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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11 thoughts on “Is Federation Square as good as it gets?

  1. Jennie Quinne

    There are many different possibilities, a unique bookstore would be great and have much broader appeal than an Apple store. Overall I don’t feel there is a problem with the mix of tenants. For example, NGVA and ACMI have a rolling list of different themes and events throughout the year to attract new and repeat audiences. For instance, NGVA has had everything from selected works of indigenous art to a car design exhibition. These bring in people of different tastes from all over the state to their civic and cultural space.

    Fed Square does not have a financial problem, it brings in more revenue than its expenditure. I do think Fed Square might have a marketing problem that needs addressing. For example, I didn’t realise that the Koorie Heritage Trust ran tours until the attention was focused on it recently. What Fed Square doesn’t need is neon signage. I think the beauty of the place is in the simplicity and lack of overt attention seeking that we see in lots of other parts in the city. People are encouraged to look around and discover what’s happening.

    While I appreciate your blog, it does deviate from the main issue – Does an Apple store belong at Federation Square and is Apple the right kind of tenant for Federation Square? On balance, the answer is a clear NO to both questions. Apple is not the right tenant and does not belong at a Federation Square.

  2. Jake Rojasth

    Lazy article, Davies. You speak about cherry picking, while your work here is supported by two images completely cherry picked. The hard facts are that Fed Square consistently gets more than 10 million visitors each year. Sydney’s Opera House only gets 8 million. The Apple store planned for Fed Square does come at a huge cost, that is the irreversible demolition of Yarra Building and the appropriation of public space by chronic tax avoider Apple Inc. The Government is gifting public space that it has no right to give. There’s no licence to proceed.

    1. Alan Davies

      Jake Rojasth

      Took more pics last Friday at 2:30pm from same viewpoints; another superb day weather-wise but just as empty. Only part with people was the steps on Swanston St.

      I take the claimed 10 million visitors p.a. with a grain of salt; it’s nothing like a “hard fact”. As noted in the article, the NGV – both galleries – only got 2.8 million visitors through the door last year. I suspect Fed Square’s estimation methodology is very agricultural and self-serving. The claim that it gets 20% more visitors than the Sydney Opera House should raise your antenna, not put your critical faculties to bed.

      Of course the government has a “licence to proceed”. It owns the land and the approval is lawful. The fact you disagree with the Government’s decision does not make it somehow illegitimate.

      1. Jake Rojasth

        Respectfully, Mr Davies, I’m not sure which is more lazy, your click bait piece or the Government’s overall plan to dump an Apple store in Fed Square. Maybe they are equally lax on thought. It’s all very much amateur hour it seems.

        If you are going to commit to do a photo analysis, you might consider setting up cameras on every street in Melbourne and snapping each area at the exact same time, and then at different times, to get a comparison that’s seriously worth entertaining. On recent visits to Fed Square, it’s been vibrant and anything but vacant.

        In 2003 Donald Bates, one of the original architects, claimed that 6 million visitations was a huge success for Fed Square after its first year. Fast forward to 2018 and the square receives 10 million visits. Fed Square is a brilliant success that is not in need of an Apple intervention.

        Your questioning of the 10 million visitors each year to Federation Square and the 8 million to the Sydney Opera House heads into territory of disputing the annual reports of both public spaces. And if that is the case, then you must also then in turn be completely disputing the curious claim of 2 million additional visitations that an Apple store is described to be bringing. Plainly, an Apple store will not attract 2 million extra visitors to Fed Square. Do the maths, that’s over 5400 extra people every day at Fed Square. Ridiculously exaggerated stuff.

        Let’s not pretend here. Apple is not wanting to move into Federation Square to improve visitor numbers, it simply won’t, Apple’s plans attempt to capitalise on the current exceptional visitations Fed Square already enjoys.

        The Apple flagship retail project is not of state significance. The Apple flagship store is two retail floors, a repair centre, a product information space, all inwardly focused on Apple products and services. The claims of its “flagship” benefits are completely overblown. Apple’s flagship store is nothing more than a branding exercise. The plans are destructive and not constructive to improvements of Victoria’s capital city. The plans lack legitimacy and integrity.

