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A Long Look at Federation Square
Russell Degnan

Amongst the many interesting things said in the lecture on Tuesday, one was that he though Federation Square would be a good urban space, in time. The square has been criticised, by a lot of people, a lot of times, since it was conceived and built. But I've wanted to hold off until it was finished. To give it the benefit of the doubt. Now that it is - finally - it is about time I said my peace. Because Gehl's exhortations on what makes a good square is still fresh in my mind, I'll also assess it on some of those too.

The Architecture

It could only be a gross attempt on my part to pass judgement on the architecture of this building given my limited knowledge on the subject; but I will attend a few points.

First the good. I like the atrium (right), especially at night when the changing multi-coloured coloured lights reflect across the roof and grey stone pathways. The inside of the gallery is brilliant; the spaces remind me of a level from Doom, or Quake, alternatively light and dark, with interesting lines of sight across and through the various spaces. The theatres in ACMI are also as good as any I've been in.

I've heard it said that the patterns on the building itself are ugly, but I disagree. It is probably the mathematician in me, but I like the varied complexity of the patterned shape approach to tiling, such as here, or in Storey Hall. It allows the designer to do interesting things with modern materials, without getting the plain, dull surface that materials without natural textures have.

Which leads to the bad. The surfaces without patterning are about as interesting as corrugated iron. Unfortunately, those surfaces are also the ill-fated shards at the front. The purpose of these was to provide something striking at the front of the square which would also frame St. Paul's and contrast with the city. It was a good idea, but for a few reasons it hasn't work. One, because of government interference, and public anxiety about blocking the view of the cathedral the front shard was shortened. Two, although the shard closest to the square is ok, the one nearer the river is too wide, too short, and not sharp enough. It photographs terribly, being dull and either black or metallic grey; blocks the view of the square from the southern entrance; and more than anything. just doesn't fit with the remainder of the building.

The second complaint I have is the way it interfaces with the surrounds. It is a long, mostly dull walk up Flinders St. to the atrium. There are just a few shadowed entrances to ACMI, and a largely dull, monotonous, grey hammering at you with no relief from the elements, or the traffic. Nor is there any greenery. On the other side, there is an almost criminal neglect of the river. Just two half-hearted back-entrances, and a few seats on a balcony or two allow you to experience the water. It is a self-centred structure that way. It could have been placed anywhere in Melbourne and not been markedly changed. This may be true of most buildings in Melbourne, but compare it to the Flinders St. station opposite, with the tower facing down the length of Elizabeth St. and the main entrance leading out onto the city's busiest intersection.

The Public Space

There were 12 points that Gehl described as important for a public space to operate at its best. Divided into 3 subsections: Protection, Comfort, and Enjoyment. Some are more important than others, some are more subtle than others. Two key points that are both, Federation Square does well.

The first of those is the Edge effect. Psychologically, people don't like sitting or standing exposed to the eyes of others. Good public spaces therefore, have lots of alcoves, and pillars for people to stand in and around, and place the seats, and other assorted objects that people sit on at the edge of the space - or, have effective edges, with steps, or sloped areas to sit on. Because of the undulating terrain, and the line of cafes along its edge, Federation Square has good edges. Given the right day, there are lots of places to watch the world go by.

The second, on which Fed. Square does equally well, is Talkscapes. The ability to talk quietly is not undervalued by people even if it often is by the designers of urban spaces. By isolating the square from Swanston and Flinders Streets the designers have gained a relatively quiet area that you can relax and have conversations in. The true test of how easy it is to talk is probably to make a call on a mobile phone - in which I've never had any trouble. Except at New Year when the annual collapse of the telecommunications infrastructure occurs after midnight.

Having covered three of the good qualities of squares:

5. Possibilities for STANDING/STAYING.
6. Possibilities for SITTING.
8. Possibilities for HEARING/TALKING.

I'll mention the others that Fed Square does well:

1. Protection against Traffic and Accidents.
2. Protection against crime and violence.
7. Possibilities to SEE.
10. Scale.

