The Yarra building at Federation Square that Fairfax reports Apple wants to replace with a signature glass cube to house an Apple store
The Yarra building at Federation Square that Fairfax reports Apple wants to replace with a signature glass cube to house an Apple store

The Age reported last week that Apple Inc is looking to establish a flagship store in Melbourne’s famous Federation Square. According to the paper, Apple is considering obtaining permission to replace the existing Yarra building with a glass cube similar to its Fifth Ave store in Manhattan (see Apple’s $50 million bid to build store in Melbourne’s Federation Square).

The idea wasn’t well received by Fairfax readers. The heading to Melbourne writer James Norman’s op-ed, Hey Apple, hands off Fed Square, pretty much captured the dominant sentiment. Mr Norman thundered:

Allowing access to such a significant public site to one of the biggest US mega-corporations will irrevocably change the character of Fed Square from a thriving and diverse public square and vital cultural precinct to something more akin to a generic shopping mall… Federation Square should be kept as an open space serving the community of all Victorians and visitors who pass through it rather than becoming a flashy corporate shopping mall.

The reaction to the news conflates the brand with the use and both with the inevitability of a new build. Assuming the Fairfax report is basically right, there are three distinct issues to consider here:

  • Would Apple be an appropriate tenant?
  • Would tech-related retail be an appropriate use?
  • Would it be reasonable to alter the built fabric of Federation Square?

The first one is the easiest to deal with in my view. Refusing permission to a tenant on the basis of its brand is the same impulse that accepts churches as a legitimate use, but specifically seeks to refuse a mosque (see Tea Party planning: do the ends justify the means?). It’s unfortunately a very common reaction but it’s Trumpism and it’s reprehensible. (see also Would a McDonald’s store in this town be all downside?; Should the walls come down at the (Nth Fitzroy) Star hotel?; and Will a McDonald’s store be the end of Glebe?).

The proper question is the second one; whether tech-related retail would be an appropriate use within one of the existing buildings, irrespective of brand. There’s a potential conflict here because Fed Square was consciously positioned from the outset as a cultural precinct (Melbourne City Council’s proposal for a mall-like development over a bus station was rejected), represented by current major tenants, the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Ian Potter Gallery and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

While I don’t doubt for a minute that Melburnians would reject outright the idea of a mall, I’m not sure most see Fed Square as strictly a cultural precinct. That rationale is in any event elastic enough to extend to commercial bookshops associated with NGV and ACMI and to the regional office of media organisation SBS. There are private tenants, including a pub (in a stand-alone building!), a bar, cafes, a 7-11, and mid-level restaurants. The presence from the start of the Melbourne Visitors Centre in the western shard suggests the cultural precinct theory was never exclusive.

It’s not the ideal use in my view, but it’s possible a high-tech retail tenant could enhance the precinct. The open forecourt of Federation Square works well for big crowds, but the inner outdoor areas are often pretty empty of people between events. A new use that attracts large numbers of people deeper into the precinct would help with activation in the periods – much of the time – when there’s no major event. I don’t think something like an Apple store would be an especially exciting addition but neither do I think it would turn the Square into something “akin to a generic shopping mall” any more than the two existing bookshops/giftshops have done.

The third question, which assumes for arguments sake that an Apple store would be an appropriate use, asks if replacement of an existing building by a new one would be warranted.

One issue is heritage. Although it’s only 14 years old, the National Trust has already placed Federation Square on its Victorian Heritage Database. It’s a half-hearted listing (there’s no statement of significance) and it doesn’t have direct legal force like the State’s Heritage Register, but it reflects the level of cultural significance some assign to the Square.

Another issue is architectural integrity; although it consists of a series of separate buildings, the entire precinct was designed as a unified entity in visual terms. Much of its charm comes from the highly idiosyncratic character – the distinctive personality – of the design. If a new “glass cube” structure were to replace the Yarra building’s “crazy paving” look, the impact on the original design would be significant. There might be as many who hate the look of Federation Square as love it, but there’s little doubt it would look like a different place if Apple got its way.

I don’t give much weight to the heritage argument. What makes Federation Square such a valuable place is neither history nor architecture but the activities it enables, especially the large communal gatherings. Zealously protecting the original built form won’t ensure the health of those activities; indeed, it might prevent it from evolving in tune with changes in activities.

I find the architectural integrity argument more plausible. But even then, Federation Square was never perfect in functional terms – for example, the connection to the river is weak – and it’s a big ask to expect it to accommodate future changes in tastes, technology and economics without the flexibility to adapt if and when necessary.

In my view this is arguably the most important site in the city centre; it warrants – and got – a good building, but the location is too important to be consigned permanently to the tastes and exigencies of the late 1990s (see Why is Federation Square such a success?). It’s interesting architecturally but it’s not a wonder of the world; the privilege of being on the river and directly opposite Flinders St Station should mean the architecture must change to support changes in community activities, not the other way around.

So if Fairfax’s report is right, what to do? My tentative view is a flagship Apple store located within one of the existing buildings wouldn’t be “the end of the world”. On the limited information available, it would probably enhance Federation Square somewhat compared to the status quo. I say tentative because there’s so much that’s unknown e.g. we don’t know what the commercial arrangements are.

However I don’t think the benefits would be even remotely large enough to justify compromising the distinctive look of the precinct with a glass cube. Apple was looking pretty shaky financially in the 1990s and could again; a purpose-built structure that only works for one tenant is a silly idea. If Apple wants in to a valuable public asset like Fed Square it should be prepared to occupy an existing building.

But that’s a pragmatic response and let’s face it; a generic Apple store would be a small gain. There’s a much bigger opportunity here; the Victorian government could instead choose to strengthen Federation Square’s role in the cultural life of the state. It could house something that’s really exciting and relevant to our way of life like, for example, an Australian Museum of Architecture or an Australian Museum of Popular Music.