“It is extraordinary that any government would even remotely entertain a bid to demolish part of Melbourne’s most successful urban public space and most iconic piece of contemporary architecture in order to facilitate a glorified retail premises.”
At the end of 2016, it seemed to be quite a surreal thing to be asked to respond to the rumours that a building at Federation Square was planning to be demolished. Surely this was just a media beat up, or someone had their wires crossed. And yet twelve months later, just before Christmas, news broke that not only was it being considered, the decision had been made. The Yarra Building would be demolished and Apple would get to replace it with a Foster and Partners designed ‘flagship store’.
There was no public debate. There was no planning process. There was no transparency. Just like that, the decision was made and the Yarra Building was condemned. If nothing else this sets a dangerous new low point in how decisions are made for our city and built environment. Perhaps our community now needs to pre-emptively sign petitions about buildings we demand are kept safe prior to unilateral decisions being made.
Please don’t demolish the (Insert cherished building here). We don’t know if you have any plans to do so or not, but we wanted a chance to have a say prior to your decision being made. We can never be sure if a press release is about to land that says you have given demolition approval.
We understand that you have a desire to sell all our valuable assets such that your government will have the perception of being excellent with finances, but we would really appreciate it if you could just try responsible governance instead.
Federation Square is Melbourne’s most awarded piece of architecture. Marvelled for its stone and zinc finishes in playful geometries, a real strength of Federation Square is in the design as a collection of buildings. Aside from the visitor’s centre which was cut short through political influence before the square was completed, we currently have the full set. It is a collector’s set, a limited edition of one. If we break up the set we reduce the strength and potency of the whole. We diminish the value.
Instantly recognisable, Federation Square is the new face of Melbourne. Its facade, spellbinding, curious and ingenious, will signal Melbourne as the Opera House signals Sydney. Already we love it or hate it but can’t ignore it. We can’t stop staring because its structures are so surprising and confronting.
We have never seen anything like it before.
As outrageous as the Apple proposal is, it must be acknowledged that some steps have been done correctly. Regardless of your view, involving Professor Donald Bates, one of the original architects of Federation Square, in the decision process is unquestionably the right thing to do. What surprised many was his ‘pro-Apple’ stance on the issue, which is well articulated in this piece on ArchitectureAU. There are six aspects discussed in this piece, covering the supposed cultural benefits of the Apple Flagship store, the shortcomings of the original Yarra Building and the architectural response.
Another body which must be mentioned in the context of the apple decision is the involvement of the Office of the Victorian Government Architect. They exist to provide expert advice to Government to ensure good design and as such absolutely needed to be involved. Yet what is unclear to the public at the moment is how narrowly this request for advice was framed. We may never find out what the advice was, but there is a small comfort knowing that at least it was sought.
So if the original architect is ok with it what is the problem?
There are many deeply troubling aspects of the Apple Flagship Store proposal. Many argue that an adaptation or fit out of the existing Yarra Building would have been acceptable. This would have retained the significant fabric of the Yarra Building and ensured that the Apple Store did not dominate the square. Some take more of a sustainability angle. In this day and age we should surely be able to get more than 15 years lifespan out of a building designed and built to last a few centuries.
“While its fabric may not meet the usual expectations of craft and material, it is clearly not intended to be replaced in twenty years.”
For others still, the corporatisation and privatisation of public space is also deeply concerning. Will Apple be calling upon Victoria Police to disperse protests that are taking place in the ‘public square’ on the basis that it is interfering with their retail trade? If this is even a remote possibility it undermines one of the key purposes of a public space in a democratic society.
Yet another issue is the possibility that Apple with its international branding juggernaut will overwhelm the identity of Federation Square. Apple will be seen as endorsing cultural activities in the square, further embedding its logo into everyday life. We might even partially lose the name Federation Square in this culture war. It may sound far-fetched but it is exactly the thing Australians do. We don’t go to the exhibition centre, we go to ‘Jeff’s Shed’.
“As Melburnians, Victorians, and, in fact, as Australians, Federation Square is ours and we should fight to have our say in any changes that will significantly influence its form and its capacity to deliver on its civic promises.”
