The place to be….

When city squares are being discussed, Gian Lorenzo Bernini's great space contained by those magnificent curved colonnades in front of St Peters automatically comes to mind, or San Marco in Venice perhaps, name your own favourite. But creating a public place de novo for a modern city the way Federation Square was created ten years ago is a bit different; the great European examples simply aren't relevant and there aren't many modern precedents.  We need to find a better name than 'square' for such a different sort of gathering place, a place that is far from being square in any sense. 

It's totally misleading to even think of Fed Square and an Italian piazza in the same breath.  Napoleon once quipped that Italians have the smallest houses but the biggest living rooms in Europe, meaning the piazzas, and I remember a series of Italian short stories about domestic dramas, each of which concluded by saying, 'And the men went down into the piazza'.  The Italian piazza is a necessary complement of confined housing, and the daily passeggiata or promenade in the evening fulfils a quite different social role to that of a managed entertainment place like Fed Square with its programmed events to attract visitors.

Many of the open spaces in older cities were not consciously created and designed like Fed Square, and the only naturally alive public space we have, that in front of the Public Library in Swanston Street just happened without big screens, programmed events or coffee shops and bars as props, and succeeds largely because of the young people using the library and the proximity of the RMIT campus; it's a popular and genuinely used public space and lifts my heart whenever I pass by.  The few other public places that have just happened have mostly had commercial imperatives rather than any conscious urban design input, Hardware Lane for example, but are non-the-less valuable for all that.

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For a variety of reasons Melbourne hasn't done that well until recently with specially designed public spaces.  The first proposal to create a public square was in Swanston Street between the Town Hall at one end, and St Pauls Cathedral at the other; it was, one would have thought, a good location between two great city monuments.  In 1974 the City Council commissioned Clarke Gazzard Architects to prepare a feasibility study and set down the parameters for a design competition for a new city square on this site.

It soon became clear that the raison d'etre behind the creation of this new public open space was not so much the square as the demolition of the Regent Theatre and an adjacent building, and the redevelopment of the combined site as a profitable office development; the new square was the public bait to make this action politically palatable!  The Town Clerk, a powerful Sir Humphrey Appleby like figure, briefed me and told me that the theatre wasn't worth keeping and had to go, leaving me in no doubt what was expected of me; clearly a lot of money was at stake! 

However the council brief said I was to 'examine all options for the develop-ment of the site' and even if only for completeness, one of the options was clearly to retain the Theatre. Even if this option was only a straw man to be knocked down, it needed to be included to show that the process had been thorough and justice had been done.

And the more I investigated the more I became convinced that there was a real case that the retention of the theatre should at the very least be serious-ly considered.  Quite apart from being in a de Mille Rococco or Late Goldwyn Spanish style that many people saw as part of our Twenties heritage, it was the only theatre in Melbourne that seated over three thousand people and theatre people (and the Council's own Strategic plan) pointed out the need for a venue large enough for spectacle theatre where big casts require big audiences for short runs in order to make them pay.  It therefore didn't seem unreasonable to include an option retaining the Regent Theatre.

The Town Clerk was overseas when my report was submitted, and on his return dressed me down like a schoolboy for daring to include such an un-welcome option.  However, quite separately from the council's actions and intentions, there was a groundswell of growing public agitation to save the theatre, and Premer Hamer finally commissioned a Public Enquiry to decide.  The Town Clerk forbade me to appear, but in my opinion it wasn't a matter of taking sides as much as an evidence-based attempt to find the most suitable option, and I duly gave what straight evidence I could in a charged situation.  In the end the commissioners recommended the theatre should be retained, and the government accepted their advice. 

This historical digression (excuse me) was necessary to explain that the retention of the Regent in turn changed the intended size of the square.  Once the size was settled a design competition was held, Denton Corker Marshall was chosen and the square opened by the British Queen in 1980.  But whatever it's design virtues, and there were many, this square was a cold bluestone place, not helped by a long running controversy about an abstract steel sculpture, dubbed the Yellow Peril by the public, that was eventually removed out of the square.  It's fair to say that Melburnians never came to love this rather over-designed space.