        Fed Square is wholly owned by the State Government of Victoria, which in turn is wholly owned by each and every person of Victoria. The people of Victoria own the Government, not the other way around.

        In a moment of confusion before Christmas 2017, the Victorian Government mistakenly opted for the irregular use of an obscure planning process and amendment to force through plans to circumvent the expected consultations with the public. Did Apple assist in this work around? We know that Apple is no stranger to work arounds in avoiding tax payments in Australia. Irrelevant though of what has occurred so far, it is the people of Victoria who have the final say on this matter and what occurs next.

        Anymore comment and I’d have my very own Crikey article. Here are the annual reports referenced.

        Federation Square Annual Report 2016-2017

        Sydney Opera House Annual Report 2016-2017

  3. Adam Ford

    It’s just dawned on me.
    What’s the golden thread that runs through all the concepts you fundamentally fail to grasp?
    This is a question of ARCHITECTURE…

    1. Alan Davies

      Adam Ford

      “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, Abraham Maslow.

      You’re wrong. This issue is about more than the architecture. Some are upset by the planning process and some are unhappy about the idea of a large retail use in Fed Square, especially one operated by a huge international corporation. These concerns would remain even if Apple had proposed refurbishing an existing building.

  4. Adam Ford

    Where do you get $6m from???
    Has this piece been researched at all – I mean other than the usual scoping study for the most obtuse angle possible?
    From The Age, 24/2 – “Contrary to unspecified reports that the square has made losses since its opening, the facility has delivered operating surpluses totalling $26.6 million over the past five years. Even the depreciation losses have been more than offset by increases in asset value.”

    So kindly redact that falsehood from this article, please.
    And you’ve nowhere proven that this tremendous space needs activating. Depict for us still you idea of an “active square” at 11am on a monday morning when nothing from the events programme is live. The square functions as well as any such space anywhere in the world.
    Why are you shilling for this?
    I actually think anyone who thinks “what Federation Square needs is a dazzling sign out the front designed by Leunig” is a contribution to this discussion has just dealt themselves permanently out of it.

    WHAT HAS LEUNIG GOT TO DO WITH FEDERATION?!? “Well he’s kind of cool and Melbourney …” Jumping Jeebus, you by so many degrees do. not. get. it.

    1. Alan Davies

      The link is in the article. My source is a news report about Fed Square’s annual report that has nothing to do with Apple’s proposal. You’re relying on an opinion piece by someone who opposes Apple’s proposal. Thank you for your interest.

      1. Adam Ford

        How is it “opinion” if someone has seen the actual BOOKS?
        The difference is between a depreciation writedown and an actual loss. That’s what you’re relying on with this. I wouldn’t be doubling down here, myself.
        All the other dimensions you suggest to this debate ARE there, but your fundamental rationale is invalidated if the square isn’t actually making a loss. Which it isn’t.
        Void of that rationale, do you then want to go through all this just to get 10% more “activation” in a space that few Melburnians would suggest needed as such? You haven’t demonstrated any imperative for this at all here.
        So it’s not ONLY a question of architecture. But this discourse is at the tail end of “the heritage buildings could all be replaced with ‘experiences’ remembering them”, a statement that appears to deny the entire conceptual existence of architecture.
        We seem to be more wholly in the space of “design” where that discipline just governs how people move around spaces. There’s nothing special about these buildings at all that warrants preserving?
        I would suggest urbanism does rightly concerns itself with the fact that we have one of the planet’s most significant postmodern architectural works here, this space was created through an international design competition, and you cannot simply delete part of that, replace it with ANY non-compliant building and pretend you haven’t done something massively cretinous. This building will sit next to the black box, which formerly acted as a break or backdrop to the existing style. Instead the apple store will create the effect of a square built from THREE different and non-cohering styles, and the ENTIRE point of it being a square – a contiguous space will be completely thrown out the window. A world class, and unique space is about to be made tawdry.

          1. Adam Ford

            Should barricades be erected here, I will most certainly stand behind them, and with a steely look of utmost, sincere earnestness in my eyes.

            I’d prefer you to list all the works of postmodern architecture anywhere in the world that are more significant than Federation Square rather than dismiss a detailed argument via Youtube, but it is of course a free country.

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