Other objections are to the design quility (or lack of it) in the Foster and Partners ‘Hamburger’ that is depicted in the renderings. Whilst Professor Bates indicates that there is likely to be some substantial development of the architectural design of the Apple store, it is currently quite underwhelming.
“This extraordinary thing looks like the first stab at a design for a Portsea beach house. What were they thinking? Indeed, were they thinking?”
Where Bates is entirely correct however is that if a new building is to be built, it should not take the form of a pretend Lab Architects building. If we are stupid enough to demolish the original, than we need that reflected in the architecture with a design that sets itself apart from the original.
Another problem with the Apple idea, is that a technology store is a very poor fit for a permanent landmark of national significance. Apple’s resurgence as a company was due to the invention of the IPod in 2001. In less than a decade it was virtually obsolete, with the emergence of the IPhone and other smart phone technologies. There is nothing that suggests that Apple will be at the cutting edge of technology in ten years’ time, or that the ‘flagship’ store that is built on this land mark site will still meet the needs of a technology company by 2030.
Imagine for a moment that this technology store proposal had occurred in 2007 and that one of the leading international brands had built their concept store at the peak of their relevance. Today, just a decade on, we would be wondering why we were so stupid as to demolish part of our architectural masterpiece for the ‘Nokia discovery centre’. It should be entirely expected that if the Apple version goes ahead we will be looking at a third iteration of the site before 2030.
“Do you think Sydney-siders are currently thinking gee we would be so much richer if we had of demolished part of the opera house in 1980 to make way for a new salesroom for a fax machine company?”
Architecture versus government financial management.
Drilling down into the political forces that drove the decision, the Apple proposal presents itself as an architectural solution to a government finance question. Last September The Age reported on the continual financial losses of Federation Square which are approximately $6 Million per year. It would appear that this is the real motivation behind those pushing the Apple plan.
“Operating without substantial ongoing government support, Fed Square struggles to maintain its heavily utilized buildings and public spaces, while honouring its public charter. A major corporate tenant such as Apple will go a long way to re-balancing the operational impost on Fed Square.”
Professor Donald Bates
Bates argues that the Apple Store will be beneficial to Federation Square as it will ‘go a long way’ in balancing the financial impost on the State Government. Whilst the State Government is happy to proclaim that Bates is approving of the idea, what is clear from this is that Bates has no confidence in our State Government (current or future) responsibly funding this vital public asset. Undoubtedly Bates is trying to protect Federation Square from a future like that of the Flinders Street Station Ballroom, an architectural treasure boarded up and hidden away due to an ongoing succession of government incompetence and indifference.
What is perhaps most infuriating about this ‘financial problem’ is that it is really a very simple issue about funding priorities.
Federation Square hosts over 10 million visitors a year which includes over 1 million international tourists. It is costing the taxpayer approximately $6 Million per year. By comparison the Melbourne Grand Prix hosts approximately 300,000 visitors per year at an annual cost of approximately $60.9 Million to the taxpayer. Looking at the cost per visitor, Federation Square costs 60 cents, per person. Whilst the Grand prix costs $203 per person.
If we cannot as a society afford to properly operate Victoria’s most important civic space and second most visited tourist attraction, then we have absolutely no business in funding the Melbourne Grand Prix.
The common ground in this debate it is that Apple should be funding Federation Square to make it financially viable. It is just a question of how. There are the idealists who think Apple, like all businesses large and small should pay their fair share of tax and that these taxpayer dollars should be used for the public good, such as maintaining public spaces. Then there are the pragmatists who think that governments aren’t capable of making this happen, so we need to gift the corporate gods their pound of flesh in order to guarantee that multinational corporations pay up.
Melbournians should not have to submit to the corporatization of our most treasured 21st century public space, just to guarantee its survival. It doesn’t matter if you like the space, or if the architecture is your cup of tea. This is about the financial priorities of our democratic government and their disrespect for one of our most vital pieces of public space. And in this matter we all have a stake.
Architecture is for everyone
(At the time of writing there were over 52,000 signatures.)
Architeam: No Apple at Federation Square (Via Panfilo)
Citizens of Melbourne Against Apple Federation Square (COMAAFS) Website
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