Will Apple really destroy Federation Square?

There are downsides to Apple's new global flagship store in Fed Square, but there are benefits too. It might even broaden the Square's appeal to a wider cross section of Melburnians

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

[caption id="attachment_60466" align="aligncenter" width="1170"] Apple Inc's planned global flagship store in Federation Square. The existing pub, Transport Hotel, is in the stand-alone building on the right, fronting St Kilda Rd[/caption] There was a social media shitstorm in Melbourne over the holiday period following the announcement the Victorian government has given Apple Inc approval to build a global flagship store in Federation Square. There was no shortage of outraged citizens forecasting the new building would destroy, desecrate and defile the city’s much loved civic square. The criticisms of the proposal include: it’ll be out of sync with the idiosyncratic look of the existing buildings; an international corporate with a dubious taxation record shouldn’t get privileged access to an important civic place; the development will privatise public space; it will turn Fed Square into a common shopping mall; the planning approval provided no opportunity for public consultation; it requires demolishing an existing building. Some critics argue retail businesses are incompatible with Fed Square’s place as “the people’s park”. Others think it should remain a cultural precinct, limited to uses like the existing Ian Potter Centre and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). So, is it a reasonable idea? I should say at the outset that I’m unhappy with the high-handed approval process and with the look of the new building. And I don’t think an Apple global flagship store is the best possible use for Fed Square. But the downsides are grossly exaggerated in my view. The thing the whole brouhaha highlights is that the Square isn’t really “the peoples’ park”. It’s essentially a “high-art” and dining precinct that mostly benefits tourists and a limited number of Melburnians. There are plenty of defenders who want to keep it that way. The key issue is that Federation Square isn’t functioning well as “the peoples’ park”. There are special occasions when it truly caters for all Melburnians – like when Cadel Evans won Le Tour – but for the great majority of the time it’s virtually empty of people in the inner reaches of the open areas and in the enclosed Atrium. The absence of life is reflected in the poor financial performance of the management body, which recorded a cumulative loss of $33 million over the last five years. The current facilities are biased toward tourists, to those who can afford to eat and drink in all those bars and restaurants, and to the section of the population that’s very interested in visual arts. ACMI’s current exhibition, Studies on the Ecology of Drama, is fascinating but it doesn’t strike me as having broad appeal. The Apple store promises to attract two million visitors a year to Fed Square. That sort of number will do a lot to activate it day and night, every day of the year. The fear it will somehow single-handedly turn the Square into just another mall is an appeal to extremes. It’s a rubbish argument. Apple’s new flagship store in San Francisco’s iconic Union Square shows that the idea “it’s just a shop” misunderstands the contemporary nature of this sort of business. Apple Inc isn’t spending $100 million just for a place to flog hardware; this is about creating an experience. Sure, it’s ultimately all for a commercial objective. But that’s common with public spaces around the world, from Melbourne’s Victoria Market to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Something must attract people to go to places and there’s only so many public facilities with the required heft to do it alone; Fed Square’s current public tenants certainly aren’t doing it. In most cases much of the hard work is done by, or shared with, private operators. Federation Square already has a multiplicity of private operators, including the Transport Hotel (with a dedicated building!), a 7/11, a tour operator and numerous bars and cafes. And no, these businesses aren’t “ancillary” to the main attractors like the Ian Potter Centre. The National Gallery in Canberra needs an ancillary cafeteria because it’s not near anything, but Fed Square is close to dozens and dozens of eateries, bars and pubs in the CBD. The various hospitality establishments in Fed Square are there in their own right; to pay rent to Federation Square Pty Ltd and ostensibly help bring in people. Importantly, Apple’s presence should not only increase the number of visitors to Fed Square, it should also go some way toward redressing the “high-art” bias by bringing in a wider cross-section of Melburnians on all those days when there’s no major event. Mobile phone penetration in Australia is circa 84% of the population and iOS has 46% of the Australian mobile phone market. The sophisticated readers of The Urbanist might mostly prefer to go to Kathryn Del Barton’s current exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre, The Highway is a Disco, but I expect Apple’s global flagship store will appeal to a wider demographic. Not that it’s the ideal use. I think something like the stand-alone Australian Museum of Popular Music I’ve been advocating for a few years would be the sort of facility that could go a long way toward “democratising” the appeal of Fed Square. It would help signal to a lot more Melburnians that it’s their place too, not just on big occasions. The trouble of course is the money would have to come from something else, very possibly from projects that many others consider more important. I’m not happy with the design of the new building either. What looks to me like a stylised  “old country pub” aesthetic is grossly at odds with Fed Square’s “crazy paving” look. The visual integrity of the original design is severely compromised. Even something neutral, perhaps inspired by Apple’s original glass cube in Fifth Avenue might’ve worked, but not this shed, not here. On the other hand, the principal of the firm that designed Fed Square supports the new design; so does the Government Architect. I acknowledge there are also plenty who don’t like the look of Fed Square and, ironically, that it was criticised when first revealed for being out of character with the surrounding streetscape. I note the new design will liberate more open space for public use and will improve connection to the river. The Apple store looks like a done deal. We could’ve done better in an ideal world, but I expect it will contribute a lot to energising Fed Square and to making it a place a broader cross section of Melburnians wants to visit. I don’t think there’s much risk it’ll be the disaster for the Square that’s predicted in certain quarters. It doesn’t seem to me that opposing Apple’s presence in Fed Square, but accepting an alternative location elsewhere in the CBD, is a particularly effective way of objecting to its corporate practices. It should’ve started before this decision was made, but we need a public discussion about what Federation Square is meant to be (it’s got nothing to do with 1901!) and about which Melburnians it’s meant to serve. There should also be a debate about its value; is it worth diverting funding from other important purposes for something like an Australian Museum of Popular Music? Is it possible the Ian Potter Centre isn't the ideal use for Fed Square?

