight to see what it could be, so he is the man that we should thank for Southbank.”

Following a fierce sectarian divide in 1955, it wouldn’t be until the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 that any Labor party in either federal or state politics held office in Australia.  

Victorian Labor had played a central role in the party’s overall demise during this period having lost a record number of consecutive elections.

However, the success of the Whitlam government would spark major changes in Victoria as the party underwent significant reform in the lead up to its election in 1982.

Having returned from practicing and tutoring in architecture at the University of Toronto in 1969, Mr Cain said Evan Walker played a central role in Victorian Labor’s resurgence.

“Evan Walker came back from Canada and decided that he would throw in his lot with the Labor Party and he became a political activist of significance,” he said.

“And he became much more than that. He was a faction activist. He joined our faction and we were delighted that he did almost from day one.”

Born in 1935 and educated at Box Hill Grammar and Melbourne High School, Evan Herbert Walker trained as an architect at RMIT and Melbourne University before completing his masters at the University of Toronto in Canada.

During the 1960s, he co-founded the firm Daryl Jackson Evan Walker which, at its height, employed up to 30 architects in its Melbourne office.

Mr Cain described Evan Walker as “a natural” at politics and said, prior to his appointment, planning in Victoria had been “a mess”.

“Through the policy work he’d done and the support base that he was able to bring to the government in the form of planners and environmentalists, he was a great asset and benefit to the government,” he said.

“Evan was a good all-rounder. He just related to people very well. You hear about people being natural in politics. He could go into a room and talk with anyone.”

“He understood what cities can and should be and made planning the long-term goal. It was never about tomorrow’s headline.”

“That vision for the future was wonderful for a bunch of laymen like ourselves. I mean, you have people like that in the department but to have someone like that in the cabinet room was pretty helpful.”

Improvements to Melbourne’s arts, legal and sporting precincts (including the MCG lights), the creation of state parks, enforcing height limits and implementing rules surrounding developer contributions were just some of the many visionary changes that Evan Walker introduced.

However, Mr Cain said his most significant contribution to the City of Melbourne would always be the architectural foresight he brought to rejuvenating Southbank and the Yarra River.

“Southbank was the signature,” he said. “The Yarra really was seen as being a drain and as the southern boundary of the CBD prior to that.”

“The great aspect of Southbank, which Evan made us appreciate, was that you had to protect the waterfront and that the key ingredient was the northerly aspect with the sun coming in there.”

“We’d imposed a number of restrictions about heights to preserve that as well so the potential was enormous, I think, and he recognised that early. To connect, as the Princes Bridge does with the CBD, was a masterstroke really.”

Mr Walker was planning minister from 1982. His other portfolios included rural affairs, Aboriginal affairs, industry, major projects and the arts.

Mr Cain said Mr Walker’s death was a reminder that government seeking change must fight hard and that he was, in a large part, to thank for Melbourne’s current status as the world’s most livable city.

His wife Judith, his three children Christopher, Benjamin and Rebecca, and four grandchildren survive Mr Walker.

Southbank Local News sends its condolences to Evan Walker’s family, friends and former colleagues, and wishes him peace in rest.

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