I have an hour before going to my first Melbourne UDF lunch. Of course I head straight for Federation Square, as my last visit to Melbourne was some five years ago. Having oriented myself in Swanston Street, I steer towards the Shrine end. As the Flinders Street intersection opens up, I am boldly greeted by the exuberance of the Flinders Street station entrance. But where is the counterpoint of Melbourne’s No1 civic space? Is it the somewhat esoteric scarlet billboard advertising Melbourne 2007? Perhaps a negative punctuation is intended so that the station entrance is not upstaged.
The easy steps to the main plaza lead me to the terraced rendezvous place.
I feel like picking a meeting spot a little less crowded and obvious but my unstructured meanderings do not lead me to any other landmark that could be easily identified. The view back towards the city is more enticing than the prospect ahead. Which way to move? There are few clear visual cues.
A rather large contorted automatic door leads me to the Atrium Balcony – with almost no where to go. The balcony space is no wider that a generous domestic corridor. Although the view down is engaging, you have to get right to the edge of the masonry enclosure before you discover what is below. When I do get down to the lower level, I conclude that the internal spaces are more engaging than the external.
I cannot recall precisely how the controversy over the ‘shard’ was resolved. However, back outside, I find that there are still large ‘blocks’ (are they buildings?) which obscure the direct view to St. Paul’s Cathedral and parts of Flinders Street. Apart from the heritage acknowledgement, there is value in these clear vistas to maintain the relationship with, or a reflection of the city grid, and aid orientation.
Even though I believe I am spatially quite ‘literate’, I find drawing the arrangement of the square quite difficult. I would identify it as a problem of internal legibility, which I suggest is central to a clear sense of place.
Cluttering space with ‘things’
In Australia we often tend to clutter up simple spaces by putting ‘things’ into them. There are a number of these ‘objects’ in the larger exterior spaces. Think of the other great squares and urban spaces around the world. I acknowledge that the leading edge of contemporary architecture has overtaken me. The exterior claddings and patterns of the major buildings has been a subject of discourse. I have to stretch my thinking to reconcile the broken eggshell skins being draped over what seem like quite ordinary and rational buildings underneath. To me the challenges of the derivation and evolution of these envelopes does not justify the end product.
No doubt great thought has gone into the paving, but overall I experience a sense of confusion. There is a feel of domesticity about it, be it the size, pattern or colour. I yearn for the broader sweeps of formality that might reinforce the movement directions. How will my mother, who is less sure footed than I am, fare on the small cobbles? I would prefer to push a stroller on a more suitable surface.
The uses and activities within the buildings of course help to animate the place when there are no big events staged. However, I would wish a little more life and intimacy around the edges which do not draw me to be closer to them. My lay relatives in Melbourne say that Federation Square grows on you. I guess so did the former somewhat unfortunate buildings on the site, as does the habitat of those incarcerated for life.
Oh, we are so almost infinitely adaptable and accommodating of our built settings. Perhaps just as well. If all of Melbourne wants to be here when Australia plays Italy in the next World Cup, perhaps it is the right thing for the city. However, next time I have an hour to while away in Melbourne, it is not the place that will draw me – either to watch the town go by or to meet someone.
It is better to have Federation Square than what was there before. It is also right that everything should speak of its own era. That is how we mark time. A place of great civic importance might also strive for a timeless quality as well. However, there is a difference, be it subtle, between something being of its time and being dated. My concern for Federation Square is that it will be dated too soon. How long before the next face lift? Incidentally, the lunch was good. Pity if you missed it.