Federation Square, the new heart of Melbourne

By on October 24, 2022 0

New Year’s Eve celebrations at Federation Square in 2002.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Mark Prentice, who managed the project for Multiplex Constructions, says: “This is not your typical simple commercial project. It is a monument. Nothing here is designed to be functional, it’s designed for looks and feel.

At first, Victor Perton hated him. Today, the Liberals’ critic for innovation and technology says, “I suspect that pushes me. I think my personal feeling now is that we need to launch more projects that challenge us with modern design.

But Melbourne’s architecture has always pushed the boundaries. From the start, explains Leon van Schaik, professor of architecture at RMIT, Melbourne wanted to be a big city, rivaling the great cities of civilization, not imitating them. “I think Melbourne has kind of imbued Federation Square with its own architectural tradition,” he says.

Standing in the cobbled square in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, it’s easy to forget that the entire 3.8-hectare site rests on a concrete and steel deck over 12 railway tracks. As a heavy forklift passes, the ground shakes alarmingly.

“The entire bridge is built on 4,500 springs and rubber pads to reduce vibration from the trains below,” says Seamer.

It’s also easy to forget that for three decades from 1967, Princes Gate’s horrendous gas and fuel towers completely cut off the city from one of its greatest assets, the Yarra River.

Installation of the final panel of the facade of the Place de la Fédération September 17, 2002.

Installation of the final panel of the facade of the Place de la Fédération September 17, 2002.Credit:John Donegan

The plaza of the square, covered in more than 467,000 cobblestones speckled in red, orange and purple, stretches out towards the Yarra from the corner of the footbridge at Flinders and Swanston streets. It can hold more than 10,000 people.

Federation Square is as big as a city block and is home to a dozen different but related and cohesive buildings. “I don’t think you’ll be able to say, ‘I’ll meet you at Federation Square.’ You would have to say which part, ”says Kim Dovey.

The main buildings are the spacious new galleries of the $80 million Ian Potter Center; NGV Australia; the Australian Center for the Moving Image – the mecca of film culture; and most stunning of all, a crystalline-meccano steel atrium – a sort of glaze-covered street – which, at its entrance from Flinders Street, hangs unsupported like a massive hood. When the construction props were removed, the 142-meter-long cantilevered atrium dropped two centimeters, a lower drop than expected. The site’s 26 tenants include television station SBS, the Melbourne Visitor Centre, Paul Mathis’ Transport pub, a wine bar and a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes.

The most controversial building is not there. The western fragment, in the architects’ original plan, was over 20 meters high at the northwest corner and, together with the eastern fragment, would have framed St. Paul’s Cathedral, integrating it into the overall design.

But following a decision by the state government in October 2000 to preserve views of the cathedral from St Kilda Road, a small green-tinted glass building resembling an aquarium occupies the site. At one point Premier Steve Bracks had propped up a flagpole or fountain for the corner. The aquarium has nothing to do with the rest of the place. It leads to an underground visitor information center run by the City of Melbourne.

Mr Seamer says the visitor center “is basically exactly the same as the shard, just not as tall. If you stuck two more levels on it, you’d get a shard of glass. But one of the square’s architects, Peter Davidson, said the decision-making processes that led to the fragment’s downsizing were deplorable. However, after years of fighting, he is ready to move on. “I don’t think that’s our problem anymore. I think it’s a problem for the city.

Architects Donald Bates, rear, and Peter Davidson in front of Federation Square in 2002.

Architects Donald Bates, rear, and Peter Davidson in front of Federation Square in 2002.Credit:Julien Kingma

Fellow architect Don Bates says a common, spontaneous response from visitors to the square is that the corner “doesn’t look right”.

He says: “The hope is that as the project becomes open and accessible to the public, more and more people will recognize it, and especially those who supported the government and its decision to reduce the height. of the building.

Kim Dovey, who is an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne, says cities reflect their processes and that the fragmented decision “transparently reflects the appalling politics of this decision”.

Following cost explosions and months of disagreements and deadlocks over the shard, the state government in September 2000 established Federation Square Management Pty Ltd under Peter Seamer to manage the project.

Even though the architects – from architecture studio Lab in London and Bates Smart in Melbourne – had won an international competition, beating 177 entries to create the square, Peter Seamer’s team took a hard line and absolved the designers , according to Mr. Davidson.


“What happened after the shard was an endless series of changes and impositions that we had to continually fight and struggle against.” he says.

But government officials say that before the company was set up to manage the project, there was effectively no direction or control. He had exceeded the time and the costs.

Mr Seamer admits that since Federation Square Management got involved, it has started to “make more demands on the usability” of the site.

“We know architects do a great job with architecture, but at the same time the building has to be usable by people, has to be practical. We have to make it work. We definitely have a bias on its functionality, but that shouldn’t be a conflict with architects – the two should work hand in hand.

The cost of Federation Square was initially estimated at $110 million. “It was a joke,” according to Mr Seamer, who says the first realistic estimate was $240 million, a figure which did not include the Gallery of Australian art. The final cost is $430-450 million.

Will it work? Kim Dovey says the biggest concern is the prospect of an empty seat. “The concern is why are people going to go there once they’ve been there once or twice? What will make them come back? It won’t be ‘Let’s go to Federation Square and look at the stone facades.’ Architecture does not have this type of power of attraction. He has the Art Gallery and the Moving Image Center, but could use more, he thinks.

Peter Seamer has no doubt the Melburnians will use the place, but not everyone will like it. “At least they talk about it. Fed Square’s huge mistake would have been to build something that looked like a suburban mall, like Southland.

The project could finally give Melbourne the place it has dreamed of since the 1850s. Author and historian Andrew Brown-May thinks it could be the realization of a dream, “the practical culmination of a century and a half of vision and revision”.

Writing in Federation Square: A Place in History, he says, “This new plaza promises to be a space of activity as well as architectural significance. It is located in the logical place, at the southern entrance to Melbourne, an area steeped in history.”


Unlike the area in front of Melbourne’s City Hall, which is exposed to traffic fumes, Federation Square, like St. Mark’s Square in Venice, “folds in on itself”, making it an ideal location, says Seamer.

The architects’ portfolio of projects promises that “Federation Square will be a reaffirmation of the original interactive nature of civic existence. Rather than a closed enclave of controlled and regulated activities, this project creates a web of lively, emotive and enlightening experiences.

The architects’ idea was that the buildings would be a metaphor for bringing together disparate elements – the states – while allowing them to retain their individuality.

According to Mr Dovey, another interpretation could be that the square does not celebrate the states but the federation of differences in culture and beliefs, for which Melbourne is known.

The square was designed in 1996 to celebrate the centenary of the Federation. It turns out it opens 22 months late, which somehow seems to fit in with another Melbourne tradition.