Proposed redevelopment of Flinders Street Station Melbourne by Zaha Hadid & BVN Architecture

The eight member Judging Panel appointed by the Victorian government will announce the winner of the Flinders Street Station Design Competition on Thursday. The winning scheme will be selected from the six finalists (themselves selected from 118 entrants) who’ve been working-up their proposals over the last six months (competition documents).

Flinders Street Station is arguably the most important precinct in the centre of Melbourne and could potentially make a much larger contribution to civic life than it does at present. There’s also scope to improve the way it functions as a transport hub and integrates (eventually) with the proposed Melbourne Metro.

All six schemes offer important improvements. To a greater or lesser extent, they all propose renovating the historic buildings, opening up access to the river, improving pedestrian connections with surrounding streets and within the station itself, enhancing inter-modal connections, establishing  better view lines, and creating new public areas. Some even propose specific uses and others new river crossings.

All six were developed over the last six months in collaboration with stakeholders. Some work better than others on some variables and worse on others (it’s all about trade-offs), but they’d all improve the functioning of the station as both a transport hub and a public “place”.

They’d all be nice to have compared to the status quo. The important question though isn’t which one, but a more prosaic one: would any of them be worth it?

Building over an operational rail station is extraordinarily expensive. For example, Federation Square cost $460 million in 2002. Given the stratospheric escalation in construction costs since then and the scale of these proposals, I think they’re likely to cost much more. Some, like those that propose extensive load-bearing platforms over the rail lines, might have a net cost in the region of $1 billion.

That’s a lot of money in a metropolitan area where the basic functioning of the public transport system is suspect. It’s amplified in a state where the government isn’t prepared to borrow or increase taxes/charges to fund infrastructure on the scale indicated by growth.

The key consideration is what else that money could be used for. It could, for example, be applied to updating signalling in order to increase train frequencies, buying new rolling stock, or building new rail lines. There’re possible investments in the tram and bus systems too (and that’s without considering other areas of government like education and health).

I think former Premier Ted Baillieu erred when he made his ill-considered promise during the 2010 election campaign to hold this competition (see Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?). But any chance a competition might’ve worked was undermined by the brief, which doesn’t specify an overall cost and and doesn’t say what uses were to be included in the project.

The absence of a budget makes comparing the proposals very hard. Inevitably, it also gave entrants an incentive to err on the upside; after all, it’s a competition and differentiation is vital.

The absence of specified uses also makes comparing proposals hard e.g. one finalist proposes a design museum; another a high school; and another an amphitheatre. More importantly, I suspect insufficient research has gone into the viability or feasibility of these “ideas”.

That’s not surprising because these are complicated and specialised uses and the finalists had restricted time and resources. The ideas are more about marketing than anything else. Architect’s talents lie in giving physical expression to uses, not in determining what those uses should be – that’s a complex field that should’ve been addressed in formulating the brief.

Making it a self-consciously architectural competition also inevitably has an effect. While not all finalists are proposing a solution as iconic as that conceived by international ‘starchitect’ Zaha Hadid (see exhibit), they all predictably focus on creating new structures. None of the finalists propose a low-key renovation option or completing the station as proposed by the original designers in 1899 (although ARM “reference” it).

The time to run an architectural competition was when a solid brief with a clear business plan for uses and financing had been settled. Of course being an essentially political ‘stunt’, that didn’t matter.

Still, now that the hounds have been let loose, I hope the Judging Panel wasn’t unduly dazzled by the Zaha Hadid design (I say “wasn’t” because the panel undoubtedly made its decision some time ago). I know some imagine it would make Flinders St Station an internationally recognised icon, but that’s fanciful.

For one thing it looks very much like some of Ms Hadid’s designs elsewhere (e.g. see here and here). For another, so-called iconic buildings are now ubiquitous thanks to the likes of Gehry and an army of others given free reign by technical advances in engineering design and construction.

The alchemy of creating an icon is in any event not amenable to deliberate design. The next internationally iconic structure probably won’t be visually stunning in the way the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheims were in their day.

In my view the Hadid design lacks something that says “Melbourne” or “transport” or anything particular about this site. It doesn’t feel like urban design – in that sense it’s in the tradition of the ‘international style’. Someone rather unkindly described it as “stretched pantyhose”; it puts me in mind of a 1960s Cadillac.

Rather than getting locked in to thinking solely in terms of a grand redevelopment, I think consideration should’ve be given to a low-key option. A program to renovate the historic station buildings and make modest improvements to amenity, connectivity and movement (e.g. widen the Elizabeth St underpass) would be less costly by an order of magnitude. I would like to see what could be achieved with an option budgeted (say) in the range $50-100 million.

That’s actually a distinct possibility because it’s unlikely the Victorian government will stump up the money to build the chosen design (whichever it might be). It’ll be too costly in these straitened times and anyway it’s the former Premier’s baby. A low cost option would deliver most of the value (especially the renovation of the historic buildings and better connections) with much less financial pain.

The government is also running a People’s Choice Award selected by popular on-line vote. The winning scheme will also be announced on Thursday. This is a lost opportunity because it means the judging panel can’t benefit from the views of the public (the popular vote closed last night).

It’s also potentially opens the way for controversy if the judges were to make a selection at variance with the popular view. Given that we’ve now seen the six finalists I don’t think there’ll be any hullabaloo but no one could’ve known that at the time the competition was designed. It was a peculiar decision.

I don’t doubt that any of these proposals would provide a great civic facility. The key issues are (1) what other opportunities would be denied if it were built and (2) how much of the benefit could be obtained from a lower-cost option.

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