The Car Park that Became a Cultural Icon: South Lawn Car Park
The Car Park that Became a Cultural Icon: South Lawn Car Park

The Car Park that Became a Cultural Icon: South Lawn Car Park

The South Lawn Car Park at the University of Melbourne has become a cultural icon - most notably as the Mad Max Car Park. It’s an underground car park, so how did it earn itself a place on the Victorian Heritage Register; its own Wikipedia page; and a place to host famous chefs and models.


When you think of a cultural icon, you might think of a national cuisine or a really famous movie. What you probably don't think of is an underground carpark. But this, as you can see, is no ordinary carpark. This is the South Lawn carpark at the University of Melbourne, and it's played a supersized role in design, engineering, but also pop culture. I'll explain.

This is the University of Melbourne, and that green, open space is part of the Parkville campus and is the South Lawn. It's what lies beneath that I'm gonna explore more in this video, because it's unusual for a carpark to have its own Wikipedia page and listing on the Victorian Heritage Register. Built in the 1970s, it was solving a common problem. An increasing demand for parking, and a desire to retain the open space and character of the university. And this is South Lawn, the carpark is directly below us and this is the area that the university was trying to protect by putting the carpark underground. This was Australia's first ever fully enclosed carpark underneath landscape, and what the designer, Jan van der Molen achieved was pretty remarkable. I'll show you.

And these grand figures which guard the entry were sculpted in 1880 by James Gilbert, and they weren't originally here. They were actually part of the Colonial Bank in the city, and when that building was demolished in the 1930s it was relocated here to the University of Melbourne. But enough chatter, let's head inside.

And this is a pretty remarkable space. The first time you walk in, it's pretty overwhelming, actually. It's dark, it's cool, and it's a design that looks both futuristic and historic. It's just that this remind me of are more like the Catacombs or underground cathedral in Europe more than a carpark. It really is a stunning design.

The design of this carpark has an industrial cement look with these bold arches, and while it does have an impressive visual design, it's also functional. As this diagram from the time shows, the goal was to build something with enough structural support, while also providing the space for soil depth for trees and their root system, as well as suitable drainage. And I'll show you what this is like from above. And from here, there are some hints that something unusual is going on. The trees, for example, are perfectly aligned, but they're also equally spaced. And that's to align with the pillars below. And the geometric shape which this is is a hyperbolic paraboloid, essentially the saddle shape you get when two curves intersect, and the most famous hyperbolic paraboloid is probably a Pringles chip.

But let's move now from the science to the arts. There's one key cultural link that this carpark is famous for, and that's Mad Max, the 1979 original film starring Mel Gibson, with the carpark being featured in this key moment. And this film was a fit, and a surprise one, at that. The budget was just 400,000 dollars, and it went on to make over 100 million dollars globally, setting the Guinness World Record for the most profitable film ever. And with such a limited budget, the production team resorted to guerrilla film-making around Melbourne and across the state, using existing streets and blocking them off to film without permits. They avoided walkie-talkies that might overlap with the police radio, but they eventually did draw the attention of Victoria police, who ended up actually helping them close down roads and escorting the vehicles. And this has left such a mark, that this is actually commonly known as The Mad Max Carpark. And it's only a small jump from dystopian features to fashion shows, with the carpark playing host to a Myer autumn fashion launch featuring Jennifer Hawkins. And I've done the work of wading through all the interviews to edit it down to just the opinions on the infrastructure, because it was covered, and excuse the musical overlay.

[Jennifer Hawkins] Oh my gosh, the University of Melbourne is pretty incredible. I love the grounds, I just love being here. It's so relaxing and tranquil.

The architecture's incredible. It's grungy, sexy, I love it. I just think it's smashing, it's awesome.

[Julian O'Shea] I think that's what she said, and I think she was talking about the architecture. If not, sorry, Jennifer Hawkins.

Yeah, I think it's fabulous.

Master Chef Australia thought this was the perfect place to make contestants cook chocolate themed dishes for Heston Blumenthal, and the reaction as the people went inside is pretty cool. To be honest, it's pretty similar to the feeling that I had.

[TV] Let's step inside the belly of the Master Chef chocolate beast. You'll be amazed, come on.

[Female Contestant] Woo hoo!

So, we follow the judges into what we think is like a tunnel.

[Female Contestant] Wow!

Oh my God!

What is that?

[Male Contestant] And it's this massive, massive underground carpark. [Intense Music]

[Theresa] Honestly, it's like, wow. It's got arches, and it's so medieval.

[Julian O'Shea] And if you thought that Mad Max was a big deal, it was right here where a dish was made that for some people, might have had too much chocolate mousse.

[Gary Mehigan] For some people, it may be too much chocolate mousse but come on mister Preston, never too much chocolate mousse.

[Preston] Well, you-

[Julian O'Shea] Clever engineering, pop culture significance, and a chocolate mousse disaster is all I've ever wanted in a piece of infrastructure. Hey, thanks for watching. I really hope you've enjoyed it. If you have, do subscribe, or check out some of the other videos I've made about design or Melbourne. Otherwise, I'll catch you next week, I'm Julian O'Shea.

[Gary Mehigan] For some people it may be too much chocolate mousse, but come on, mister Preston, never too much chocolate mousse.

[Preston] Well-