A fundamental part of capital “D” design culture is the design competition. More often than not these are positioned to create an open debate focused on a specific public building or place. Many designers use the competition process as an opportunity to sharpen their approach to design and produce a beautiful and compelling response to the given brief. The assembly of a high-quality jury is an event in itself. The exchange of ideas and contact between peers to discuss the latest offerings of their profession is a critical part of the culture of design. Competitions can be an effective method of openly negotiating the future of a prominent public site, uncovering new talent and bringing together influencers of city form to articulate the philosophy behind the making of better places and buildings.
As our cities attempt to become more compact and the arm wrestle between new infrastructure and quality public realm becomes more pronounced, the “too hard” spaces will graduate to become valuable land. These areas of contested space are not entirely public, nor are they private – they sit in an ownership limbo, which paralyses any activity that might make the space more useful to the general public. While students and professionals are free to advocate for solutions on these sites, often through university-based design studios, the real challenge is gathering the disparate decision-makers and attempting to hammer out a common understanding on what can and cannot be done on the site.
Enter the Power Street Loop site – almost two hectares of unused land next to Melbourne’s CityLink freeway, bounded by the exit ramp from the Domain Tunnel and bordering Sturt Street. While the site cannot currently be accessed by the public, rapid urban development of the Southbank area has seen towers sprout up around the Loop, making it highly visible from surrounding developments and roadways. Over the past few years the City of Melbourne has discussed the possible future of the Power Street Loop site, expressing interest in allowing both pedestrian access and public or private redevelopment of the land. As the owner of the site, Transurban requires the off-ramp access and therefore has serious safety concerns regarding access for the general public.
The Loop site falls within the Victorian Government’s Southbank Cultural Precinct Redevelopment Masterplan. As an initiative aligned with the masterplan, Arts Victoria and the City of Melbourne have released a series of blueprints and structure plans that show Sturt Street as a major cultural spine for the Arts Precinct.1 The role of the Power Street Loop site is not clearly defined in these documents. However, its proximity to key parts of the precinct strongly suggests a need to “mobilize” the land by turning it into a place to be accessed and used by the public, or making it a city-scale beacon signposting the Arts Precinct and the developing urban character of Southbank.
The Loop site has two much larger sisters who sit either side of the Bolte Bridge and who have not yet felt the pressure of an expanding city. The question of what to do about Power Street Loop needs to be broadened to include other similar by-products of major infrastructural works. Feeling mounting pressure from its neighbours, Transurban took action that might be considered unusual in the corporate world – it reached out to the design and arts community to ask for ideas.
The concept of holding an ideas competition came up in 2014, primarily as a way to facilitate a discussion between the City of Melbourne, Transurban and Arts Victoria and also to bring attention to this site and other leftover and valuable spaces. In the first few weeks of 2015 the competition was launched and received more than fifty entries from Australia and New Zealand, with a handful from other countries.
The entries demonstrated a broad range of propositions, from mega-sculptures responding to the scale of the site all the way to functional landscape and built structure often focusing on an ecological agenda. While there were engaging and challenging outliers on this spectrum, the two that best demonstrate the negotiation between artful occupation and functional futurism are the Horti-Cultural-Tower by team HAU (Yiuun Lu and Lindsay Holland) and Paradise Regained by team BLANK 1 (Dan Whelan and Sergey Pochevsky). The former is essentially a very tall open structure that supports biotic material tasked to clear air and water. This tower also intends to advertise its presence to all passers-by along CityLink and thousands of residents of Southbank, and in turn promote the importance of its function. Paradise Regained again uses a very large sculptural gesture to store stormwater and provide an ecological stepping stone for the migration of various species. This giant sculpture also intends to advertise its role as habitat creator.
The first point of an ideas competition is to allow a broad and varied questioning of the site demonstrated through a range of visual and written material. For a buildable concept a design competition is better suited. However, a design competition requires a brief that outlines a specific functional response, and the function of the Loop site was still undetermined, so in this respect the competition needed to skip a step and move from broad concept to specific program in a single move. The winner of the ideas competition, Habitat Filter by Drysdale, Myers and Dow, demonstrated this beautifully. While not exactly construction-ready the concept was illustrated so that both the idea and its possible resolution were depicted in the same step. Many other entries attempted to provide a strong definitive design without clearly elaborating on what the key idea was.
The second point of an ideas competition is the ownership of the idea. It sits uneasily with some that a private corporation “owns” the ideas of various artists, students and designers, even though in this case the competition was free to enter and the ownership matter was addressed by both the brief and the returnable registration forms. But if an organization like Transurban did not define absolute clarity on this point, it would have failed its own ethical standard. It is usual practice for a public authority, university or professional institute to own the right to use the winning entry or other awarded entries, and this can become difficult to manage from a legal perspective, even with regards to organizing the exhibition of the work, if it is not properly addressed at the outset.
Thirdly, the very real need for consensus on the outcome was demonstrated in the composition of the jury panel, which consisted of the most senior representatives of the primary stakeholders: Transurban, City of Melbourne (Urban Design), Arts Victoria, Victorian College of the Arts and Landcare. The need for consensus is most important when considering that our leftover spaces are often treated with ill- defined governance and ownership, particularly when there are a number of emerging agendas for their use. While Transurban does own the Power Street Loop site and is obliged to manage it primarily to support CityLink, it requires consensus from and the support of its neighbours. An overview of the jury proceedings indicates that panel member Rob Adams, director of City Design at City of Melbourne, was clearly focused on an outcome requiring active occupation of the site, something that Transurban simply cannot provide due to public safety issues. Without this competition, Adams and Transurban CEO Scott Charlton may very well have been at loggerheads over the site’s future. Now, though, both Adams and Charlton have a winning proposition that they have discussed and that Transurban is keen to build. Not the final word on the Power Street Loop, just another phase of its life.
1. State Government Victoria, “Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint,” Creative Victoria website, creative.vic.gov.au/Projects_Initiatives/Cultural_Infrastructure_projects/Melbourne_Arts_Precinct_Blueprint (accessed 1 June 2015).