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. 

Although the Premier has emphasised design, this is starting to look more like the Government’s seeking development proposals. The Major Projects Unit needs to get some clarity around just what the project is.

Personally, I like the idea of a straightforward restoration with the Swanston Street frontage finally constructed in accordance with the plans of the original architects, Fawcett and Ashworth (see this wonderful site for station history) – although some adaption might be necessary since the building was ultimately constructed with an additional storey. In the same vein, I’d like to see the Western Shard restored to Federation Square. Traffic and tram flow in Swanston St needs to be sorted out too.

Maybe it’s because I watched a program about Manhattan’s Grand Central station on SBS recently, but I also like the idea of the city having a huge indoor public space that could potentially host community events on cold and wet nights. Nowhere more natural for that than a railway station.


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17 Comments on “Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?”

  1. Whatever they do, I hope they gut as much of the current concourse as possible and try to restore some of the buildings heritage to this section. What’s there now is ugly as hell and

    As for the Swanston Street fascade I’d love to see that built, unfortunately I think the chances of it happening are about one in a thousand.

    Finally, make sure that ballroom gets fixed right! It could be a lovely old and very grand function room for all sorts of events.

  2. john says:

    Not sure whether air space development is on the agenda, but if so, it should preserve the possibility of extending the Elizabeth St tram line over the tracks to Sturt St South Melbourne. This would relieve pressure on St Kilda Rd trams.

  3. Russ says:

    In a lot of ways this is 20 years too late. I’d have liked to see the railway lines lowered into tunnels (though it is problematic, because of the Yarra), the whole northern side of the river redeveloped, and the met trains at Southern Cross put closer to the street and under the country lines, instead of at the back. A solution that would open up a lot of land, though whether it would be enough to covers costs? Instead the whole area has been piece-meal: Fed Square, the first Flinders St. concourse redevelopment, Sandridge railbridge, the aquarium, old fish market site and Spencer St were all constrained by the (unsightly and largely wasteful) tracks.

    The best thing they could do for Princes Bridge is to redirect traffic onto Linlithgow Avenue and over a bridge into Exhibition Street, extending the pedestrianised area of Swanston Street back to the art gallery. Difficult to make an economic case for that though, as nice as it would be.

  4. Urt says:

    Really all they need to do is make the inside half as nice as the outside, and they will have made an icon!
    Plus maybe get rid of the pokies venue…

  5. Marcus W says:

    If you want some examples of how bizarre design competition entries can get, there is currently an exhibition of them at the Old Treasure Building in Melbourne. (The giant crocodile is amazing!)


  6. Oz says:

    Keep the building envelope, but make the site functional by internal modifications to address a mixture of needs in that corner of the City.

  7. Nathan Alexander says:

    Alan, thanks again for your constant output of high quality analysis and comment. I’m always impressed.

    This topic is one I know a fair amount about, having recently completed background work towards a development strategy for the station for the Department of Transport. I agree with your take on the shortcomings of design competitions; however in this case, I think the competition may achieve the necessary public groundswell for action that then leads to the political will to fund the work needed.

    You are right that the site is a complex one. At 5.6 hectares in all it has enormous development potential. The Administration Building, the one along Flinders Street, can be treated as largely a separate design exercise because most of it is not used for functions essential to the running of the station. Much of the site could be built over without unduly compromising rail operations. I’d like to see daylight and views maintained into the platforms themselves, but decent weather protection to the passengers waiting on the platfroms would be a great improvement over current conditions. Totally covered platforms were part of the original design.

    The station as is will not cope at all well with the likely increased demand over the coming decades. Change is required to provide the level of service we can experience at Southern Cross Station but cannot currently provide at Flinders even with current user numbers.

    One aspect I’d love to see treated appropriately is the St Kilda Road facade, which currently looks like a shed. A facade befitting a major rail station and that creates a street wall to Federation Square would be a great improvement.

    I’m looking forward to the competition – if it provides a very good brief!

    • rohan says:

      Hi Nathan !
      Im sure the brief will explain all the necessary bits and pieces, until then – Yes I think actually re-building the concourse as a grander space visible from Swanston St be a great idea, like the original design – or not. A competition would work here if it were mainly about a grander concourse and an even grander roof over the platforms – though why not just engage Santiago Calatrava ?

  8. Alan Davies says:

    The Age has published an editorial on the Flinders Street Station design competition, What time does the next plan leave? (hmmm….must’ve had their work experience punner on sub editing duties that day).

  9. Johnyboy says:

    I think its a great chance to put in some resedential and comercial development. Id like to see 20k people living above flinders street station. Why? i think we need to have people within the city to make better use of the public transport out of the city as the public transport follows back out of the city.

  10. Johnyboy says:

    pardon the spelling. residential

  11. If there was an airport rail link to Flinders St Station, the station could even be redesigned to provide a streamless in town check in service for flights, as occurs at Hong Kong station.

    Even though it could be argued that Southern Cross station would be a better candidate for an in town check in service, as it would connect to V-line services, the space at Flinders St station would be better suited for this purpose, as the area could then be isolated if required, and also include some commercial development.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think the idea that travellers “enter” the airport at remote locations is the way forward (see here). At present Melbourne airport is congested with ‘greeters and wavers’ – they account for 35% of all airport ground traffic (all by car).

      • Given that Flinders St is the focal point for the suburban train network based on the spoke and hub model, it would make sense to make this a focal point for an integrated transport hub. This works best for people living either in the western, south-eastern or eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but fails miserably for those living in the northern suburbs. A difference solution will be need for those who live and work locally near the airport.

        If the airport rail link ever does happen and runs to the CBD, I just hope that any further Flinders St station redevelopment at least has this in mind, otherwise it may be a lost opportunity.

  12. Johnyboy says:

    Id also like to add that the retirement homes are usually far away from public transport. I think they should build a gigantic retirement village above flinder st station. Again with something like 20 000 people there. Half retirement and half whatever.

  13. […] previously questioned the sense of running this project as a design competition, but there are a couple of other aspects […]

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