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. Read the rest of this entry »


Some thoughts on the Myer Bourke St redevelopment

Photos by Dianna Snape

I had an interesting chat the other day with Roger Nelson, the architect whose firm, NH Architecture, designed the Myer renovation and the QV building, among others. My interest was sparked by a seminar Roger is slated to give later this month at Furnitex, the annual furniture and interiors industry expo, on the relationship between retail design, investment and commercial outcomes.

The role of architects in delivering on the triumvirate of needs – client’s, user’s and the community’s – is something I’m interested in and have written about before e.g. Is architectural criticism critical? Our main topic of discussion was the Myer Bourke St redevelopment, but this is not a review ( I’ve only spent five minutes in the new building!). Rather, I want to mention a few points that arose in our discussion I found particularly interesting. One is about the complexities of this particular project, one is about formulating the role of the building and another is about the need for more sophisticated understanding when we talk about meeting (or not) budgets.

You probably couldn’t get a better example of a commercially driven project than the Myer city store. The key players are the investors – Colonial First State and its partners – and the Myer retail chain, who’ve signed a 30 year lease on the new building. The business imperatives are straightforward: the Colonial consortium is looking for a return on the risk it’s taken on and Myer has to get and keep retail customers.

This was never going to be an easy project. For starters, Myer wanted to continue trading on site, so construction had to proceed without significantly impeding the operation of the retail business. This was also in large part a renovation, with all the attendant difficulties that working with an existing building rather than in a ‘new build’ environment implies. Successive renovations over the years have clad over the top of earlier upgrades and face lifts.

Perhaps the most daunting task was the immense responsibility of protecting and revitalising a Melbourne institution. The Myer Bourke St store is as important and visible a part of Melbourne as the footy – well maybe not that important, but it’s up there. It figures in almost everyone’s personal history in some way. It’s just part of what Melbourne is. Melburnians take a proprietorial interest in what happens to it and heaven help anyone who threatens the millions of individual biographies that include the Myer Bourke St store and all those personal ideas about what it is and should be.

A crucial idea underpinning the project teams conception of the project is that Myer is more than a store. The team saw it as a continuation of the public realm – as a place where people would go for multiple reasons, not just to shop. This vision is consistent with the project’s commercial objectives and a key way of creating it was to extend the functions of the building – for example, by restoring the heritage-listed Mural Hall and managing it for events and meetings mostly unrelated to its retail role. Another was to put windows in the top floor so that rather than the traditional department store approach of enclosure, visitors could see out across Melbourne’s rooftop landscape – a touch of Paris. And unusually for this type of building, the escalator takes visitors to the perimeter of the building on the top floor.

Then there are the smaller-scale design, layout and retail management decisions aimed at creating an attractive and generous environment. The key organising principle is the atrium, which inclines and widens as it ascends in order to gather in northern light. It offers many vantage points – visual connections and orientations – as visitors proceed upward through the changing retail offers.

A key commercial issue is how the build went against the budget. Roger isn’t hesitant in conceding the project went over the initial budget, but as always there’s much more to this sort of issue than meets the eye. One of the key questions is: which budget? Initial or final? No one really knows at the outset what a project is ultimately going to cost, especially when it involves complex unknowns like the condition of an existing building. Initial budgets are framed without perfect information and often with excessive optimism. I think an illustrative case is Fed Square – we all know it went well ‘over budget’ but what isn’t ever mentioned is how new and expensive requirements were progressively imposed on the project by the client. Read the rest of this entry »