Glenn Gillen

Appreciating the craft

Union Lane, Melbourne. Photo credit: Crouchy69

As I pull into Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, I make a dash for the Degraves Street subway exit. Everyone else floods out of the beautiful and ornate arches at either end of the platforms, so it's a rare chance to escape the crowds at such a busy interchange. Descending into the depths you can imagine what it was like back in the 1920's when it was the busiest passenger station in the world. The art deco finishes. The (now off) white tiling. The arched roof. It's a really beautiful piece of architectural history for the city.

Flinders Street Station
Flinders Street Station, Melbourne. Photo credit: Scott Cresswell

As I come through the barriers I stop by Cup of Truth to grab my first coffee for the day. Barely more than a podium built into a wall, a giant man lurches forward to ask me what I'd like. "Just a long black, please". "Oh, it's a Colombian today. White honey-washed process, it's sweet with some light nutty notes toward the finish. I think it's a really special one". A minute or so later he hands the coffee over to me with his giant paw. I take a small sip. Cup of truth indeed, it was a really special one. In a city with a ritualistic appreciation for coffee, and a consistently good product to service it, it's easy to become complacent. But occassionally there's that jolt of experience to make you truly appreciate it again. We exchange an appreciative nod, and I make my way out of the subway.

A delicious coffee and friendly service means I have a little more spring in my step and a brighter light in my eyes, I take a small detour into Degraves Street on my way out of the subway. The chaos of the main streets can wait for an extra two minutes as I nagivate the cobbled lanes for which Melbourne has become famous. A constantly changing immersion of vibrant street art, it's impossible to not marvel at the sheer talent and artistry of some of the people that live here (alongside the occassional brand name foreign street artist). Even when it's grey and raining it's a beautiful place to hide under an awning. Watching the water cascade down the bluestone. Over the art. As it bounces across the various covers the caf├ęs have out to protect their patrons. A sea of colour dancing below them as the army of workers and their umbrellas navigate the passage to their offices.

Degraves St
Degraves Street, Melbourne. Photo credit: Tina Reynolds

But that's not today. Summer has arrived, and instead the morning sun is squeezing down the lane and making the colours on the wall pop. A spotlight moving slowly across a vast canvas. I pause to breathe it all in, for just a moment. Inspired, I head for my tram.

I board the 59 toward North Melbourne. A B2 class tram with all the hallmarks of the utter focus on utility that washed in with the start of the 80's. It feels like the public transit interpretation of Brutalist architecture in many ways, except with air-conditioning and electronic signs. It has little of the beauty a W class but it's infinitely more practical. Especially during a sweltering Melbourne summer.

It takes me almost to the door of the Meat Market, my host for the rest of the week while I'm at a conference. Another stunning example of architectural history. And a reminder of how long modern commerce has been occurring in this city. A huge barrel vault ceiling. Along with a design that was optimised for the horse & cart trade at the time. There's still hallmarks of their impact on the building, with grooves worn into the kerbs in various places from the gradual wearing down from cart wheels over its 140 year history.

Degraves St
Inside the old Melbourne Meat Market. Photo credit: CSSConf Australia

The next three days I'm eagerly absorbing the passion and energy of the people around me who spend their days creating things. People on stage talking about all the things they create. How they create them. Each talk giving a small insight into the work required to do something I never knew was possible, or never quite understood the complexity of. It's another reminder to try and not just be a passive consumer of things.

I have to skip out early to get down to the US Consulate as they're hosting an event with Andrew Hyde. The Q&A part of the session starts and he gets the local version of the question I'm sure he gets everywhere he goes, "So what do you love about Melbourne?". He assures the crowd he actually means it this time, he loves Melbourne, it's really one of his favourite places. Like he totally means it. He buys some extra cred for naming another city that would make the list (well done Beirut!). It's a great place to live. To visit. To start a business. Hrm, maybe he just has to say all this because LaunchVic are sponsoring the event. But then he says something that really feels like it zings. I'm somewhat paraphrasing, but it was:

"You just [email protected]#$!%& love the craft here. You love the craftperson. If you're at a restaurant you're not just eating the food. You're there for the chef. You can see the kitchen!" Something along the lines of what Andrew Hyde said

I think back to the last big event I attended in Melbourne. Where TEDxMelbourne managed to have some really incredible people provide the catering. How I was a bumbling mess of embarrassment because my favourite chef personally handed me my lunch that day. How I blurted out a rushed appreciation for everything he's done over the past 20 years, and then skulked away like I was 7 years old.

This isn't just a city where you'll discuss whether your favourite coffee is a flat white, "magic", or a ristretto. It's probably situational. So you might not even have a favorite coffee place, it could vary depending on what type of coffee you want. You might even have a preferred barista for each. You could know which lanes attract the types of street art you like. If you do you probably have a favourite artist. Or maybe you'll queue up for 4 hours on a Saturday morning for the best criossants in the world. Or join the hordes who wanted to get into Hawker Hall when it opened because that team had done such a great job with Chin Chin, Kong, and Baby before it. Or you're at the night markets that bring together all this vibrancy and creativity into one place so you can experience bite-sized portions of the best of it. Perhaps you immerse yourself in White Night, where the graffiti walls are replaced with a light-show that gives yet another perspective of all of the ornate artistry in the buildings we walk past each day.

Patricia Coffee
Patricia Coffee, Melbourne. Photo credit: Tourism Victoria

We live in a ridiculously blessed and fortunate country. And in a vibrant city within it. That fortune and circumstance gives us the time to pause, take in, and appreciate so much of what is around us. The irony is I don't think I fully appreciated how much that just naturally happens across an otherwise ordinary day.

There's a very special ecosystem here. One with a beautiful intersection of people who have passion for making things people value, and a ready audience to show their appreciation for those things.

Glenn Gillen

I'm an advisor to, and investor in, early-stage tech startups. Beyond that I'm an incredibly fortunate husband and father. Working on a developer-facing tool or service? Thinking about starting one? Email me and let me know or come to one of our days to help make it a reality.