Planning

Feb 27, 2018

Is Federation Square as good as it gets?

Federation Square isn't the perfect place the critics of Apple's proposed store portray it as. There are better options than Apple but they'd be costly

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Near perfect weather  – mild and sunny – but few visitors to enjoy it. Federation Square at 1:15pm Monday last week

The approval of Apple Inc’s proposed global flagship store in Melbourne’s Federation Square has it’s problems but the commotion it’s causing highlights the Square’s shortcomings. It invites consideration of how this premium location should be improved.

As I pointed out last time I discussed this matter, the key issue is that despite all the rhetoric around community, Federation Square doesn’t function well as “the people’s park” (Will Apple really destroy Federation Square?):

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 proposed Apple Inc store isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s the only concrete proposal on the table that’s likely to “activate” the Square, as well as widen its appeal to a broader cross-section of Victorians. Even if the Government were to embrace the idea that $6 million per annum is simply the cost of operating a public facility, it might still see Apple Inc as a desirable tenant because of its ability to attract both large numbers and a broad range of visitors.

But like everything, the ‘Apple solution’ comes at a cost. Although the alleged instrumental problems are mostly exaggerated for political effect, the appearance of the proposed building is a real issue (but at least that’s under review). There’s also a section of the community that objects strenuously to the symbolism of an international corporation having a prominent position in Fed Square.

The issues highlighted by Apple Inc’s proposal suggest it’s worth rethinking the way Fed Square works. While they were doubtless important when the place was first built, it’s timely to consider whether there’s a case for moving the bigger facilities – like the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the Ian Potter Centre – elsewhere.

These are very valuable institutions. They should remain as stand-alone establishments somewhere in the city centre – perhaps in a restored Flinders St Station – but they’re not the ideal uses for Federation Square, at least not anymore.

ACMI generates small numbers of visitors, appeals to a narrow audience, and effectively sterilises a large part of the Flinders St façade. The Ian Potter Centre should be the jewel in Fed Square’s crown, but while it occupies a lot of space it isn’t generating enough activity to justify its premium location. The NGV reports a record 2.8 million visitors in 2016/17 to it’s two galleries; even if the Ian Potter Centre accounted for a third of those, that’s only 10% of Federation Square’s claimed 10 million visitors a year.

Given it’s got arguably the best address in Melbourne and one of the best in the country, it’s fair to ask why the Ian Potter Centre doesn’t produce anything like the buzz associated with Hobart’s much younger Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Or even Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (QGOMA).

Not that the design of Federation Square does the Ian Potter Centre any favours. It’s secreted away from the main entrance on Swanston St without even the benefit of a prominent sign to signal that the most important repository of Australian art in the world is (somewhere) within the Square. A gallery of its size and importance should “read” as a separate building.

What are suitable alternative activities? The existing conception of Fed Square as a cultural and civic precinct is a sound one, but it must be a place that’s relevant to the interests of most Victorians. It shouldn’t continue to be exclusively high culture; Melbourne’s already got an expansive high culture precinct just 50 metres away.

Federation Square should aspire to truly be “the people’s park”. I think there are many strands in Victorian and Australian culture that if presented well would be attractive to a broader demographic of citizens and visitors. I’ve already made a couple of suggestions.

One is to establish an Australian Museum of Popular Music, focusing primarily on the period from 1950 to the present day. Another is an Australian Museum of Architecture with 3-D recreations and virtual ‘walk-throughs’ of significant buildings, old and new. Imagine being able to drink (virtual) coffee in the demolished Federal Coffee Palace!

Another possibility is a program of themed explorations of Victorian cultural history drawn from the collections of the state’s various public and private museums, galleries and libraries e.g. football, car industry, cultural diversity.

I expect it’s relatively easy to come up with ideas for prospective uses and no doubt there are better possibilities than my suggestions. What’s a lot harder is finding the funding, because these sorts of changes would cost a lot, certainly tens of millions of dollars and the more ambitious ones would be hundreds of millions.

Something else in the budget would have to be foregone. Advocates like to portray funding for their preferred projects as coming at the expense of something they don’t like (such as the Grand Prix!), but it doesn’t work like that; you don’t get to cherry pick. Moreover there’re inevitably losers as well as winners.

What ultimately matters is the expected benefits and the risk associated with change. Of course, it’s unlikely any government will consider major changes – like relocating the Square’s major tenants – that require a lot of money; accepting Apple Inc’s proposal is a lot easier.

An alternative option would be to try to do a better job with what’s there e.g. increase the legibility and “presence” of the Ian Potter Centre. Perhaps give it a name that actually communicates what it offers; build a dazzling sign at the front (Leunig?); repurpose the Transport Hotel building and the Atrium as exhibition spaces for the Centre; and give it some buzz by populating the air space above the forecourt with art works defining an inviting path to the main gallery. Maybe there’s also a case for making the Centre independent of the NGV; at present it seems to get limited attention.

The proposed Apple Inc global flagship store comes at no cost to the budget and is effectively a done deal. It’s the only game in town; even those who oppose it want to keep the Square pretty much as it is.

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