Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Hip to be Federation Square

Published 17 May 2012 05:09, Updated 17 May 2012 09:31

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Hip to be Federation Square

A decade on, Melbourne’s Federation Square architect is still defending a vision that wasn’t another Sydney Opera House.

A Melbourne icon turns 10 this year. Fans love it and critics – including entertainer Barry Humphries – continue to slate it. Whatever you think of it, Melbourne’s Federation Square is fixed in the minds of many as the face of the world’s most liveable city.

The public space on the formerly languishing corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets has proven a life-changer for Melbourne and Texan-born architect Don Bates, who in partnership with Sydneysider Peter Davidson designed the square.

Like many great stories, coincidence plays a large role. Bates says he didn’t know it at the time, but changing their design proposal for Federation Square mid-stream boosted their chance of winning the commission.

Sun soon to set over Federation Square.James Davies

LAB architecture studio had made one of 176 initial submissions to design Federation Square in March 1997. By the time the firm made its second proposal, as one of five short-listed firms, it had reworked the plan. It kept its basic idea – creating a public commercial, cultural and civic space without relying on the grids and linear designs traditionally used for public venues – but changed the orientation and placement of its features.

“One of the reasons we ended up winning the competition was because we had changed so much it showed our design had a certain robustness and yet versatility,” he tells BRW.

Champion's Bar at Federation Square.James Davies

Unbeknownst to Bates or any other competitors, the Kennett government had also decided that whatever plan was adopted for the desolate site, it would have to accommodate an as-yet unpublicised addition – a new wing of the National Gallery of Victoria.

“Whatever they chose would have to be reconfigured at some point down the line,” Bates recalls. “We had already shown that we were much more interested in manipulating relationships than solidifying objects or forms.”

He and Davidson (who suffered a disabling stroke last year) wanted something different from a traditional open square between St Paul’s Cathedral and Flinders St Station, which could easily appear deserted.

The placement of buildings on the outer edges of the space could draw people in with amenities like cafes and encourage movement. That activity would in itself be a reflection of movement patterns in the city.

“You have the city grid, but the way you move through the CBD is through the laneways, alleyways and passageways,” Bates says. “So [there is] this secondary structuring of the city that’s not based on the kind of rationality of the grid. It’s about a kind of secondary transition between, through, beside and partially into various buildings, to negotiate the city in a different pattern.”

“That kind of overlay of two simultaneous systems is . . . actually multiple spatial experiences of the city. And so we were interested in what that might mean in a civic and cultural precinct like this. The site exists as a precinct, but it’s as much about moving through it as it is about moving into it.”

LAB was awarded the contract in 1997. Then followed, as Bates calls it, “a long five years of dealing with commentary, outrage and ignorance that goes with any major public project.” Much criticism arose because no one knew the square’s underlying concept. “It wasn’t just one thing . . . It was a whole precinct of cultural, civic and commercial activities, redefining what the heart of a city might be.” But it didn’t, as The Age said in its editorial on October 26, 2002, the day the $460 million development opened. “It does not look like anything we have seen before and its appearance and aesthetics will remain points of contention for a good while.”

Criticised with what Bates calls “vitriol” by the Herald Sun, Fed Square, has kept its detractors. Barry Humphries has attacked it with all his withering word power. “Getting used to it is like getting used to leprosy,” the entertainer said in 2010. “I’d just like a nice grassy area, as it will be when it falls down.”

In 2009 travel website VirtualTourist .com ranked the site as one the world’s ten ugliest buildings and last month Britain’s Daily Telegraph put it on a list of 21 of the world’s ugliest buildings. “There were a lot of people for it, a lot against . . . what it looked like,” Bates acknowledges. “Some of it was the issue of public funding.”

Many critics mistakenly wanted the Federation Square development to give the city a visual icon they felt it lacked, Bates says. “Melbourne was looking for its [Sydney] Opera House. We had no interest in that whatsoever.”

Melbourne, is fundamentally different from Sydney and the architecture of the two cities plays different roles, Bates argues. While Sydney is a city of images, Melbourne is one of experiences. Most Sydney visitors, for example, don’t go inside the Opera House, he says, but go to see the view and photograph it.

“In that sense the architecture is about reaffirming prior expectations. Melbourne doesn’t do that.

“There is no one place you can stand and take a photograph and say: ‘This is Melbourne’. Melbourne can only be understood by experiencing it.”

And that is Federation Square’s function. It is designed to draw people back, to experience it for themselves.

“We weren’t afraid of it being an accumulated experience, as opposed to a singular, photographic experience. When you move from one part to another . . . you get a different understanding of it.”

Getting people to see and accept such an idea is not as simple as creating a tall building, however.

“It’s hard to sell,” Bates admits.

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