The future of the Flinders Street Station…

The Opera House affair was a spectacular climax to the whole long, usually sad, story of architectural competitions.  Occasionally there been competitions, such as that for the Olympic Swimming Pool in Melbourne, which have left everybody happy, but for every successful one there have been half a dozen that were most unsatisfactory and three or four that were catastrophic, leaving a trail of disgusted clients, angry architects and a cynical public.  They have brought out the worst in owners and architects alike, leading to accusations of bribery, dishonesty and incompetence………  
                  'The Making of a Profession' by Max Freeland (A&R 1971)

A  bad history of exploitative architectural competitions in the 19th Century led the newly evolving Institutes of Architects to set down rules to reform a corrupt system and protect their architect members.

The idea of competitions is always appealing; there is always the hope that some unrecognised genius and brilliant solution will be discovered, and as
The Architectural Review  (UK) editorialised recently, while most direct architectural commissions are demand driven often by the market, competitions are driven by the desire to go beyond what already exists, claiming:

'They have shaped architecture to a profound and often surprising degree.  An imaginative competition can catalyse a paradigm shift in architectural culture, allowing something totally new and unexpected to break through, whether or not the winning entry is eventually built.'

Well, maybe, sometimes, but the AR goes on to describe how they can also descend into farce with the wrong brief, wrong winner, rethinks, redesigns, secrecy and scandal, corruption and worse.  The recent saga of Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Bay Opera House, repeatedly redesigned and then rejected is described as being especially shameful.  So even today there is nothing assured about competitions

For non-architects I should first explain how the mechanics of the system are meant to work. The basic conditions required before members of the Institute of Architects are willing to compete in competitions are simple; the jury must consist of a majority of architects, the entries and judging must be anonymous, and the winner must be given the prize, as well as the job if the building proceeds.

But although these rules make competitions fair and democratic, adherence to them doesn't necessarily bring about a successful result for a few equally simple reasons.  One of the more important is that some sort of upper cost limit is usually specified and it's easy to exceed the limit, and in any case cost estimates are just that, only estimates. Unless the potential discrepancy was enormous, most architects would be disinclined to let a higher estimate disqualify an entry they preferred. So the area of cost is always one of dissatisfaction, and even when estimated by a professional Quantity Surveyor, there are so many unknowns at that stage that this is always a grey and contentious area.

Small competitions are often decided by one judge, more normally there is a jury of three or more, often two architects and the client. But for large develop-ments, a two-stage competition is usually thought to be more desirable.  The first stage is open to all architects and the amount of work required is limited to that which would enable different concepts to be identified. Usually six competitors are selected to participate in the second stage, and as much more work is required then, they are usually paid an honorarium that is meant to cover their out-of-pocket costs, but is usually inadequate.  Competitions remain a labour of love, fame is the spur especially if you are a one person office.

In large projects more than one basic concept is often possible, so by selecting differing concepts to proceed to the second stage it's possible for all the potentially interesting concepts to be teased out to determine which one works best.

If the brief of requirements is vague and not well thought out it (as was the case in the Federation Square competition) this can cause dissatisfaction because designers are unsure what it is they are being asked to design, and this leads to frustration, much wasted effort and often a poor result.  In Fed Square the brief was expanded considerably and only made definite after the architect had been chosen, and the current design is the outcome of those later changes.

Competitions are not always the best way to get the best design solution for difficult sites.  They also aren't cheap, as the judges and the second stage participants have to be paid, and there's the prize money and expenses.  And with a local government client, the idea that the Council would be committed to a design determined by some architects without any involvement by the councillors or participation by the public is usually considered too difficult politically. 

In many complex situations, it is therefore often preferable to select an architect by submission and interview after inspecting some of their buildings and talking to some of their clients.  This creates a situation where the brief can be discussed and if necessary modified as work proceeds, and it also allows for gradual joint decision making of the various sub-problems with the client. Some public participation also becomes possible at different stages and costing can become a joint responsibility.  Even more importantly in the common situation where a number of public authorities have a stake in the design, this way of proceeding allows for discussion and more rational decision making by all concerned in a way that simply isn't possible in a competition, and this makes for more democratic and more sensible (and perhaps less distinctive) outcomes.

