Wind back a decade and your correspondent (then living in South Korea) received predictable responses upon stating the Australian (not American) nature of his nationality.

“I know Australia,” responses came.

“Sydney! Opera House! Kangaroo!”

For this Melbournian, realisation that Sydney was more recognised overseas was humbling.

For decades, Australia’s two largest cities have shared an interesting rivalry. Sydney is the financial capital of the nation, Melbourne is the sporting capital. Sydney has a world-renowned harbor and natural beauty; flatter Melbourne with its less impressive Yarra River responds with culture. Sydney has world renowned icons – Melbourne’s clogged West Gate Bridge is a poor cousin of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. As judged by The Economist, Melbourne has the world’s most liveable city. Whilst there is some dispute about this, a century old story has it that the naming of Canberra as Australia’s capital city was a compromise between the two cities.

That raises questions about which city has the more innovative architectural culture.

According to Chris Johnson, chief executive officer of the Sydney based Urban Taskforce and a former New South Wales Government Architect, the answer is Melbourne – notwithstanding the existence of great buildings in both cities. Melbourne buildings by the likes of Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Lyons, Wood Marsh and Eilenberg Fraser have for some time been very creative and probably quite personal expressions, Johnson says. From their Storey Hall to their recent building in Geelong, ARM for example, have adopted an intellectual position which underpins their designs, he argues.

Largely speaking, Johnson says this is driven by Melbourne’s less prescriptive planning system. Despite being intended only as guidelines, Johnson says provisions outlined in the 180-page NSW Apartment Design Guide are highly prescriptive and are often mistakenly seen by planners as representing a ‘template’ of government expectations. By contrast, recently adopted Better Apartments Design Standards in Victoria are shorter and less rigid, he said.

Further, in Melbourne, institutions such as the University of Melbourne and RMIT have engaged in active discourse about critical architectural concepts and have connected with leading innovators internationally.

“For some decades Melbourne has had a more innovative and creative architectural culture than that of Sydney,” Johnson said.

Greg Barnett, managing director at WMK Architecture – which has offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – agrees.

“You look at recent buildings like Federation Square and the ACCA by Woods Marsh – they are pretty daring. Sydney doesn’t have anything like that,” Barnett says.

“Even the apartments you see going up in Southbank and in Docklands, the facades showed more innovation compared with apartments in Sydney.”

“Melbourne in my view definitely has a greater design culture and appreciation of design and has more innovation in its architecture.”

Barnett does say, however, that Sydney is making progress. Design competitions, required under the Sydney Local Environment Plan 2012 where buildings exceed 55 meters in height or $100 million in value, have driven greater emphasis onto the importance of design, he said. In apartments, State Environmental Planning Policy No 65 (SEPP 65) has forced designers to accommodate natural cross ventilation, sun ingress into rooms and minimum room sizes – a far cry from some of the tiny south-facing dog boxes with negligible outlook or sun found in Melbourne.

Even then, he acknowledges that the guidelines and competition requirements have evolved in Sydney into being seen as a rule book and a ‘tick the box’ exercise.

Barnett says several factors could explain Melbourne’s greater innovation. He acknowledges (though stops short of endorsing) one theory that Sydney relies upon the beauty of its Harbour and natural landscape whereas flatter Melbourne places greater emphasis on interesting built environment structures. Culturally, Melbourne’s more lively ‘red wine’ culture with hip laneways may be more conducive to discussing design innovation compared with Sydney’s greater emphasis upon physical activity, he says. Courtesy of strategies enacted decades ago, the Melbourne CBD and surrounds have transformed into places in which people not only work but live, eat and socialise. This has spawned ‘hip’ laneways, greater retail competition and greater ‘funk’ of design to deliver more enticing patron experiences. Until a few years ago, Barnett says the Sydney CBD was a place where few chose to linger outside of work hours.

Again, he says this is changing as growing numbers move in to newly constructed apartments in Sydney’s CBD.

From a regulatory viewpoint, Barnett says Melbourne’s relatively innovative culture compared with its NSW based counterpart is aided by a simpler and clearer planning system and a more flexible approach toward innovative design proposals on the part of authorities.

Between Australia’s two largest cities, each has respective strengths.

In design innovation, Melbourne is the leader.