The Council's reaction to the Hamer enquiry was to board up the Regent, no doubt hoping that circumstances might change, and it stayed like that until Premier Kennett renovated the building in grand style twenty-five years later, and it's not only playing a proper role in Melbourne's theatrical life but is always good for an architectural giggle.  The restoration of the Regent allowed the balance of the site, between a reduced size square and the Regent theatre, to be redeveloped as the Westin Hotel. Unfortunately the Council permitted this not very distinguished building to be developed to a greedy height; the building would have been better, and it would have been better for the feel of the public space, if the top six storeys of apartments had not been built.

And Westin in turn, created the opportunity to replace the gloomy blue-stone plaza with a smaller and simpler, gravel paved, more open public space.  Since cars have been removed and Swanston Street redesigned, it's started to come into its own as an extension of the street space with a wonderful avenue of trees along it's edge; it's become an incidental city space rather than having to live up to being 'the City Square'.

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The idea of the Sydney Opera House has been a powerful influence and people niggled that Melbourne needed an icon too.  This unnecessary and unfortunate suggestion ignores the sheer lucky accident that Sydney ended up with a great building on a prominent site.  It's not a situation that can be easily replicated as we've found out in Fed Square; design competitions don't always result in great iconic buildings by any means. The Opera House forecourt is also not a public square in the sense talked about here, but people never-the-less kept talking about creating 'Melbourne's answer to the Sydney Opera House'.  Melbourne has its own unique and special qualities, such invidious comparisons simply aren't helpful and create false expectations.

Unfortunately a lot of these too great expectations went into Federation Square, the next attempt to create a great public space for Melbourne.  Universally abbreviated, Fed Square is ideally located at the very epicentre of Melbourne opposite that great Melbourne hub, the Flinders Street Railway Station corner.  The site was created by the removal of two ugly Gas and Fuel Buildings that spoilt the vista of the Cathedral from St Kilda Road.  Fed Square was also the subject of a design competition that was won by Lab Architecture Studio in association with local architects Bate Smart and completed in 2002.   

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Fed Square, The Age published a piece that commenced saying that the square,' emerged ten years ago amid howls of derision, and critics still decry its windswept, treeless expanse.  But one Melburnian's kitsch is another's masterpiece, and 9 million visitors a year can't be wrong'

TheAge was right, there are great differences of opinion about the whole complex and the appearance of the buildings in particular, but what's more important than its aesthetics perhaps, is whether it works well in terms of people activities and whether people like it. 

And the with this year's visitors exceeding 9 million they certainly appear to if the numbers are taken at face value.  Numbers aren't the only criterion of course, more people go to the football that the National Gallery of Victoria, but that doesn't lessen the importance of the latter institution. But half an hour spent in Fed Square observing the people, what they are doing and how they are behaving, is enough to convince anyone that Melburnians might turn their noses up at the buildings but they have claimed the place as their own.  

It's popular and the managers of Fed Square claim that it captures 'the essence of something distinctly Melburnian' and point out that it was the venue of choice for 30 multicultural festivals and thousands of smaller events this year.  They consider the defining moment of its success to be the soccer World Cup finals in 2006 seen on the big screen, but point out that it has also been used for political gatherings like a large anti-war rally before the invasion of Iraq, and the apology to the Stolen Generation; with the Queen Victoria Market, Fed Square is one of the top two tourist destinations in Victoria.

With all these superlatives, I suspect they are talking about the 'party' half near Swanston Street with the big screen and entertainment stage, because in reality Fed Square consists of two connected but quite different places. The main sloping open space is oriented to the west facing Flinders Street Station with the buildings forming a rough U-shape around the open space.  Apart from the screen and performance space, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) higher up the slope, this open space is lined with the obligatory eating and drinking places. With all sorts of skilful level changes, ramped steps, and low walls for sitting on, this open area slopes up to the other half of the complex defined by the side of the Atrium, which is on a lower level.