                                    *            *            *

All this background leads to the current competition for the redevelopment of the Flinders Street Railway Station. 'Meet me under the clocks' doesn't need any explanation to most Melburnians, so proposing to tamper with such a key Melbourne icon is really serious stuff.   The existing complex was also the subject of a competition in 1899 and it sensibly turned its back on the collection of industrial backyards on the opposite bank of the Yarra when the station was built (1901-1911).

But the opposite bank has gradually been trans-formed over the last 30 years, first by the Arts precinct and then the development of Southbank with its riverside walk, restaurants and casino extending down to Spencer Street.  In my opinion the riverside walk is probably the best urban intervention in the CBD in the last hundred years if you can shut your eyes to the quality of the architecture!

The Station is pretty well the last big undeveloped site in the CBD and there is a general feeling that the station should present a better face to the river and Southbank.  Let's also be clear-eyed before we get too excited about all the possible public benefits; such strong financial incentives are involved in a development of this size that the tail often wags the dog!  The site goes down to the Queen Street bridge and allows construction to be built in four stages.  And all of these factors usually muddy distinctive design decision-making.

For all these reasons I'm inclined to think that this is not one of those situations ideally suited for a competition, but unfortunately this is no longer an issue as an international two stage architectural competition is already half completed. One million dollars has been allocated for the competition (half for the winner) and an 8 person jury was chosen. 

The jury consists of the Government Architect (Chair), Chief City Planner Rob Adams, a specialist heritage architect, an international urban planner (from Holland), the Under Secretary of the Department of Transport, a representative of the property industry, architect Cassandra Fahey represents the younger generation, and a prominent Australian represents us all.

It all sounds a bit bureaucratic with one of everything but getting past the job titles there are five men and three women, and the ones I know of are all safe hands.  However it does concern me that there is no real hands-on designer of large projects on the jury.  Of the five architects one is a heritage specialist, and two of them have largely planning and overall bureaucratic roles in life rather than direct design involvement.  The property and transport reps seem like solid citizens and although I'm not sure what the prominent restauranteur George Columbaris is expected to contribute, I'm hoping he'll supply that all-too-often-forgotten commonsense and a public conscience.

The competition conditions, all 39 pages of them, sets down the aims of the competition prefaced by the normal mantra about Melbourne being a one of the world's most creative and liveable cities;

First the white bread:

• Restore and protect the Administration Building and other heritage items including adaptive re-use of areas that have high public interest such as the ballroom to be accessible to the public.

•  Improve all aspects of the transport function of the station and as adjacent transport nodes and cater for significant growth in transport patronage.

•  Better integrate the station with surrounding precincts such as Federation Square, providing better linkages between the CBD and the Yarra River.

Then the meat in the sandwich:

•Better utilise the land adjacent to rail and air spaces above rail on the western portion of the site.

• Provide significant civic space while allowing for a distinctive and memorable architectural outcome with a mix of uses; and

•  Provide a value-for-money solution capable of being (at least partially) self funding.

No cost limit was imposed, and the key height constraint is defined as follows:

Design proposals should not cast a shadow beyond the waterline of the south bank of the Yarra River in mid-winter (11:00 to 14:00, 22June). This represents an effective heightlimit of 45 metres to the south boundary of the station, rising at an angle ofapproximately 25 degrees moving north.

The diagram illustrating the envelope that this height could generate in a maximum development scenario is pretty alarming.  I hope the new buildings will not be so high as to eliminate all the winter-sun sparkle on the water, and not over-shadow that nice footbridge entirely.

The first stage was duly held, there were 117 entries, and the six firms below were selected to participate. The Stage 2 designs are due on 4th July 2013 with the final decision announced by the end of July.

• Ashton Raggatt MacDougall
• John Wardle Architects+ Grimshaw (UK)
• Hassell+ Herzog & de Meuron (Switzerland)
• NH Architecture
• Eduardo Velasquez+ Manuel Alejandro Pineda+Santiago Medina (Colombia)
• Zaha Hadid (UK) +BVN Architects

Two of the local firms have gone it alone, and two have associated themselves with overseas so-called starchitects.  This latter day cultural cringe is quite unnecessary; Wardle and Hassell don't need any help so why?  Zaha Hadid has associated herself with a local firm (local experience could help her, especially if she wins), and there is one group from Colombia. Except for the Colombians there are no surprises, all the Melbourne firms are well known. In some ways this list represents a changing of the architectural guard; ten years ago it would have been axiomatic that Denton Corker Marshall and Daryl Jackson would have been on the shortlist.

