Intricate Structures

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The changing fortunes of Brisbane’s Queen Street - from penal past to prime address. The city has a revitalised heart.

Text by Michael Keniger. Photography by David Sandison and John Mainwaring.

Above Looking north-east towards Edward St. The central structure, by Bligh Voller Nield, acts as a signature for the revitalised mall. Photograph David Sandison.

Queen Street is Brisbane’s most historic and most notable street. Its alignment was determined by the position of buildings and paths in the earliest days of the penal settlement and fixed by the plans agreed for the free settlement by Governor Gipps in 1842. Despite its pre-eminent role, it was never intended to be a great or grand street. Originally to be 2 chains wide, the street was determined by Gipps to be worthy only of a 1 chain (60 feet) width which was eased out, in his absence, to 1.21 chains or 80 feet. Despite the governor’s limited vision, the pre-eminence of Queen Street was ensured by its connection to the Victoria Bridge, the sole cross-river road link for many years. Further, it provides the address for some of the State’s finest public buildings including the Treasury Building, the General Post Office and the Customs House. Over time, the street became the commercial focus, not just of Brisbane, but also of its region. Its fortunes waxed and waned with those of the city as a whole.
The burgeoning success of the suburban shopping centres during the seventies threatened the economic viability of the city heart. In response, the stretch of Queen Street from Albert Street to Edward was closed to traffic in the early eighties to form the first stage of the original mall. Designed by Robin Gibson, this created a generous urban space which helped to impel a revitalisation of the fortunes of the inner city. Over time, the mall was extended to George Street and yet its quality deteriorated as it became cluttered by an accretion of structures and shelters mostly of indifferent and uncoordinated design. Competition caused by the increasing standard of amenity offered by the suburban shopping centres encouraged the Brisbane City Council to prepare options for the redesign of the mall. A structured review of these schemes led to an intensive design charrette involving a mixed team of City Council staff, architectural and landscape designers and artists. The workshop included daily input from representatives of the City Council, the city users group and the property owners and tenants of Queen Street. The result of the charrette was a widely endorsed sketch scheme underpinned by a series of guiding principles that determined the nature of the new mall and the general arrangement of its elements. These fledgling proposals were developed and refined by a Brisbane City Council task force led by John Mainwaring, Chris Gee and John Hockings. The Mall is no longer just a street. The removal of the traffic created the opportunity to increase amenity through the provision of restaurant and retail concessions, shelter from the sun and rain, performance spaces, and a variety of services. These functions necessitated a secondary architecture as a foil to the eclectic mix of buildings lining the street edge. The new structures are thin, light, transparent and intricate. They offer a shifting sense of scale within the space of the street and are enlivened by the articulation of the elements of their structure, enclosure and signage. Their roofs are teased out into layers that separately offer weather protection, shade and a grid armature for climbing creepers to form a green ceiling. The roof layers are canted to allow the existing street elevations

to be stronger visual elements of the streetscape. The freestanding structures are arranged like crystalline splinters in the space and related by an offset geometry determined by an overlay of the South Brisbane and Central City grids. A meandering path flows between these structures which assists with orientation and provides the route for emergency vehicle access. The space is given both unity and generosity through the new street floor of grey/green Queensland granite. Etched into its matt surface are several works by Fiona Foley which catch the light of the day through their highly polished patterns of spinning leaves and delicate foliage.

Above The translucent parasol roof over the upper stage, showing how each roof structure separates into "functional clouds". Photographs John Mainwaring.

The new structures are complemented by an intensification of planting in the space to reinforce the sense of an urban oasis. In the lower part of the mall the original leopard trees are now of a significant height and scale and have been supplemented by Queensland Kauri pines and sub tropical planting. The upper part of the mall sits above a bus tunnel which limits planting to the boat-like islands of raised planters. As the Moreton Bay figs flourish and the green ceilings of the various creepers take hold, this section of the space will be softened to match its counterpart.
The mall is divided in two by the junction of Queen and Albert streets, signalled and sheltered by the signature structure of the new mall - a soaring, parasol canopy. The design of this structure was developed from the charrette scheme by Bligh Voller Nield with leadership from Lawrence Nield and Chris Clarke. The height of the canopy enables a continuous line of site along Albert Street from King George Square to the Botanic Gardens, and reinforces the efforts to establish Albert Street as an urban boulevard. The folded plane of the lightweight, glazed roof is creased to match the offset geometry of the pavilion structures and angles upward to the north east to optimise the penetration of the winter sun. The crease forms a giant gutter which discharges rainfall into the pool of the fountain below, designed by Lyndal Milani. The shifting tracery of shade and shadow cast by the supports and framing and by the suspended canopy of timber battens animates the floor of the space below. Four elegantly detailed and seductively profiled pylons branch out to support the canopy above, strutting around and through the space of the junction.
The redesign of the Queen Street Mall is the most extensive and most adventurous urban design project undertaken by the Brisbane City Council. When the mall re-opened in November 1999 its complete transformation brought mixed reactions from the public and from the local press. Nine months later the new structures and landscaping have settled into place and the revitalised mall has come to be regarded as an essential component of the inner urban core of Brisbane. Its success can be measured by the substantial increase in usage and in the reported increase of the value of the properties that line the street. More than this it is lively, active and a place of congregation with its use at weekends even busier than during the week. The success of the re-design of the mall is in large part due to the intention of the mayor, Jim Soorley, to achieve a high quality of design in this focal public space. The example it sets will help to establish higher expectations and ambitions for the quality of design in the city as a whole.
Professor Michael Keniger is the Head of the School of Geography, Planning and Architecture at the University of Queensland and chaired the design charrette for the redesign of the Queen Street Mall for the Brisbane City Council

Section, looking along Queen St from the George St end.

Canopy Plan

Floor Plan

Above The attenuated layers of the central structure, looking south-west towards George St. Photograph David Sandison.



Published online: 1 Sep 2000


Architecture Australia, September 2000

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