 The Ian Potter Centre, which houses the Australian collection of the National Gallery of Victoria is located on this lower level, together with a bookshop, the Atrium (a version of a 19th century wintergarden) and the Edge, a glazed auditorium for public events, along with cafés and a few craft type shops.  This end of Fed Square is never as busy and for want of a better name is the serious 'culture' end as distinct from the popular end near Swanston Street.  It can be accessed from Flinders Street through the glazed Atrium, an underused space except when it's a book fair at weekends. 

 The balance of the Fed Square frontage facing Flinders Street is dead, perhaps the idea was to channel people through the middle to increase the busyness of the central space.  You can't even get into ACMI from Flinders Street and have to climb a long flight of steps to the main entry in the top central space.  Despite these niggles, this arrangement works well enough and the gallery spaces on several levels are well designed for the display of works of art; the detailing is a bit obsessively geometric with lots of acute angles.  With its views of the river, the glazed Edge auditorium works well for public talks and performances.

 It's the appearance of the exterior walls of the buildings that many people don't like.  These exteriors could perhaps best be described as being in a deconstructivist style.  To refresh your memory, Deconstructivism has been defined as being 'characterized by ideas of fragmentation, an interest in manipulating ideas of a structure's surface or skin, non-rectilinear shapes which serve to distort and dislocate some of the elements of architecture, such as structure and envelope'.

This fits the complex geometrical design of the external walls of these buildings that feature a mix of zinc, perforated zinc, glass and sandstone tiles over a metal frame in a complex geometrical pattern composed entirely of triangles.  These 'fractal' facades are contrasted with so-called vertical 'shards', one of which became the centre of controversy as it was claimed to block the view of the cathedral and was eventually removed by political fiat; not a thing to be encouraged!  The remaining shards are completely clad in metallic surfaces with angular slots, similar in design to Daniel Liebeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin.  Liebeskind was one of the jurors who chose Lab Architecture Studio for this job, and I understand that Donald Bates, one of the Lab principals, worked with him on the Berlin building.  Nothing wrong with any of that, remember what Oscar Wilde said, and perhaps Mr Bates had taken the lead in the way this aspect was worked out in Berlin, who knows.

It raises difficult questions about authorship and design credit in architect-ural practices.  In the end the principals usually get all the credit (and all the blame) but good ideas by colleagues obviously get incorporated and trans-formed as the work proceeds. Usually the office/company is simply credited with the design, particularly in big corporate offices, although here is an increasing tendency these days to go further and credit the actual team who worked on the building, and I like this although it has its problems.

Federation Square has won architectural awards and has also been listed as the fifth ugliest building in the world so it must have done something right to attract such opposite views!  I don't like the external appearance of the buildings much myself, but the architects are serious people and their work should be respected rather than vilified; time will tell how well the design weathers in both senses.  And although the facades are clever in their use of computers, I think this direction is largely a dead end for architecture, but again time will tell.

The architects will hate it, but I suspect that the external appearance of the buildings will be 'made over' as they say in shopping centre circles, within the next ten years; in general this fashion cycle to update buildings seems to be getting shorter and shorter.  If they live long enough, architects just have to get used to their buildings being demolished or changed.

So Melbourne's answer will have to wait, but that was a silly notion anyway.
It also doesn't fulfil the concept promoted by some that Melbourne is a 'design' city; saying so doesn't make it so!  But Fed Square is enormously popular for big planned events, commercial and otherwise, and big parades like that for the Melbourne Cup now finish there, as I found out when I was trapped on Monday without a tram in sight. It's popular and well liked and although there's precious little landscaping or protection from the sun or the winter wind, it's  a good place to sit and eat your sandwiches if it's not too hot or too cold. And it supports two good cultural institutions in ACMI and the Ian Potter Centre.  Isn't this enough for a major piece of urbanism that only cost $467 millions? 

 

Don Gazzard
November 2012