Will Flinders St Station be the next Guggenheim?

The international architectural competition for the redevelopment of Melbourne's iconic Flinders St Station is throwing up some fabulous ideas, but there are questions about the selection process

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_22294" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="What will those "crazy architects" think of next? Proposed design for Flinders St Station by ROTHELOWMAN"][/caption] Last month the Victorian Government announced the six short-listed finalists for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Entries were received from 117 architectural practices from around the world. The finalists (more info here) are:
  • Ashton Raggatt McDougall
  • John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
  • HASSELL + Herzog and de Meuron
  • NH Architecture
  • Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
  • Zaha Hadid Architecture + BVN Architecture
The finalists now go into stage 2 where they have another six months to develop their proposals further. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the judges report explaining why they were selected (and, I'd hope, why the other 111 missed out) until the winner is announced, expected to be in the middle of next year. Nor is Major Projects Victoria displaying any entries to the public. We have to wait until mid-2013 before we'll get to see any of them (hopefully all of them). One “losing” entrant is unhappy about that. Melbourne practice Mihaly Slocombe (writing on their blog Panfilocastaldi) wants them all displayed now:
The studios that entered the competition deserve to have their hard work rewarded with public exposure, the architecture profession deserves insight into the competition process, and the population of Melbourne deserves the chance to discuss the aspirations and future direction of their city. This competition is an unsurpassed chance to start a conversation about Melbourne, about what it is and what we want it to be. The exhibition should happen right now.
Some of the firms that didn't make the short-list have elected to display their disregarded entries anyway. Several of these have been gathered up by the design enthusiasts at Skyscraper City - you can have a look at their proposals by clicking on the list below: Note that these firms aren’t necessarily representative of all firms who submitted entries. They're firms who've made their entries public by posting them on the web. None of them made the cut, but there’re some interesting ideas here. Even so, as I’ve discussed before (here and here), it’s arguable if an architectural competition was ever a smart way of going about this task. This is Melbourne’s most important precinct and its future needs to be thought about in wider terms than just architecture (although of course that aspect is important). Nor is a competition the best way to go about getting it right – in my opinion, it’s likely to promote attention-getting ahead of deliberation. This is one of Melbourne's most important and busiest rail stations. It will be integrated with a new station for the planned north-south Melbourne Metro; it's the gateway to the arts precinct and the sports precinct; it's on the river opposite Southbank; it's on the Swanston St spine adjacent to Federation Square; it's an important historic building with huge sentimental attachment; and more. There’re other dissenting views too. A Frank Godsell from satirical website Godsell and Corrigan reckons he hasn’t heard a single good word about the competition from within the architectural profession:
The general consensus is that the project is simultaneously too open-ended and altogether too restrictive.....But even within this straightjacket framework, there is a conspicuous lack of aspiration. The restructuring and rationalisation of Flinders Street is a serious infrastructural project – a task that, by the government’s own admission, needs to be done. Why it has been shoe-horned into an architectural exercise is beyond me.....The competition is further stymied by the absolute lack of funding to push any winning design ahead.
Godsell and Corrigan didn’t submit an entry but Mihaly Slocombe did. While entries were nominally anonymous, they say the process didn’t work well:
One juror confided to us that 80% of all 117 entries were recognisable. Such recognition went staunchly undiscussed, but we imagine it can’t have helped but nuanced the jury’s conversations and influenced their decisions. Thus it was without surprise that we accurately guessed 4 of the 6 shortlisted entrants.
Those four are international “starchitects”  Zaha Hadid and Herzog and de Meuron  and “local heroes” ARM and John Wardle Architects. Mihaly Slocombe wonder what the odds are that the entries of all four were so obviously better than the rest:
The cynic in us suspects that the jury, easily recognising a Zaha Hadid project when it’s handed to them on a silver platter, had no choice (consciously acknowledged or otherwise) but to include it on the shortlist. The State Government and MPV (Major Projects Victoria), for their parts, have wasted no time in extolling the virtues of their star-studded cast, we imagine giddy with excitement over the possibility of commissioning the next Guggenheim.
Given this sort of concern, I think the Minister should release immediatly the juries report explaining in detail why it chose the short-listed six and why it rejected the rest. I fear the aspiration to create “the next Guggenheim” is where this project is heading. Of course if that level of visibility were achieved it would be brilliant for Melbourne and Australia, but the odds of pulling it off in a world already awash with “look-at-me” and “crazy” buildings is astronomical. In fact we might not see another (Bilbao) Guggenheim or Sydney Opera House for generations. Perhaps Manhattan’s High Line is a sign that the built icons of the future won't look anything like "starchitecture" as we know it today. Note: There was an unofficial exhibition in Fitzroy of 30 non-shortlisted entries on 22 November. You can read a report by architect Michael Smith here (no pics though). [caption id="attachment_22296" align="aligncenter" width="565" caption="More from those "crazy architects". This one is by Boogertman + Partners "][/caption]

