Is the Flinders St Station design competition just about…..design?

Melbourne's iconic Flinders St Station (this gorgeous photo by Gillian at Melbournecurious.blogspot.com)

The Premier gave the Flinders St Station International Design Competition another nudge this week, announcing entries will be formally invited from architects mid next year, with the winner to be announced mid 2013.

Mr Baillieu indicated the project for the 4.7 ha site has two basic components. One involves “restoring and renovating the building” and the other is about “releasing any opportunities for further development”. According to The Age:

Mr Baillieu said renovation of the heritage-listed station would be very expensive, and the government was looking for ways to ”release some value” to help bankroll the development, including the possibility of a public-private partnership. A property developer will sit on the competition judging panel, as well as Victoria’s government architect, Geoffrey London.

I’ve previously questioned the sense of running this project as a design competition, but there are a couple of other aspects that also worry me.

One is that this isn’t really first and foremost an “architectural design competition”. That’s a convenient way to market the project because it sounds innocuous – everyone knows architects are sensitive characters who care about design, heritage and place.

But all the signs suggests this is really a search for commercial uses that will generate revenue for the Government – at least enough to pay for the restoration and renovation, but hopefully more. The key players will be organisations with the wherewithal to “release some value” – i.e. to identify, develop and finance new uses that generate profits.

These sorts of players are traditionally called property developers or merchant bankers, not design professionals. Architects will still have a key role in the physical expression of the new Flinders St Station precinct but they won’t be the motive force determining what sort of activities take place there.

So-called competition entries will primarily be commercial bids, rather than primarily design submissions. The novelty is the bid consortia will presumably all have to be led by architects, at least nominally.

The project is likely to be as much about the redevelopment, as the restoration, of the precinct. Redevelopment can be positive provided it is handled in a way that’re sympathetic to the transport, heritage and civic importance of this precinct. And there’s certainly plenty that needs to be done – addressing that horrible concourse-cum-food court for a start.

However redevelopment can also mean some of the values that define the precinct might be put at risk. Mr Baillieu recognises there could be new buildings but says they will have a “common sense” height limit. Hmmm……I doubt we all have the same number in mind!

Another key issue is the “competition” shouldn’t be conceived as a fishing expedition. A potential danger with competitions is officials, politicians and the public could be seduced by a spectacular proposal – a one trick pony – that fails in other important respects. The brief is thus supremely important.

While it doesn’t need to be overly prescriptive or detailed, there are some essential “don’t argues” the brief must cover. For example, any proposal that doesn’t recognise the big increase in projected passenger traffic through the station, or the potential for it to be integrated with possible future major rail projects like Melbourne Metro and an airport rail service, could be disastrous. This function cannot be compromised.

Similarly, proposals have to be in sync with the location, which is arguably the most strategically important site in the entire city centre. The brief must articulate the function of the precinct – in commercial, cultural, civic, infrastructure etc, terms – and how it relates to its surroundings. The idea that the competition could throw up some new and better function “on the fly” would indicate a very serious failure of strategic planning in my view. This is something that should be resolved right up front.

While the formulation of this project as an architectural competition still worries me (does a design competition for the restoration component actually make a lot of sense?), there’s much more to it than just restoring and renovating the existing buildings. Major Projects Victoria will have to take a very sophisticated approach to make sure Melbourne gets the best possible outcome.

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5 Comments on “Is the Flinders St Station design competition just about…..design?”

  1. rohan says:

    Yes all sounds good so far, but detailed brief is apparently yet to be written according to MPV website. So who knows what direction it will take ?

  2. Lynne says:

    Let’s hope it ends up in the bin with all the other redevelopment proposals of the last 50+ years. I don’t see anything good coming of it.

  3. Chris G says:

    That’s what you get when you elect a real estate agent to run the state, Expect some value will be ‘released’.

  4. Dudley Horscroft says:

    “A potential danger with competitions is officials, politicians and the public could be seduced by a spectacular proposal – a one trick pony – that fails in other important respects.”

    This says it all. We have the horrible example of the Sydney Opera House before us. The original Utzon proposal was rejected on the grounds that it did not comply with the requirements. Quite properly too. Proposals were reviewed, and someone said “This looks good.” And so we got the Opera House, not much good for opera – too small, problems as a concert hall – dead spots (why does the ABC operate its concerts from Angel Place???).

    There is plenty of space above the tracks. Enough for a podium with several high rise residential towers, and several low rise accommodation blocks. Add in a few floors of office accommodation designed so it can be alternately used as residences, and you have a winner. But architects, I’am afraid, tend to go for the spectacular – see the Camberwell redevelopment and the aforesaid building.

  5. David James says:

    One thing they might fix is to put a building behind the Elizabeth St Clock Tower so as to restore the symmetry of view back up Elizabeth Street which was lost when buildings went up on South Bank off-centre to the tower. The space behind should have been left as clear sky, or the tower behind placed dead-centre to create a backdrop to the clock tower.

    (Oh, by the way, a clock tower – modern version – would make S.E. corner area of Southern Cross Station much more interesting.)


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