Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?

Fawcett and Ashworth's design for the Swanston Street facade (unbuilt)

It now seems clear the Government’s Flinders Street Station Design Competition is about much more than merely restoring the station to its former glory. This could be a redevelopment project, albeit one that respects heritage values. According to this statement from Major Projects Victoria, the Government will be looking for:

The best ideas from around the world to re-energise the station and its surrounds while making sure critical heritage values are maintained. Designs will be expected to address the station’s transport function, heritage requirements, urban design and integration with its surrounds as well as providing a value for money construction proposal.

At first glance a design competition seems like a good idea, but on further reflection I’m not so sure.

Architectural competitions have several advantages. If they’re open to all comers they allow for a range of interpretations of the brief and are more likely to draw in unusual, spectacular and ‘left field’ entries. It is unarguable that a radical conception like Utzon’s vision for Sydney’s Opera House would not have been selected in the absence of an international competition.

Competitions are a useful way to excite public interest in a project. They can also give up and coming architectural practices the chance to enter an otherwise exclusive club. Some of our most applauded buildings – like the Opera House and Federation Square – were the result of international competitions.

But they also have their risks. Designing a building to win a competition is not quite the same task as designing one strictly on the basis of fulfilling the brief. Competitions favour ideas that stand out from the crowd – they favour high impact visions. Sometimes the basic function, practicality and financial viability of the building can be compromised – the Sydney Opera House is one of the better known examples of this phenomenon.

There’s also a risk that entries will not be prepared with an appropriate level of diligence. Entrants don’t know they’re going to win, so rationally they’re going to make compromises to limit costs. That might not be so bad if the winner can correct the shortcomings, but once a proposal is selected the major parameters are often locked in, immediately limiting the scope for adaptation (I know short-listed entrants are often paid, but it’s usually not enough).

Some functional compromise might possibly be a price worth paying if the new Flinders Street Station were to became as iconic as the Opera House, Bilbao or the Guggenheim, but the odds on that are astronomical. No one really understands why a handful of buildings become international symbols, but the fact is millions don’t.

The key thing about this project is it will be extremely complex. Any use of the site is constrained by four key factors. First, there’s the need to protect perhaps the most iconic building in Melbourne, with high historic values. Second, it’s Melbourne’s busiest rail station – functional efficiency really, really matters and transit operations can’t be disturbed during construction. Three, if it proceeds, the proposed Melbourne Metro rail line also has to be incorporated within the complex. Four, the setting is a limiting factor – it includes the river, Princes Bridge, Fed Square, St Pauls, the view of the station across the river from Southbank, and more. Whatever’s built at the station has to take account and give due respect to the neighbours.

When it comes down to it, I doubt there’d be many projects more unsuitable for a design competition. There’s much more at stake here than a potentially functionally compromised opera house. This is the sort of extraordinarily complex project where a solution needs to be developed very, very carefully. There must be considerable research, testing and consultation with all the parties and interests involved. Theoretically this might be sorted out during the development of the brief but I think a much better outcome would be achieved if all parties, including the architects, were intimately involved from the outset.

In fact this just highlights that the key issue here isn’t “design” but “use”. What really matters is what sort of activities, commercial and public, could possibly work at Flinders Street Station without compromising the existing building, the entire metropolitan rail system and the integrity and value of the surrounding uses. A huge effort is needed to get the brief right. My expectation is that what will work here – given all the constraints – won’t be the kind of potentially spectacular stuff that in design terms would traditionally be put out to a competition.  Read the rest of this entry »