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24 thoughts on “Will Flinders St Station be the next Guggenheim?

  1. Dylan Nicholson

    Heh, if it were up to me that would be part of the deal…whatever company gets to re-design and rebuild Flinders St station also has to provide funds to help clean-up that embarrassment of a river (which I know only too well, as I’m still fighting off a nasty intestinal infection I caught after taking an unplanned swim in it during a rowing session).

  2. marcus

    I can see a very big flaw in the design above. The Yarra River is green. The Yarra River is not green. It is brown.

  3. Geoff England

    Design by committee never ever succeeds.

    Like the comments here, there are way always too many opinions in committee to ever achieve an outcome anything other than bland and safe.

  4. Tom the first and best


    Melbourne`s particular history of development around railways from near the beginning not latter in development (meaning more central and united general termini) and more suburban focus is unlike Sydney and many other Southern Hemisphere cities and means that a greater proportion of the patronage gets on and of at Flinders St.

  5. Tom the first and best


    I agree. The only minor point I would make is that because Flinders Lane one way section (the section that crosses Elizabeth St) goes east to west, the traffic flow at the Elizabeth St and Flinders Lane intersection would have conflicting movements and Flinders lane would have trouble with the traffic. Collins St would be a more realistic option. However Latrobe St would be even better because then it would be the full CBD section, between the two stations, like Swanston St.

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    Ika, as the only large rich country south of the equator, it’s not hard to make ‘{insert-superlative-here} in the southern hemisphere’ claims about places in Australia! Though I would have thought there’d be some pretty busy train stations in Brazil.

  7. IkaInk

    @Dylan – Japan is a very special country regarding busy railway stations. Flinders Street is the busiest in the Southern Hemisphere (according to some sources at least).

    I’ve no problem with the concept of having a design competition in order to revamp Flinders Street, as a basic principal it seems a good method to ensure a wide range of designs and hopefully some innovative solutions to updating the station whilst hopefully still preserving the much loved heritage features. However the evidence here seems to indicate that the competition isn’t being run very well and like everything the Baillieu Government is involved with, some significant flaws that seem to miss the point of doing something in a certain way in the first place.

    Like Austin above, I’d love to see Flinders Street completed to its original specifications. The original designs were gorgeous. Of course that would involve gutting the horrid modern concourse that has all the charm of a second rate suburban shopping mall, and replacing it with something far more tasteful. I’d like to see the Degraves St underpass fixed up, whilst preserving the lovely Deco features, and I’d like to see a new modern underpass at Elizabeth Street that lets people exit on the opposite side of the intersection, which would involve closing off Elizabeth Street to cars between Elizabeth and Flinders Lane, as well as moving the Tram terminus up a little.

    Regarding adding modern elements to the station, on that I’m unsure. Whilst I really love a lot of modern architecture, I believe that only very rarely do old buildings get updated tastefully with modern design elements and renovations, at least on buildings of this scale. The rooftop park design looks great from this end, but I can’t imagine the existing facade would keep much of its charm with that sort of design.

  8. supermundane

    Of all the designs that are viewable, the one by Andrew Burns, which was rejected does have merit.

  9. supermundane

    @Warwick Mahily
    “The important heritage qualities of the administration building need to be conserved and enjoyed, but not mimicked.”

