Did good design make Federation Square a success?

Melbourne has had a long and sorry history in its search for a successful city square, but it eventually all came good when Federation Square was opened to instant acclaim and popularity in 2002.

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.

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7 Comments on “Did good design make Federation Square a success?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    I’m actually quite amazed by the success of Federation Square. Its hard surfaced and open bare look (when not peopled heavily) has never felt attractive or enticing to me despite its attempts at irregularity in design and access – and in this regard it doesn’t even have the advantage and appeal of an attractive expanse of water and a heritage bridge immediately adjacent to counterbalance the sense of starkness – as at Darling Harbour.

    The buildings, while interesting in a low key but not highly imaginative way, do not demand immediate exploration either.

    So what really gives? As you suggest, the answer more likely lies elsewhere, rather than solely in the design itself. (With the exception of the functional contributions of the visitor center and large screen.) And you have identified a range of credible possibilities.

    To these I would add the missing and often overlooked x factors surrounding a city’s people and their sense of community, including what options they do have available to engage with each other and ‘have fun’ (as you mentioned). And yes, the availability of other options or lack of them from closures would certainly influence this. (This issue also relates to why shopping malls been such popular gathering places for kids.)

    There is also Melbourne’s and Melbournites’ special capacity for regularly enjoying mass events under the right circumstances – the footy, music concerts, etc.

    Whereas simple hedonism explains a lot of community behavior in Sydney, in Melbourne, while this is also true, other forces always seem to be in action as well! That is why Melbourne is such an interesting place and seems to possess such meaningfully different values to its northern neighbour. Whereas Brisbane … that is another set of puzzles altogether, but they have shown a capacity to create wonderfully successful public spaces as well! And often with an authentic and stunning tropical essence as well.

  2. Russell says:

    Very much agreed with your post about motor scooters, but have to disagree over Fed Square. I’ve only been there as a tourist – anticipating something exciting, and was very disappointed as soon as I saw it.

    First it has a jarring difference with the buildings across the street – the old church etc – which might have looked better if they had been right up against each other, but under the high, blue, empty Australian sky it looked hard, empty, boring and uninviting.

    The buildings had a ‘look how hard we’re trying to be different’ feel, the lack of trees made it extra glary … walking in and around it was just emotionally tiring. I’ve walked past it on other visits to Melbourne but I would never be tempted to go in again.

    Perth doesn’t have a good central square, but one good feature of what’s left of it, is that opposite the old GPO and Commonwealth Bank buildings (stone columns etc which make a great backdrop) is a two story building of shops, and running along outside the shops on the upper story is a wide balcony/thoroughfare, which gives the square a theatre like feel when you have crowds down on the ground, and also up on the balcony. Something like that would have improved Fed Square.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think there is definitely some disagreement about whether Fed Square works in design terms or not – see for example the Architecture Australia article I linked to. My key purpose however was not to argue that it was good design but rather to point out that most of its success was due to factors other than design.

  3. Q.Maisie says:

    It’s interesting what you say about the factors that make Fed Square work ie. location, need, an emphasis on culture as opposed to purely retail, but I have to take issue with how the use of the space was factored into the brief, making the square a place people can and want to use. I think the ‘factoring’ was done by someone who only toured the site from their desk top using google maps. If you actually use your feet and have a spare hour to get unintentionally lost, then you’d have to conclude that the design deliberately ignored how people use space. I actually love the look of the Square and was appalled, repeat, APPALLED at the loss of the western shard, but to actually BE in the square is a nightmare.

    I recently had to attend something at the Alfred Deakin building with elderly people. It was a miracle that none of them fell over and broke a hip in the process of trying to find their way from Swanston Street to the entrance to the building. The small square unevenly laid stone used on the ground is an absolute hazard and draws your eye to the ground to make sure you don’t fall over, rather than looking up to enjoy the exterior design and the view. Not to mention the booby trap steps. I am hard pressed to think of a single other public space so testing to be in.

    As to trying to find buildings that you say the visitor is drawn to, threaded into…. on 3 days of visiting the place I found no less than 3 people LOST and asking ME! (who could only just fathom how to find where I needed to go) how to find places they were looking for.

    I’d like to also say that the big screen is a positive and when you see crowds of people there watching something on it, it does remind us that Fed Square does fill a need, but in terms of design assisting that, you could have called in the original plans for the Coburg Drive In to the same effect.

    So, I love the look of Fed Square – it’s particularly lovely to contemplate from Flinders Street Station – but the architects should be made to walk into the space every day as punishment with a billboard around their neck saying “I’M RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAY THIS SPACE WORKS” and see if they are praised or pilloried. I’d buy up big on rotten tomato stocks the day that event gets announced.

  4. Alan Davies says:

    So from all these negative reactions you might conclude that Fed Square works despite the design!

  5. […] them. Federation Square is enhanced by northern sunlight in winter and by its iconic image, but as I’ve argued before, it owes its success primarily to factors that were determined well before the designers came on […]


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