Fed Square turns 10

Fed Square turns 10

It emerged 10 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. As Fed Square hits double digits, it's time to take the pulse of the city's cobbled heart.

ROBYN Archer has savoured many special moments in Federation Square. The former artistic director of the Melbourne Festival and, more recently, of the square's Light in Winter festival has spent much time there — but some memories remain particularly vibrant and emotional. After all, the site, despite the naysaying, has given the city that indescribable something it has always sought.

Archer remembers the first event of the 2003 festival, when 4000 people learnt a version of Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain routine. "Towards the end, a light shower produced an incredible rainbow through the square and people lifted their arms and sang, 'I'm singing and dancing . . . in the rain'. That was special, because we knew the square worked."

Well, you can always depend on a bit of rain in Melbourne, but there was something else in the air, too. It was there again at a large anti-war rally before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, at the long-awaited apology to the Stolen Generation, and at sundry union protests, cultural festivals, art installations and even small gatherings of friends. It is a decade since Federation Square opened and while it has endured its share of criticism — most before the scaffolding was even erected — few critics have managed to maintain their rage.

Even the church and heritage folk might agree that had the controversial shards remained in their original guise near the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets, the view of St Paul's might still have been magnificent. One of the things that struck the first visitors to Fed Square when it opened in October 2002 was the wonderful views and perspectives it afforded — of the majestic Flinders Street railway station; up Swanston Street and down St Kilda Road; across the river to the Alexandra Gardens; and west along the Yarra, past Southbank and all the way to a glimpse of the Westgate Bridge.

Federation Square chief executive Kate Brennan enjoys a view over the plaza's daily activity.

Federation Square chief executive Kate Brennan enjoys a view over the plaza's daily activity.

Photo: Simon Schluter

The consensus is that Fed Square, as everyone calls it, has been a huge success, with about 9 million visitors a year. It has succeeded where City Square failed, embodying a sense of civic and cultural spirit, acting as an intuitive gathering place, and capturing the essence of something distinctly Melburnian.

What is it that makes Fed Square so appealing and so well used? And can it keep the energy going? After all, the town squares of Europe have been at the hearts of their communities for centuries. Is a decade any measure of the long-term sustainability of a huge civic project that cost $450 million (the original estimate was $110 million) and took four years to build?

Certainly, visitors get a good feeling from the place. Here we are at the square — the buildings might be emphatic with their geometric lines and fractured facades, but the plaza they enfold seems more organic — and there are all sorts of people hanging about. A group of older women are sunning themselves on deckchairs, perusing programs for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, schoolgirls are enjoying ice-creams near the gelataria, and some office blokes are watching sport on the big screen. All sorts of singles, couples and multiples sit on the steps near the visitor centre, waiting for someone.

From her office upstairs at the south-east end of the plaza, Federation Square Pty Ltd chief executive Kate Brennan looks down on the beautiful West Australian sandstone cobbles that, with their rich, warm colours, pave the way up a gentle rise. Melburnians, it seems, were immediately attracted by the warmth of the 467,000 individually laid cobbles and by the naturalistic topography that echoes an amphitheatre or, as many have observed, the piazza in Siena, Italy.

Brennan says the Federation Square company "manages the space on behalf of the community" and it is her responsibility to know how the plaza is used. As often as she can, Brennan steps into the square, perhaps with a cup of tea, for 10 minutes to stay in touch.

In a culture that seems to value obsessive updating and everything constantly being bigger-brighter-faster, Brennan's approach — and, indeed, that set down in the square's civil and cultural charter and in the very foundations of the architecture — is more about long-term engagement, making the place classic, and building tradition and ownership among the communities that use it. Those communities encompass pretty much everyone, not only inner-city types. The square has hosted 2944 events in the past year, including 30 multicultural festivals. Most groups are based in the suburbs.

"When I look out my window and think about the challenging world we live in, I see positive energy every day," Brennan says.

"There are so many volunteers, artists and community groups who are all wanting to share and grow, and we like to think we help that in some way. We are nothing unless the community wants to engage with us — that's partly about us being responsive and partly about going to them and saying have you thought about doing this or that."

