Did good design make Federation Square a success?Posted: April 28, 2010
So why do some places like Fed Square have “buzz” but others, like the previous attempt at a city square, seem lacklustre? And why is Docklands, for example, unable to attract visitors in large numbers or create a sense of excitement and vibrancy like Fed Square?
A common explanation is design and Fed Square is indeed a wonderful building with a grand sense of occasion. Good design can certainly make things work better and poor design can subvert the best of intentions. But design rarely “makes” a project successful. Buildings like Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House are the exception rather than the rule.
Let me advance a handful of alternative hypotheses for why Fed Square has been so successful in attracting users and establishing itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark. None of these by themselves is sufficient but combined they provide a compelling explanation.
First, Fed Square filled an enormous gap. Before it was built, Melbourne had no gathering place in the city centre where people could come together in large numbers. There was latent demand but no one had stepped forward to supply it until Fed Square was built. It provided a unique offering – the ability to accommodate 15,000 people smack bang in the CBD in relative comfort and safety. For free and with no walls.
Second, Fed Square was built in a premium – in fact unique – location. It occupies the crucial ‘choke point’ where Princes Bridge carries pedestrian and vehicular traffic between the CBD and the busy cultural precinct. This not only focuses traffic but it’s the “right” traffic – people in good spirits out to have fun. In addition, it is supremely accessible. It’s right next door to the busiest rail station in Melbourne (in fact supposedly in the southern hemisphere), is serviced by trams on two sides and of course is in the largest concentration of activity in Melbourne.
Third, it was conceived from the outset as a cultural precinct rather than just a run-of-the mill entertainment mall. There are powerful reasons to go to Fed Square over and above the customary restaurants and bars – these include the Ian Potter Art Gallery, Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the giant public screen. Importantly, these are major, quality offerings, not mere sideshows; and admittance to them was free, at least for the first few years. Even the restaurants and bars were conceived from the get-go to be different – unlike Southbank, there is no food barn.
Fourth, the way Fed Square would operate in the years after completion was factored into the brief. The decision to locate the Melbourne Visitor Centre within the complex was a smart one. The special facilities various event organisers would need were incorporated from the outset. The complex was established with a manager who worked hard to “win” events for Fed Square and to program activities that appealed to many people. The big screen, for example, proved its worth with screenings of major sporting and cultural events such as the Melbourne Cup and the soccer World Cup.
Other factors also probably contributed to its success. Melbourne’s weather has been unusually mild in the years since Fed Square opened, most obviously with low rainfall. This decade has largely been a period of economic expansion and optimism. Jobs and population grew vigorously in the CBD, adding to the demand for the facilities within Fed Square. It might also be that the CBD became a more popular entertainment destination as some inner city and suburban venues closed.
It is the happy combination of all these factors that makes Fed Square successful. But none of them come down to “good design” as it is traditionally understood. Rather, its success comes down to a combination of wise decisions taken years before about how to utilise surplus public land, a superior brief, sound project management, good coordination across government and smart operational management. No doubt a healthy dose of serendipity and fortuitous unintended consequences are in the mix too.
In other words, the original conception of what that site could be, dating from the decision to get rid of the old Gas & Fuel Corp towers, was the real driving force for success. We shouldn’t forget that Melbourne City Council was touting a gated, themed development before the State Government decided to hold an international competition.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt the design of Fed Square is a factor that contributed to its success. It is an exciting looking building that attracts attention and has already established itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark.
It invites exploration and entry. In particular, rather than a conventional rectangular open space, the winning design responded to the brief by creating a piazza that draws visitors in and threads them deeper into the complex. One of its strengths is that it is very permeable yet creates a psychological sense of enclosure. And even when empty, it doesn’t feel deserted. All this despite the appalling decision to pole-axe the western shard.
I don’t think good design “made” Fed Square (although poor design could potentially have damaged it) but it surely enhanced it. Design is best thought of as the logical next step in the implementation of a great idea. The “take home” message is that most of the really important matters that determine the success of a project aren’t directly design-related – they’re more likely to have occurred upstream.