Most of these are self-explanatory. There is no traffic, good views of the city and the people coming and going through the square - though not the river - and the buildings are designed for people, not cars. One point should be made however. Fed. Square isn't a streetscape, nor is it integrated into the urban fabric. Because of the gallery, the cafes and restaurants, it will always be busy, and therefore relatively safe, but its isolation from the streets - while a benefit from a traffic viewpoint - means that few people travel through it each day, and few return often. It is therefore, an unowned space, with a diverse, but fluid and variable collection of users. Sometimes, a public space can become derelict from that situation, as it gets older, dirtier and less popular; unlikely, but if the gallery was to wane in popularity, and the businesses to close, then it would be a problem, and the relevant authorities would need to see the signs beforehand.

On then, to the bad things. Three of these can be blamed, almost entirely on three things. One, the cobblestones, two, the lack of plant- life, and three, the orientation of the square. They are:

2. Protection against unpleasant sense experiences.
7. Possibilities for WALKING.
11. Possibilities for enjoying positive aspects of climate.
12. Aesthetic quality / positive sense experience.

Despite our complaints, compared to almost any place you'd care to mention, Melbourne has an excellent climate. It is mild all year round, lots of daylight, with no snow, and few cold extremes. However, perhaps because we've grown so soft, the cold southerly winds running off the bay, and the intense summer sun can be bitter when they arrive. Which makes the three things previously mentioned a problem.

The orientation of the square leaves a gap facing down the river, to the bay, so when the cold win arrives, it blows up the square. A better gap would have run from the north-west to south-east, rather than the south- west. The lack of plant-life is self-explanatory, it is a hot, shadeless area, with no protection from the rain or wind. The picture from Cup Day last year bears this out. Notice that while a number of hardy souls sit on the square near the screen, the majority have taken refuge under the shade, or, as I did, on one of the few patches of grass.

The cobblestones though, were badly thought out for two reasons. One, obviously, is the heat. They reflect it, when they should absorb it, turning the square into a furnace. The second I didn't notice myself, but, one of the benefits of spending time at the gallery is that you can eavesdrop on the conversations of our older, and more forthright citizens. On several occasions, I have heard them mention to one another that the cobblestones are hard to walk on, and potentially dangerous, and that they choose to walk elsewhere (ie. up Flinders St.). The square isn't a place I'd choose to walk through, even if there was a place to walk to that involves going through the square. This is a pity though, because otherwise, it is a pleasant place to be, and, if nothing else, it means it is easily fixed.

The final point, relates again to the self-centred, unowned aspects of the square:

9. Possibilities for PLAY/ UNFOLDING / ACTIVITIES.

Without question, there is a lot of entertainment at the square, but it is all organised. Because the square is a destination, and not a place to rest or travel through while doing other activities, the possibilities for unplanned activities - impromptu games of football, or hacky-sack, chance meetings, or sitting to watch a busker (though where they are I don't know) - don't really seem to occur.

That's my impression though. There is a lot of good, a lot of valiant attempts to do good that need some tuning, and a few things we'll have to live with.

Urban Design 8th February, 2004 21:25:46   [#] 


Well Done
I agree with you totally. On the balance, Federation Square is great in terms of it's provision of public open space - however improvements can always be made - particularly in respect to the space near the ACMI/SBS entrance and near the Yarra.

Hopefully I'll see you all on Tuesday evening (after I finish work).

Aaron Hewett  15th February, 2004 02:00:45  

Public Space isn't always nice though...
While Fed Square does provide adequate public space, it doesn't really do any much though it's design to entice people to make use of the public space. Underused public space, if you will. As Russ mentioned, the Square isn't a place people would choose to walk through, which is a shame. Part of this I believe is the old term 'concrete jungle'. There are no trees, very little grass and the surfaces of the buildings are very harsh and unforgiving on the eye.

So, in terms of providing public space, Fed Square succeeds; however, in aesthetic terms, there are a lot of things which make the Square undesirable to walk though, most of which Russ has already mentioned, but I think it's important to distinguish public space from usable public space.

Ando  25th February, 2004 11:14:39  


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