Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Beauty lost in a facade gone too far
For all the good intentions, novel ideas and millions spent, Melbourne’s new centrepiece doesn’t quite work, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
So desperate, then? Is Melbourne, former beauty queen of the antipodes, so needy of global notice she’ll spend almost half a billion dollars of public money to get it? Melbourne had fabulous architecture already; urbane, sumptuous, even opulent. Broad avenues, grand old piles, arcades to put Sydney’s in the shade. But no harbour, only the glum brown Yarra. No hills, just the flat grid. And no Opera House. No gleaming Bilbao, no pilgrim-puller, no icon. Now, at last, Melbourne’s got Federation Square. Her Eiffel. We should be happy for her.
But it has to work. A global icon, like any Coogee fencepost, has got to be dinkum. And for the half-billion dollar offspring of virgin ( “this is our first building”) architects, that’s a fair-sized call.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, composing an entire city block from the pinwheel fractals known colloquially as “vertical crazy paving”. Not that compose is quite the word, since fractals the random patterns arising from iterative geometries (in this case, triangles) bring a level of uncontrol not normally compatible with composition. Or, for that matter, with architecture.
Why is it like this? There are any number of possible reasons. The allure, perhaps, of the organic: buildings as savage irruptions into polity from a more primal realm; entrances like gaping maws, spaces like ancient rock formations. That sort of thing. There could have been a desire to celebrate nature/nurture tensions.
But no. The architects’ explanation is as whimsically inconclusive as the pattern. The facade, they say, was designed to avoid “a regularly repeating flat surface”. They wanted a system that could change materials, fold in and out, evade modernism’s strict hierarchies of structure and material, grid and repetition. Why yes, one mumbles blankly. That’s reasonable. Coupla hundred mill to avoid a flat wall. Sure. I’ll pay that.
Of course, the world was a rosier place in 1997, when Lab architecture studio Texan Donald Bates and Peter Davidson, ex-Sydney won from their tiny London practice the international competition that would toss them into the big league. They teamed up with old Melburnians Bates Smart (no relation) and away they went. Maybe such circumstances, and such inexperience, could make avoiding a flat facade look like a serious spending priority.
The jury had fewer excuses. Replete with heavies like Melbourne City’s Rob Adams and the Victorian Government’s Dick Roennfeldt, not to mention Bates’s former boss, Daniel Libeskind, and our own Neville Quarry as chairman, the jurors were old enough to know better. To know, for one thing, that the Lab scheme was unlikely to tiptoe inside that budget of $110 million.
So, what is Fed Square exactly? It’s impossible to say exactly how many buildings there are on site. Impossible to describe their shapes or arrangement (free-form? indistinct? amorphous? lumpy?). Difficult even to know when you’ve seen it all.
The essential idea is simple. A number of cultural buildings including the National Gallery of Victoria’s fabulously well-endowed Ian Potter Centre and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), offices for SBS, and one or two smaller commercial/retail buildings encircle a central, undulating un-square. Cafes and bars fringe their bases, exploiting the dual ground-levels afforded by the undulations while, along the southern edge, a number of openings and stairs gesture Yarra-wards.
Then, at the Flinders/Swanston streets corner the most important in Melbourne, say some stand the shards: the mammoth’s tusks or what’s left of them, after ritual political lopping. (In fact these are only two of the half-dozen shards across the site but the others, embedded in buildings, are all but invisible.)
Which brings us to the architecture. And what novel architecture it is. There are good designers at work here, one suspects, if only they’d show themselves. Instead, their talents lurk behind sheaves of fashionable complexity, structural profusion and colliding geometries. Still, here we have it, Melbourne’s Louvre.
Everything runs from the facade. It’s a complex animal, and the architects have solved its problems with some ingenuity. Designed with Atelier One engineers, the system is based on triangular tiles of sandstone, sheet zinc, perforated zinc, obscure glass and clear glass, combined in fives to make larger triangles that combine in turn into “mega-panels” and fixed on to an encompassing web of hefty galvo-steel.
Complicated, yes; weatherproof, no. With the panels largely unsealed, the facade acts as an “overcoat”, hanging up to four metres proud of the inner weather-skin and repelling 97 per cent of rain. This makes windows a challenging proposition: some have been treated as glass triangles in the facade, while others peer, from behind the hot-dip, through ragged holes. Meanwhile, into the gap between the two skins slot services, air-con paraphernalia, stairs and emergency exits freeing the roof to become a fifth decorative surface.
The spaces created in this way are surprisingly effective.
The NGV’s galleries in particular are both tantalising and inexplicably serene, as long as you don’t mind being hopelessly lost, using the architecture’s curiosities to surprise and intrigue without diminishing the art. And the large crossing created at the intersection of the huge crazy-glazed atrium-cum-amphitheatre that runs between Flinders Street and the river, and the NGV’s chromosome-like filaments is the high point of the project, using spatial rather than material complexity to delight, not bamboozle.
But it’s almost as if these triumphs arise despite the architecture’s mad and maddening complexity, not because of it.
It is, of course, axiomatic in architecture to select a premise and follow through, hell or high water. And that’s exactly what Bates and Davidson have done. So what’s to quibble? Well, thing is, it has to be a reasonable premise. Especially on a big, difficult building, and most especially when the premise itself complicates the complications. Then it has to be more than just reasonable; the premise has to be irresistible, irrefutable and carbon-fibre strong .
There must have been a thousand moments since 1997 when the pursuit of those particular facade objectives was causing such knots and conniptions in the building-making process that any normal person and most experienced architects would have shrugged, breathed deep, and found a new premise.
So, was the quest for the non-uniform facade a reasonable grail for which to spill six years, a zillion person-hours and $461 million, at last count?
Probably not. It wasn’t modernism that imposed the rules and hierarchies. Since Adam’s hut, hierarchies of structure, composition, and detail have evolved from the nature of material. From the intriguing business of placing one thing atop another in a gravitational field, and having it stay there. First-time architects ignore such principles at their peril.
Federation Square is a project in denial of its materiality. To treat stone, sheetmetal and glass as equivalents is every bit as bizarre, and in its own way as totalising, as modernism’s lust for the featureless plane. True, the Fed Square you see is not the director’s cut. And true, the original shards would probably have been a plus. Also true is that it’s a provocative work ( “a prison,” “unfinished,” “like scaffolding,” comment passers-by).
What’s frustrating, though, is the sense, beneath all the fuss and palaver, of a couple of fine architects trying to get out.
ILLUS: Pleasing or puzzling?
Pedestrians stroll in Federation Square and, below, one of the dynamic viewing spaces inside.
Photos: Ken Irwin, Maria Oliphant