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9 thoughts on “Will Apple really destroy Federation Square?

  1. Adam Ford

    If there is an obtuse position to be taken on a topic, you can always be guaranteed to find it.
    But you void your entire argument by saying “ït has nothing to do with 1901”. For God’s sake. Read the flipping words that are ETCHED INTO THE GODDAMN SANDSTONE ..,. The seven different types of stone chosen to represent …. oh why bother??? If you haven’t even don’t that much research but you can dismiss the entire foundation of the space, you’re going to be immune to any critique here.
    “the Apple Store looks to be a done deal”??? That would be why the chap from Fed Square was on the radio practically begging them to say and warning us they’d go to Sydney?
    Are you sitting on some research that says you get more traffic when you antagonise 95% of your readership? You won’t be mounting the barricades with us on the forthcoming watershed urbanism issue that most of us consider an ideological line in the sand. And you’ve helped explicitly with the countervailing discourse.
    And this serves the interests of better cities. Somehow. Wunderbar.

    1. Alan Davies

      Adam Ford

      There are plenty of people who have a point of view on this matter that differs from yours e.g. see tonight’s debate. To imply that someone who disagrees with your view is obtuse (look it up!) is supremely arrogant.

      If you want to be insulated from competing views and from analysis of issues there are plenty of echo chambers on social media that’ll accommodate you; this place isn’t one of them.

      The centenary of Federation was merely the pretext for demolishing the Gas & Fuel towers and building a new civic space for Melburnians to enjoy. Apart from the name, Fed Square doesn’t commemorate federation in any meaningful way.

      There’s no permanent museum/gallery/exhibition in Fed Square devoted to describing the history of the colonies, how they came to agree on nationhood, what it meant for each colony, the social and economic ramifications for different groups in the population, etc. There’s no dedicated collection of significant documents, photos, paintings, films, artifacts, etc, relating to federation housed at Fed Square. Nor is there an historical archive that historians and researchers might use. There aren’t even any statues, sculptures, or paintings incorporated in the buildings and open spaces that might communicate a commemorative role to users of the Square.

