Federation square the p’s and q’s of a major project

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting



Facade detail.

Facade detail.

The Atrium from Flinders Street.

The Atrium from Flinders Street.

Flinders Street elevation.

Flinders Street elevation.

View across the railyards.

View across the railyards.

View across the river.

View across the river.

Atrium interior, looking towards Flinders Street.

Atrium interior, looking towards Flinders Street.

The Atrium on the opening night for the NGV.

The Atrium on the opening night for the NGV.

Ground floor of the NGV.

Ground floor of the NGV.

Opening night of the NGV.

Opening night of the NGV.

Inter-filament space in the NGV.

Inter-filament space in the NGV.

Plaza looking towards St Paul’s Cathedral.

Plaza looking towards St Paul’s Cathedral.

NGV interior.

NGV interior.

ACMI interior.

ACMI interior.

Overviews of the plaza.

Overviews of the plaza.

POLITICS. Federation Square required, as part of its primary design brief, a large public/civic space to be constructed at the epicentre of downtown Melbourne. This preordained a project that would be subject to political contingencies and that was political in its very existence. Paul Carter, the artist and writer who became associated with Federation Square as part of the arts program for the civic space, spoke in the first year of the need to create a “fore-memory” of the project with the citizens of Victoria: a pre-ownership pact that would exist long before the works were completed [see THE PUBLIC]. The fact that this didn’t happen in the first two years was a lost opportunity. The unexpected change in the Victorian Government in October 1999 – from Jeff Kennett to Steve Bracks – precipitated the most overtly “political” legacy of Federation Square, the “Battle of the Shards”. As architects, we mounted an unsuccessful media campaign against our client, the State of Victoria and the real protagonist, the National Trust. It was a painful, difficult time, culminating in the realisation that politics is not about correct solutions, but about enforcing decisions.

PEOPLE. It is an unsettling experience to go from an office of four or five people in London to, in the course of eleven months, an office of over 85 architectural staff in Melbourne. We all know that architectural production is perhaps more like film production than any other endeavour. A project the scale of Federation Square is inherently collaborative, involving an array of skills and expertise. It is difficult to sufficiently convey the credit that is due to those individuals who have put so much time and effort into the project. Working against impossible deadlines, vitriolic tirades in the press, government interference and a building culture unaccustomed to challenging the simple and the expedient, the architectural team exceeded expectations [see QUANTITY] with a spirit of optimism and deep commitment.

QUALITY. As sections of Federation Square have opened to the public, we are gratified by the compliments given to the design and the built work. Many have remarked on the quality of the interior spaces, as if it was a surprise that one could attain high-quality work in contemporary public buildings. Our surprise is that this wasn’t expected. We retain concerns about numerous areas that have not been completed as detailed. Expedience and the lack of concern are all too obvious to us when walking the site [see PROJECT MANAGERS].

Nonetheless, important aspects of the project have been completed properly, and they are a credit to the workers and craftspeople on site [see THE POSITIVE]. The construction of the atrium is a major triumph for a complex, difficult structure. The same can be said for the facades and some interiors of the NGV and ACMI. This is less a condition of expertise than of intention and supervision. Irrespective of these concerns we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to design Federation Square and we are immensely proud of the result.

QUANTITY. Staff working for the Lab + Bates Smart project office (June 1997–Dec 2002): 214. Sandstone facade tiles: 7,865. Zinc facade tiles: 12,325. Glass facade tiles: 1,883.

Kimberley sandstone cobblestones on civic square: 469,000. Site area: 3.8 ha. Construction costs $450. State governments: 2 [see POLITICS]. City councils: 3. Major tenants: 4. Commercial tenancies: 15. Springs supporting deck: 4,500. A0 or A1 drawings: 49,616 [see QWERTY].

PROJECT MANAGERS. In the initial years of Federation Square, the Office of Major Projects (OMP) acted as the project manager. This was a role we didn’t fully understand until after they were replaced. Following the establishment of Federation Square Management (the entity charged with managing and running Federation Square) OMP was replaced, in July.

2000, by CCS Project Managers. An already difficult project became more so. Our experience in dealing with CCS at Federation Square has not been positive and the architecture has suffered [see QUALITY, THE POSITIVE]. Architects, and architecture in general, must address the impact of project managers on architecture and building works or risk becoming totally irrelevant. While there were individual project managers who were professional in their actions and were a valuable asset to the project, the process was disruptive, it contributed to a degradation of the design, and it allowed project managers to make design decisions.

QS It is curious how, if the quantity surveyor was tendering for a project, he would win the tender every time. An important piece of advice from the QS came at the beginning of the project. Known as the “dead cat bounce”, the principle is that every time you make a major concession to take fifty percent out of the cost of an element, by the time the additions and subtractions have all taken place, the reduction has settled down to about ten percent, irrespective of the effort involved [see QUANTITY].

THE PUBLIC. In our “debates” with the National Trust, Heritage Victoria, the Herald Sun, various radio stations, and so on, it was always informative to hear how each of these entities spoke with the voice of “The Public”. This seemed particularly true when a member of that public happened to agree with their polemic. The inference of course is that architects can never be part of the public, as we have specialised knowledge, and therefore exist outside “The Public”. Our friends and supporters also appear not to be “The Public”.

Designing a public space for Federation Square was never going to be an easy task [see POLITICS]. The assumption that there is a monolithic, single-voiced entity known as “The Public” is particularly ironic in the context of a project about “federation”, itself a concept that identifies the greater whole as the aggregation of distinct, irreducible differences, never monolithic, never singular as one “public” voice.

QUICK AND DIRTY. (Cheap and cheerful.) As if this were a sufficient aspiration for a major public building [see Q.S., PROJECT MANAGER].

QWERTY. For us, the shock of a major project such as Federation Square lies not in the complexity of construction, nor in the magnitude of multiple tenants, clients, press and public outcry, but in the mundane business of writing letters, reports, reviews, responses and, increasingly, emails back and forth over trivial pursuits. So much for the paperless office. As a student, I remember being astounded at the number of drawings and details that Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano produced back in the 1970s for the Centre Pompidou. With Federation Square, I think we surpassed that a few years back [see QUANTITY]. The paperwork necessary to keep the managing contractor employed is as much a function of a procurement system out of control in the pursuit of “risk-free” construction as it is about accountability.

THE POSITIVE. We are very positive about the conclusion of Federation Square. We believe it a significant contribution to the architectural culture of Australia. It is a joy and revelation to see the spaces being used and to witness the tenants taking ownership of our ideas and our assumptions. We are trying to come to grips with what has been achieved and what has not. As our first experience at building a building, we have had a profoundly Positive experience – in spite of [see POLITICS, QUALITY, PROJECT MANAGERS, Q.S., THE PUBLIC].

Donald Bates is a director of LAB Architecture Atudio, architects in association with Bates Smart for Federation Square.



Published online: 1 Jan 2003


Architecture Australia, January 2003

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