    Mimicked is your telling choice of word. No Flinders Street just needs to be finished as intended. As I’ve said elsewhere here, the Victorians (the period, not the state) had no problems with taking say Gothic or vernaculars and making them are thoroughly modern expression of their age – take St. Pancras in London. There exists a hierarchy of order within the building, which is uplifting from the engineering to the human-scale details. If Palladian were to be reinterpreted for the modern age, it would be as modern an expression of the age as any deconstructivist pile.

    Do architects stop and wonder why they’re so mistrusted and that much of what they impose upon us is disliked or barely tolerated? The lack of humility in the profession, combined with the almost cult-like adherence to a form of anti-architecture, which can only work at any level if tempered by the existing-built environment (a form of parasitism), is astounding. In the main, this stuff is trite and it’s tiring to gaze upon and engage with. Symmetry, hierarchies of detail and ornament are not sins and it’s about time that architects got over themselves and their propensity to technocracy.

    The existing Flinders Street will be loved; the distended, exploded algorithmically-generated form that invariably win (no doubt because committees are too afraid to select something that resonates with most people and given this insecurity tends to result in the selection of some brand ‘starchitect’) and that will cling to its side the side of the existing structure like a lamprey, will not be loved.

  10. Dylan Nicholson

    And really…one of the world’s busiest? Not sure how you measure busyness but there’s at least 20 train stations in Japan alone that make Flinders St look like a ghost town.

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    Holden, I’d accept the savings aren’t necessarily reaped directly into the government coffers, but it wouldn’t seem particularly hard to find, say, $10 billion worth of public transport infrastructure projects that if completed would generate good deal more than that in value/savings to all taxpayers over the succeeding 5-10 years. Whereas $1 billion (or whatever) spent on ensuring Flinders St is some modern architectural masterpiece might, at best, generate equivalent extra economic activity over many many decades (which isn’t to say it isn’t worth doing at all, but there’s way too many higher priority issues to address first).

  12. Warwick Mihaly

    To those who have commented above: many of your suggestions are piecemeal.

    Why not dream big?

    Is Flinders Street Station, one of the world’s busiest train stations, not deserving of a new vision to see her into the 21st Century and beyond? The important heritage qualities of the administration building need to be conserved and enjoyed, but not mimicked. There is far more we can do than a big, clear roof or a revised ticketing design for Elisabeth Street. We need to totally rethink this building connects the city to the water and the steadily expanding arts, sports and entertainment precincts on the south of the river.

    As for cost, I agree that a public private partnership is the likely way any form of development on this site will proceed. But here’s a crazy idea: maybe the government should occasionally think of investing in a project that doesn’t make money. It could, you know, satisfy itself with improving the quality of life of its citizens, or help the environment, or improve public transport.

  13. Holden Back

    So, Dylan, please lay out how these things ‘pay for themselves’, and you will have solved one of the great problems of urban planning.

    The MTR subway extensions in Hong Kong for example, ‘paid for themselves’ by selling the air rights over the stations.

  14. Austin M

    Al they need to do is finish the building!… Build the Swanston street concourse as originally intended with its semi circular roofs. Place a nice big clear or translucent roof over the whole lot creating a train shed as was originally intended (Finishing the Southern aspect would also be nice touch but I could take or leave it).
    It’s to Melbourne’s great shame that both flinders street station and parliament have never been completed and it’s reflective of what has been this states position for the last 100 years, nothing complete or finished properly!

  15. Dylan Nicholson

    Richmond’s platforms aren’t even fully roofed. I’ve got very wet and cold waiting for a train there at least once – and that’s exactly the sort of thing that puts people off using PT. Not necessary to have the whole building covered, but it could justify at least a few more better sheltered waiting areas.

  16. Warwick Mihaly

    Good overview of the competition’s current status and thank you for referring to our blog comments. A couple of corrections: Panfilocastaldi is our blog, Mihaly Slocombe is our architecture practice. We (Mihaly Slocombe) entered the competition in collaboration with Steve Rose Architect and Foong + Sormann

  17. Tom the first and best


    The things Richmond needs are:

    A general de-grotting (new paint, asphalt and tiles).

