Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s playful redevelopment of Melbourne Central challenges retail conventions by bringing the urban patterns of the city into the shopping centre.
<b>REVIEW</b> Andrew Hutson <b>PHOTOGRAPHY</b> John Gollings
The theories behind the planning of shopping centres are based on simple premises – attract customers, maximize their exposure to retail outlets and keep them there as long as they can bear it. This last point is at the core of shopping centre design.
The challenge is to create an environment that is sufficiently alluring for punters to happily remain, without realizing that opportunities for escape are limited. As a result, shopping centres create insulated urban paradises within shells that are disassociated from context. The latest manifestations have internal spaces at the scale of small cities, incorporating precincts, urban hot spots, market zones and civic landmarks that all allude to a better place. They are controlled environments in terms of both management policy and climate. This dislocation from the world outside provides commercial leverage and is a prerequisite for these utopian visions.
The original retail complex at Melbourne Central (1983–92) drew heavily on the suburban shopping centre model, despite its location in the CBD. The design strategy depended on the Daimaru department store acting as a retail magnet, supported by a plethora of smaller outlets. It was an internalized world and the only orientating feature – a large central cone space containing the nineteenth-century shot tower – was impressive, but did little to connect the shopper to the city beyond.
Parallels between the original Melbourne Central and the suburban shopping centre type extended to its exterior treatment. The original design, by Kisho Kurokawa in association with Bates Smart McCutcheon, integrated the formal elements of tower, cone and dome with the retail box. These large-scale elements offered connection to the Melbourne skyline, but the shopping centre did not engage with the precinct.
Ashton Raggatt McDougall, architects for the redevelopment of Melbourne Central, saw this disconnection and the associated lack of internal orientation as major problems. ARM were selected by the new owners of the site in 2001, partly on the basis of their proposition that the redesign must engage with the city and that the planning should absorb and extend the urban patterns of the CBD.
They were chosen despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of experience with retail work of this scale. ARM’s vision, while not unusual within the tenets of urban planning, was not, until recently, a part of shopping centre orthodoxy.
A main difference between the old and the new is the absence of a major retail tenant. Daimaru has gone and a multitude of shops have been added. It is intended that this increased number of retail outlets will create sufficient mercantile density to attract shoppers, but other measures were also included to increase patronage. The most important was the integration of the shopping precinct with the Melbourne Central Railway Station. The original emporium was constructed on top of the station but with no connection to it. Despite this separation, the entrance to the station was easily confused with the entry to the retail precinct and before you knew it you were looking for lingerie on the Lilydale line. (I got off with a warning.)
ARM’s design has brought rail and retail together, with the entry to the underground station opening onto a food court and a phalanx of the type of specialty shops historically attracted to railway facilities. (What is the connection between stations and pet shops?) A new basement was constructed at station level, allowing underground access, bordered by shops, through to Lonsdale Street.
The new arrangement recognizes that commuters are also customers and that the station is a significant crowd-puller. Rail users must now traverse retail zones to reach street levels but the pay-off is increased options for access. This signals a shift in the character of Melbourne Central from an insular retail destination to a zone which is both a destination and a transit space.
With this change in emphasis came a different mode of internal organization. Pathways were realigned with the orthogonal geometry of the city grid, additional entries were provided and the major shopping spine that extends the length of the building, bridges the lane, and abuts the Myer department store was redesigned. This link existed prior to the renovations but it seemed serpentine.
The accepted theory was that by blocking long views shoppers are not reminded of the distance they have walked, thereby diminishing shopper fatigue. The downside was that the shopper was unaware of their location and it annoyed the hell out of those wanting quick egress. The ARM version counters this idea by implying through a clear pathway that people may be attracted to the centre as a thoroughfare and may appreciate the ease of navigation. The new spine has exterior views at each end, which are coupled with extensive roof lights offering glimpses of the sky through voids to all levels. The incursion of daylight was not the norm at the time of the original design, but it is becoming a feature of shopping centre design to temper feelings of disconnection from circadian rhythms. This is not an altogether altruistic gesture – research suggests that daylight encourages spending.
The focus of the interior has changed with the renovation. The glazed cone that was the dominant feature now vies for prominence with the interior shopping street. ARM maintained a balance between these competing spaces by reinforcing the circular base of the cone with panels of red stretchable fabric that appear solid, but shimmer with interior air movement.
The up-market pretence that was generated by the presence of a high-profile department store has gone. At first this may be disconcerting as the traditional shopping centre aesthetic covers the prosaic with a thin veneer of the expensive.
ARM’s veneers are more expedient – the application of industrial floor finishes, thin render, plywood and ubiquitous matt black paint is coupled with the judicious use of cost-effective new technologies; stretchable plastic and ETFE inflatable pillows.
These skins often require a second look. The super-bar code motif along the shopping spine elevates cultural iconography in a manner familiar from other work by ARM (indeed the bar code was used as the letterhead of Ashton Raggatt in the ’80s).
At first glance this appears to be a two-dimensional application in keeping with the bar code signifier but it is actually made of plywood set proud of the background structure with the apparent depth dissolved with a coat of matt black paint. This example indicates the architects’ willingness to embrace the financial restrictions of the commercial venture while exploring the nature of retail face-lifts. The interior will be in a constant state of flux as shopfronts change, and the architects have responded playfully to this expediency, apparently enjoying freedom from the curse of “timelessness”.
There is a change of pace with the redesign of the associated office tower foyer. This interior is a quiet composition of white marble and black granite against the existing grey granite flooring. Here Ian McDougall’s long-standing penchant for the work of the Viennese proto-Modernists comes to the fore with echoes of Wagner and Loos. This is a restrained outcome that speaks of permanence, but, juxtaposed against the adjacent retail expression, we are reminded that it remains firmly within the same dermatological camp.
The exterior of the project places gestures at critical points as signposts. The Swanston Street end has an opened super-sized gift box lined with plantation cedar as a none-too-subtle shopping talisman. The Elizabeth Street corner encloses the space below the existing space frame and has extruded super-graphic letters denoting FLIP in various configurations, which are reminiscent of ARM’s Marion Cultural Centre in South Australia.
“Hot spots” are denoted by the inflated ETFE plastic bubbles encasing the bridge over the lane, a composition of primary coloured crosses marking the end of the spine, and an enigmatic red blob at the Swanston Street corner. The remains of the existing concrete walls fronting Latrobe Street are covered with spots that will have some looking for hidden Braille messages.
ARM’s Melbourne Central is not a timeless architecture but one that is marking time. The cycle of retail fashion moves quickly, as evidenced by the short life of the previous incarnation of the building. ARM engaged with this short-term aspect without pretence while laying down a structure that reinserts the project into the city. ANDREW HUTSON IS A SENIOR LECTURER IN ARCHITECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE.
MELBOURNE CENTRAL Architects – design architect Ashton Raggatt McDougall (ARM); documentation architect ARM, NH Architecture. Structural engineer Irwinconsult.
Services engineer Connor Pincus Saunders, Connell Mott MacDonald. Fire engineer Norman Disney Young. Town planner Urbis JHD. Heritage consultant Allom Lovell.
Access consultant Morris Disability Consulting.
Building surveyors McKenzie Group.
Graphics Gollings Pidgeon. Cinema interiors Gray Pucksand, Crowd Consultants. Head contractor Bovis Lend Lease. Client GPT, Lend Lease Retail, Bovis Lend Lease.