There was this palpable yearning by Melburnians for a place they could call their own.

Brennan says the original brief for the Fed Square design competition — launched internationally in 1996 and won by a partnership between London-based Lab architecture studio and Bates Smart — continues to inform daily operations. "[The brief] made it clear that the role of the company and the square was to celebrate those things that make Melbourne strong and great, and that included multiculturalism, our great sporting culture and our diverse arts activities," she says.

Brennan has been in her present job for seven years, but in a previous role at the Melbourne City Council she was heavily involved with the two-stage design brief in 1996-97. She was in Adelaide in between and when she returned "you couldn't get into a cab without someone asking you what you thought about Fed Square.

"It was very much alive in the minds of the community and it was very much a mixture of criticism and anxiety, and people who were very forward-looking and really anticipating the project," she says.

"Very early on the community voted with its feet. I always say to people that the success of Fed Square has really been a function, in part, of that desire the people of Melbourne had over a long time for a city square — in part because they wanted to see the end of the gas and fuel buildings. There was a lot of criticism of that design and the 'blight' on the landscape.

"There was this palpable yearning by Melburnians for a place that they could call their own."

Brennan believes the square's defining moment came during the soccer World Cup in 2006, when crowds filled the plaza to watch the matches on the big screen. The atmosphere was electric. Someone wrote in The Age that the square had at last turned into the latter-day village green it aspired to be - and the old story of whether it was a white elephant was given up, Brennan says.

For Robyn Archer, the mood changed much earlier, even before the fences around the building site came down. ''I know there were differing opinions about the architecture and the look, but I always found it interesting and couldn't wait for it to open so we could use it for the festival,'' Archer says.

''In fact, we used it when the barriers were still up for a show called Knot at Home, which was about street kids. There was a bed, right at the edge of the barriers, and it was occupied 24/7 during the festival - young people interviewed the public about the matter of homelessness. It drew huge crowds and was very successful, and I knew then that Fed Square would be a winner.''

Many didn't expect it to be. A professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne described the square as ''windswept, gimmicky and kitsch''. Before he became premier, John Brumby called it ''a mismatch of buildings with all the charm and grace of Godzilla''. But when people started to use the site, the design squabbles became insignificant, Archer says. ''Melbourne wanted a place to meet - and this was it. Ever since, the public has used this to gather - for celebration, for protest, for pride.''

Donald Bates, one of the architects responsible for Fed Square's design, gives lectures internationally about the design and construction of the 3.8-hectare site, and continues to reflect on how the space functions and why it works. Standing in the atrium, with people sitting around the busy cafe, or flowing in and out of the NGV and up the stairs to the plaza or into the unusual space that is the BMW Edge, he looks pleased with the results.

Bates says that when he entered the design competition, he was more interested in the idea of creating, rather than discovering, a heart for a city.

''There is this thing, 'the heart of Melbourne', which is not to say people didn't have an aspiration for it in a public space, but how it manifested is something that had to be offered, and then taken up and consolidated,'' he says. ''And then [it had to be] used in ways we wouldn't have imagined - it's not as if we controlled everything.''

But the architects were able to control a lot of things and he is pleased they were insistent about the quality of the project. ''That has paid off and vindicated our persistence,'' he says.

Bates says the architects would love to take all the credit, but much of the success of Fed Square has to do with the programming, with people using the space for all sorts of reasons, including visits to the NGV, ACMI and restaurants.

For Archer and Brennan, the most surprising thing has been the enthusiasm with which culturally diverse communities have taken up the place. ''There is no particular reason why communities who are based in the suburbs of Melbourne should want a presence at Fed Square, but they have said it's vital to them,'' Archer says. ''Having a visible presence at the heart of Melbourne is what they value most about their participation in the Light in Winter.''

She says the Tuvalu/Kiribati community has been particularly articulate on this subject. ''They said that rising sea levels would soon destroy their country - and then where do their children call home? For future generations, claiming a space in the heart of the city is highly symbolic. This sentiment is expressed by so many communities. If they want visibility, and want to make a statement and have a presence, then Fed Square is the only place to do it.''


■Federation Square will be hosting free events this weekend.


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