      The most recent 2017 annual report for Fed Square makes no mention of any activity in the preceding 12 months that related to recognising federation. The objects of the company make no mention of in any way celebrating federation. The only mention of federation in the Civic and Cultural Charter specifically relates to “producing and promoting” celebrations in 2001 i.e. in the year of the centenary, 18 years ago.

      A plaque and an obscure architectural reference in the sourcing of the stone that ordinary users of the Square aren’t aware of doesn’t cut it (BTW almost all of the stone actually comes from the Kimberleys).

  2. Moving to Paraguay

    Thanks for articulating the reasons for. I’ve been struggling to understand them and the Victorian government have been arguing “But otherwise it will go to Sydney” line, which seems like blackmail on Apple’s part and weakness on ours. But given your argument, I have a problem with Apple itself as an “experience provider” in Federation Square. As reviews of the new Apple HomePod reflect, Apple is a gated technology. It offers very little for those who are not part of its eco-system. And compared to other brands, Apple’s is predominantly white, first world and salaried. While it may attract the Chadstone crowd, I don’t think it will be effective in bringing the diversity of Melbourne together.

  3. Xoanon

    I think the visitor projections for the proposed Apple Store are extremely suspect, as is everything else about this dreadful project. We were endlessly told when it was first built that Fed Square was the civic square we never had, so it’s too late now to start insisting that it’s a commercial space.

    A new museum with broad appeal (as you suggest) is precisely what the square needs, but not a big shop for a notoriously tax-dodging corporation – and in an ugly new building at that.

    Also I don’t see how anyone can just shake their heads indulgently at the appallingly arrogant override of the planning process here, and let it pass. This case is emblematic of the issues swirling around corporate dominance over government internationally, IMO it’s right for people to make a stand against it on principle.

    1. Alan Davies

      Xoanon

      Public spaces rely on private operators, most of them some form of retail, for activation e.g. Melbourne’s laneways. I doubt the commercial practices and treatment of employees by these operators is perfect in all cases. If you single out Apple because it’s a “notoriously tax-dodging corporation”, you should oppose its presence in other places too, not just Fed Square. The proper response is (a) to avoid it’s products and (b) give your active support to policies to improve regulation of Apple and its kin.

      If this is emblematic of “corporate dominance over government internationally” then it’s a pissweak emblem. The government made the decision, it owns the land, it’s getting a return, the process was lawful. This is ultimately just a bunfight over a single retail business; save the purple language about “principle” for substantial issues like the privatision of infrastructure e.g. airports, electricity.

  4. Warwick Mihaly

    I’m against the Apple Store on principle. Above all the other issues you’ve cited, I think it represents yet another example of urban-design-by-corporate-interests. I have no problem with corporates running sections of the city, but Melbourne needs to have a planning vision, and a government prepared to chase it. For me, Apple is a mini version of Transurban’s West Gate Tunnel – not asked for, not supportive of a more environmentally friendly, walkable, public-transport dominated city, but going ahead anyway.

    1. Alan Davies

      Warwick Mihaly

      So you’re against it because it’s effectively an unsolicited proposal i.e. Apple Inc came up with the idea and put it to the Government, as Transurban did with the West Gate Tunnel? I don’t know if that’s true in the case of Fed Square but it wouldn’t surprise me. Still, I don’t think government has a monopoly on the best ideas; in fact far from it. Also, for better or worse, the Government made the decision on both these projects, not Apple or Transurban.

  5. Friend of Fed Square

    “the principal of the firm that designed Fed Square supports the new design”
    Actually Fed Square had two architects, we’ve been hearing from one only.

    1. Alan Davies

      Friend of Fed Square

      AIUI, Peter Davidson suffered a severe stroke in 2011, resigned as a director of the firm, and stopped practising as an architect. I’m not aware of any public statement he’s made about Apple Inc’s proposal. In any event, Federation Square was designed by a firm, LAB Architecture Studio.

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