    A roof and side walls instead of individual platform roofs and shelter glass.

    Roofing to cover the western ramps.

    Cross platform transfer for the Caulfield group.

    North Melbourne is functional and a vast improvement on the entrance, exit and transfer capacity of the old station.

    A similar thing needs to happen at South Yarra because of severe entrance crowding and expanding development in its area. A Noprthern Concourse in needed with an exit to Yarra St (for Melbourne High and all the development around there) and possibly Darling St. South Yarra could then be advertised as a transfer for passengers for St Kilda Rd who could then get trams and extra trams could be run from South Yarra station be banning cars from that section of Toorak Rd and having a separate track for terminating trams.

  18. Tom the first and best

    What is needed immediately at the Elizabeth St end is to remove the non-ticked portion of the subway and accompanying fence and restore the subway to ticketed passenger access. This would allow a common ticketing barrier for the subway and platform 1 and thus allowing transfer between platform 1 and the subway without passing through ticket barriers. People wanting just to get through would still be able to do so for free, as long as they had a myki. Also this exit should not be closed at 10 pm. A lift should also be installed next to the stairs (in the space where what looks like a disused goods lift it.)

    Step 2 would be to put a Degraves St style subway under Flinders Street to facilitate the flow of pedestrians to Elizabeth St. This would mean closing Elizabeth St south of Collins St to provide somewhere for the entrance. Due to the drain under Elizabeth Street, it may well not be possible to have shops on the western side of the subway.

  19. Dylan Nicholson

    And Holden Back, I’d say more than just theoretically there are far better ways to spend money on public transport infrastructure that will “earn” money, i.e., pay for themselves.

    I agree, Richmond station is definitely one that’s due for an overall, especially given all the money that’s being spent upgrading just about everything along Olympic Blvd. Doesn’t have to be that fancy – Footscray had a decent makeover a while back and still looks good (but it had nice station buildings to begin with). OTOH North Melbourne is rather uninspiring.

  20. Andrew Herington

    The absence of any funding for grand statements means a lot of this effort is simply day dreaming. Why is it that the architects have all chosen to look at the station from the river and ignore the iconic building that exists? The real issue, given all the other public transport priorities, is how to renovate and find a new use for the existing station building (9,000 sq m) and imrpove access at the Elizabeth St end. This should be a $100m project not a $1 bn overdevelopment or a $10 bn fantasy.

  21. Holden Back

    I think you’ll find Dylan Nicholson that this will be some species of PPP, theoretically designed to earn money.

  22. Sean Doyle

    The exterior design of the front of the station is iconic as it is. The main problem at the moment is that it’s only the front of the building that’s been done like this. They should really just extend the current style to the Yarra end of the station. Given the carry on with the potential development of the glorified dump that is Camberwell station, if the designs shown in your post got up, there’d be protesters all the way down Flinders St.*

    The real problem with Finders is inside the station. There needs to be a full roof to provide shelter. The Elizabeth St underpass needs major work. The strip mall under Flinders St needs to be done up to make it an interesting and attractive retail space (hopefully with some government controls so that it doesn’t just have the same chain stores you can find on any CBD street). And of course the bathrooms are the stuff of legend. I’d hope that Flinders St takes a look at some major international stations and sees potential for being more than a place to get a train. The ballroom could be just the start.

    If the government wants “starchitects” to be let loose on public transport infrastructure, then they can tell them to submit plans for a new Richmond station. As long as they can get rid of the stench of urine as one walks up the ramp, then I doubt the public will care how gormless the design is.

    *Although I do kind of like the roof park in the second picture. No chance for the rest of the design though. They should have had it for Spencer St. Too late now.

  23. Dylan Nicholson

    Having said that, the pictures at http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/pictures/gallery-e6frf94x-1225902948616?page=1 are certainly testament to the need for some serious renovations. But do the proposals above even address this?

  24. Dylan Nicholson

    Seriously, given all the things we need to spend money on as far as rail infrastructure goes, why is this even being considered? It’s a decent looking enough station as it is right now (mostly covered with trees when viewed from across the river)…just don’t understand why the inside isn’t being better used.

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