Hadid is the only well known female (and Muslim) architect with an international reputation, and her career is a testament to the value of the competition system in finding and giving opportunities to un-recognised talent. Born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1950 she studied architecture at the AA school in London after an early degree in Maths in Beirut, and worked with Rem Koolhaas until she opened her own office in London in 1980.  Hadid is a prolific competition entrant and has won many prizes and much attention for her beautiful drawings.  Among her completed buildings are the Maxxi Gallery of 21st Century Art in Rome, the BMW Central Building in Leipzig and the Aquatic Centre at the London Olympics.  She was awarded the Pritzker Prize  (the architectural Nobel) in 2004, the Stirling Prize two years running (in 2010 for the Maxxi and in 2011 for a school in Brixton, London) and she was made a Dame of the British Empire in the 2012 Birthday Honors list for her services to architecture.  Hadid is the only woman architect among those shortlisted and we should all be pleased for multiple reasons if the jury selects her design.

Crikey blogger Alan Davies asks how it is that despite the judging being anonymous the same names pop up in competitions all the time. Perhaps it's because the styles of ARM and Hadid are not only distinctive, they also have great experience of how to appeal to the juries and win competitions.  Davies repeats a passed-over competitor quoting a jury aside that 80% of the 'anonymous' entries were recognisable!  Could this be why none of the Sydney architectural mafia got a guernsey?  I would hope inter-city rivalry didn't enter into the selection, we should only be concerned at getting the best design!  Who cares (if they ever did) that the SOH was designed by a Dane.

None of the selected designs have been made available yet so all we can do is wait and see.  But there are a number of serious points that should be made.  While all the designs will no doubt be professionally competent, it will be interesting to see the different emphases each makes to satisfy the important self-funding criterion. A real vision for this open-ended development is conspicuously lacking, and the requirement that it should be at least partially self-funded makes it likely that a large commercial component will be needed to achieve this end.  One has to query whether this imperative will create the best outcome for ordinary onlookers like me? 

The precarious finances of a State government that is unable to pay schoolteachers and nurses properly makes it unlikely that the proposed improvements to the transport infrastructure will be able to be afforded directly.  Yet Melbourne's busiest railway station will eventually need to beintegrated with a new station for the planned north-south Melbourne Metro while all the time maintaining day-to-day rail operations. And what about that much talked about rail connection to the airport? 

This is serious stuff with enormous political and cost ramifications to be simply added on as a side issue to a competition where all the emphasis and attention will be on a hoped for money spinning 'Bilbao Guggenheim' type of architectural and financial king hit and how much overseas type tourism this might generate in order to permit everything else to happen.  One can see spurious Grand Prix type 'bed night'justifications looming!

This competition is starting to look more and more like a disguised attempt by the Bailleau government to flush out potential developers and financiers for another of the PPP's (Public Private Piracy) that are always excoriated by Ken Davidson in The Age for very cogent reasons ; like they cost us the taxpayers a lot more and inevitably reduce the funds available for schools and hospitals!

On a much smaller scale, the recent history of the Triangle development in St Kilda demonstrates what happens if you try and build a money tree. The heritage Palais Theatre is owned by the State government and forms part of the Triangle site.  The Palais needs considerable restoration that the previous Labor government was unwilling to fund. 

Rather than a beautiful contemporary art garden with affordable amenities being designed for this beachside site, a regional shopping centre was proposed instead to generate profits to pay for the restoration of the Palais.  It's a difficult enough equation to achieve the right balance commercially, and it usually ends up creating bad social outcomes in the long run. 

Citizen action and the GFC stopped the Triangle proceeding. In this case if we end up with a PPP for the Flinders Street Station, the problem will be keeping a firm hold on the potential benefits for the citizens of Melbourne to prevent them being barter-ed away during the lengthy development process.

So keep your fingers crossed and have your say!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
February 2013