What do you tell people from out of town with a day to spare in Melbourne who ask you to point them towards some interesting buildings?

We’ll, I’d probably steer them towards Federation Square, the city’s best public space and not only for the leans and folds of its buildings. To stand on its rollicking open spaces, thronging with people — it isn’t really a square at all — and look out across the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets, with the dome of Flinders Street Station on one side and the spires of St Paul’s Cathedral on the other, surrounded by the bustle of people and trams and traffic, is to feel the true energy of the city.

If I was asked to point my visitors towards the city’s best modern building I’d take them back 41 years, to the former BHP House (1967-72) at the corner of William and Bourke Streets; all 41 storeys of muscle in exposed black steel and glass that is by a mile the best example of a Miesian-inspired building outside Chicago. Its near-seamless engineered look perfectly reflected BHP’s Big Australian image at the time, for they were steel-makers back then. Its architects, Yuncken Freeman, even travelled to the windy city to consult with the legendary structural engineer Fazlur Khan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who at the time was helping design the John Hancock Center, itself a tapering cross-braced black steel and glass 100-storey colossus.

But if the visitors had a bit more time, I’d direct them north along Swanston Street to RMIT University, begging them to ignore, along their way, the crappy two-dollar shops and electronics stores, the spruikers and those new tram super-stops that have put paid to any hope that the street will ever be returned to vehicular traffic.

It is here, on an entire city block and in the streets and lanes surrounding it, that the university has staked its claim as a great city campus, vibrant and eclectic, unlike any other in Australia. Through acquisition and expansion RMIT now owns much of that top end of the city. No other university, I feel, understands better the value of investing in the power of buildings as a key component of its presence in the city and as an expression of its identity as a leader in technology and design education.

The precinct brims with student activity day and night; and it is here, within the space of a few blocks, that fans of architecture can get to see and experience work by some of the city’s best architects.

From the colourful pageantry of Edmond & Corrigan’s now-ageing but no less thrilling Building 8 on Swanston Street to Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s lime green and purple Storey Hall annex next door, to the primordial green blobs ‘engulfing’ the former Singer Sewing Machine Company building at the corner of La Trobe Street, also by ARM, and the multicoloured spiky facade of the $200 million Swanston Academic Building, by Lyons Architecture, here is a collection of buildings by some self-styled iconoclasts that says much about why architecture matters in Melbourne. You may not like or even understand them, but you can’t ignore them.

The newest building, Sean Godsell’s Design Hub on Swanston and Victoria Streets, stands on an axis with the War Memorial on St Kilda Road, the two worlds apart in styles. It is the kind of building that only enlightened patronage could have made possible, for I doubt a commercially-minded client would have supported for long Godsell’s relentless pursuit of design purity.

Godsell’s architecture, if you are unfamiliar with it, is an architecture of object-making. Design Hub is his biggest object to date: a frosted ice-block of some 16,000 sand-blasted glass discs inside a ten-storey frame of steel rings that will serve to enhance his reputation as one of our most trenchant form-makers.

But it is a box with a purpose, and the sand-blasted discs wrapping the cube work as a ‘smart skin’ to help control the building’s temperature and light levels, rotating and tracking the movement of the sun throughout the day. When it rains the discs become transparent, adding further dimension to the dynamic nature of its skin. It has, also, the capacity to be back-lit and rear-projected, transforming it into a giant digital billboard.

The drama outside continues inside, where Godsell’s unremitting pursuit and exploration of purity of line and materials is expressed as a near-monochromatic palette of galvanised steel grating, mesh screens, white walls, black rubber floors and concrete. The exterior belies the tall, truly remarkable sequence of spaces, ramps and stairs inside, the grandest of which is a steep, ceremonially-scaled stair, flanked by shimmering walls of steel grate, that descends into a netherworld of gallery and exhibition spaces, leading into a forecourt of totems, a cafe and a design archives building.

If they had a little more time, my visitors should immerse themselves in the university’s public spaces, where architect Peter Elliott has turned a virtual casbah of streets, laneways, dead ends and hidden courts into a pedestrian-friendly network of spaces that is a delight to wander through. They could begin at Ellis Court on La Trobe Street with its views toward the dome of the State Library of Victoria, and wend their way to discover hidden lawns, walled gardens, stairs and unexpected nooks and entrances that will take them through to the back of the old Magistrates’ Court and the walled courtyard that was once the police garages at the rear of the city watchhouse. Elliott, a master of the small detail, has managed to create more than two hectares of urban space through which students, staff and visitors are able to meander and filter their way across what has truly became an urban ‘village’ within the city.

Joe Rollo’s books include Contemporary Melbourne Architecture (UNSW Press).