Federation Square, Melbourne. The sixth best public square in the world according to the Landscape Architects Network (Source: Donaldytong, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Here’s a list of the Top 10 public squares of the world according to the Landscape Architects Network (1):

  1. Naghsh-e Jahaan Square, Isfahan
  2. Piazza del Campo, Siena
  3. Red Square (Krasnaya ploshchad), Moscow
  4. Trafalgar Square, London, United Kingdom
  5. St Peter’s Square, Vatican City
  6. Federation Square, Melbourne
  7. Rynek Główny, Kraków
  8. Plaza de Armas, Cuzco
  9. Times Square, New York
  10. Tahir Square, Cairo

Unfortunately, the Network doesn’t explain how it arrived at its ranking. It gives us a few truisms like landscape architects are “in the business of placemaking” and “places are for people”. However here’s a strong clue:

The public square is a place for enjoyment, but recent global events have highlighted the very important symbolic nature of our public places. Public space is the realm where the theory of politics, economics, and society collide with the reality of politics, economics, and society.

Given the company, Melbourne’s Federation Square does extraordinarily well to make sixth place. It seems to be the odd one out in this list, though. It doesn’t have the scale of the others; and nor does it have the historical, religious or political significance of most of them.

Federation Square hasn’t been the site of any great political event, civic turmoil or ritual; it’s claim is it simply works extraordinarily well as a place for people to meet for the decidedly modest routines of daily life in a rich city. It’s a place for Melburnians and visitors to gather primarily for social, recreational and entertainment purposes.

The more interesting question isn’t why Federation Square is on the Lanscape Architect’s list but why it’s been so successful. Why has it created enormous ‘buzz’ whereas Melbourne’s Docklands is widely seen as a civic failure (Is Docklands a dog?) and previous attempts to create a vibrant city square failed miserably?

I want to go back to a piece I wrote about four years ago on this theme (Did good design make Federation Square a success?). I noted then that one explanation for Federation Square’s success is the high quality of its design. (2)

Not everyone likes the look of it (it’s even made some world’s ugliest buildings lists) but in my view it succeeds in creating a grand sense of occasion. Good design can certainly make things work better and poor design can subvert the best of intentions. But design rarely “makes” a project successful. Buildings like Bilbao and the Sydney Opera House are the exception rather than the rule.

Here’re some complementary hypotheses to explain why Federation Square has been so successful in attracting users and establishing itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark.

First, Federation Square filled an enormous gap. Before it was built, Melbourne had no gathering place in the city centre where people could come together in large numbers. There was latent demand but no one had stepped forward to supply it until Federation Square was built. It provided a unique offering – the ability to accommodate 15,000 people smack bang in the CBD in relative comfort and safety. For free and with no walls.

Second, Federation Square was built in a premium – in fact unique – location. It occupies the crucial ‘choke point’ where Princes Bridge carries pedestrian and vehicular traffic between the CBD and the busy cultural precinct. This not only focuses traffic but it’s the “right” traffic – people who’re out to have fun. In addition, it’s supremely accessible. It’s right next door to the busiest rail station in Melbourne (in fact supposedly in the southern hemisphere), is serviced by trams on two sides and of course is in the largest, densest concentration of activity in the metropolitan area.

Third, it was conceived from the outset as a cultural precinct rather than just a run-of-the mill entertainment mall. There are powerful reasons to go to Federation Square over and above the customary restaurants and bars – these include the Ian Potter Art Gallery, Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the giant public screen. Importantly, these are major, quality offerings, not mere sideshows; and admittance to them was free, at least for the first few years. Even the restaurants and bars were conceived from the get-go to be different – unlike Southbank, there is no food barn.

Fourth, the way Federation Square would operate in the years after completion was factored into the brief. The decision to locate the Melbourne Visitor Centre within the complex was a smart one. The special facilities various event organisers would need were incorporated from the outset. The complex was established with a manager who worked hard to “win” events for Federation Square and to program activities that appealed to many people. The big screen, for example, proved its worth with screenings of major sporting and cultural events such as the Melbourne Cup and the soccer World Cup.

Other factors also probably contributed to its success. Melbourne’s weather was unusually mild in the crucial early years after Federation Square opened, most obviously with low rainfall. From the time it opened, Melbourne has enjoyed a period of economic expansion and optimism. Jobs and population grew vigorously in the CBD, adding to the demand for the services and facilities provided by Federation Square.

It’s the happy combination of all these factors that makes Federation Square successful. But none of them come down to “good design” as it is traditionally understood. Rather, its success is due primarily to a combination of wise decisions taken years before about how to utilise surplus public land, a superior brief, sound project management, good coordination across government, and smart operational management. No doubt a healthy dose of serendipity and some fortuitous unintended consequences are in the mix too.

In other words, the original conception of what that site could be, dating from the decision to get rid of the old Gas & Fuel Corp towers, was the real driving force for success. We’re lucky the gated, themed development being touted by the City of Melbourne at the time was put aside when the State Government decided to hold an international competition.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt the design of Federation Square is a factor that contributed to its success. It is an exciting looking building that attracts attention and has already established itself as an iconic Melbourne landmark.

It invites exploration and entry. In particular, rather than a conventional rectangular open space, the winning design responded to the brief by creating a piazza that draws visitors in and threads them deeper into the complex. One of its strengths is that it’s very permeable yet creates a psychological sense of enclosure. And even when empty, it doesn’t feel deserted. All this despite the appalling decision to pole-axe the western shard.

I don’t think good design “made” Federation Square (although poor design could certainly have damaged it) but it surely enhanced it. Design is best thought of as the logical next step in the implementation of a great idea. The “take home” message is that most of the really important matters that determine the success of a project aren’t directly design-related – they’re more likely to have occurred upstream.

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  1. Lists, lists, lists…like so many sites on cities, the Landscape Architects Network likes lists.
  2. This article is a mildly revised version of one published on 28 April 2010 as Did good design make Federation Square a success?
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