Longlist exhibition

What was it?

An unsanctioned exhibition of non-shortlisted entries into Stage 1 of the Flinders Street Station Design Competition (FSSDC). Co-ordinated by Edwards Moore at Sibling in Fitzroy, it was part design display, part political protest and part social gathering.

27 of the 112 non-shortlisted entries were exhibited, including our own discussed in a previous post here. The tightness of the exhibition area and briefness of the evening, combined with the event’s enthusiastic attendance made it difficult to conduct an in-depth analysis of the submissions. However, we can say we liked a lot of what we saw and were able to glean a number of exciting ideas from the proposals.

Design display

Though each of the projects within the exhibition possessed its own unique architectural language, we were intrigued to discover many shared urban strategies. One of the most popular was to roof most or all of the station precinct and cover it with green landscape. BKK Architects‘ proposal was most convincing. It offered an ordered, multipurpose garden cascading purposefully down towards Flinders Street along the north edge and the Yarra River along the south. Towers dotting this civic space at regular frequencies provided programme activation as well as substantial pedestrian traffic. The garden was well resolved and genuinely enticing.

Other ideas consistently applied from project to project included the concentration of development density over the Banana Alley vaults; the provision of hit and miss building massing to minimise shadowing over Northbank; connections through the site east to west and north to south; void spaces above the platforms; light-filled canopies fronting onto Swanston Street; programme activation of the Yarra River frontage and conscientious preservation of the historic Administration Building along Flinders Street.

Inconsistent was the level of resolution among submissions. Many were very sketchy, with perhaps wasted effort dedicated to laboriously resolve programme that got lost in the fine print. In contrast, it was clear Elenberg Fraser had spent a lot of money on professional renderings, though their glitzy proposal did put us immediately in mind of Zaha Hadid‘s BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany, one of her least successful projects.

Adam Pustola and Feng Cheah’s gregarious proposal took the position championed in recent years by the likes of ARM and Lyons that large urban sites deserve to be populated by a plurality of colourful ideas. Pustola commented: “anything else would be spreading too little butter on too much bread”.

Political protest

There has been much discussion since the completion of Stage 1 over the unwillingness of the competition convener, Major Project Victoria, to publicise the competition entries. This discussion has ballooned into outright controversy in recent days with articles here, here, here and here questioning its position.

The opposing paradigms are simple enough to describe:

  • MPV is interested in protecting the probity of the competition, thus any publicity of proposals would unfairly affect the shortlisted architects still working on their Stage 2 submissions.
  • We, along with many other entrants, recognise that one of the greatest opportunities offered by the competition is to spark a meaningful discussion both within the profession and out amongst the general public. This can only happen if the submissions, shortlisted or not, are released for comment and debate.

Prior to and since the Longlist exhibition, this simple difference in opinion has caused a bemusing and complex behind-the-scenes series of correspondence from MPV, full of political intrigue and public relations mismanagement.

With exclusive insight, we reproduce this series here:

First, a letter from MPV warning shortlisted entrants against attending the Longlist exhibition. The highlighted sections, particularly the passage that reads, “participating in the [Longlist] event, including as an observer, would constitute a breach of the competition conditions,” impinge on the human right of free association, which, as a Victorian government body, MPV is in fact bound to uphold*:

Second, a series of tweets reversing this position by publicising an Alan Davies article for Crikey together with a number submissions referred to by Davies. This culminated in a tweet to our architecture studio’s account, Mihaly Slocombe, declaring that entrants are free to publicise their submissions as they wish:

Third and finally, the deletion of the abovementioned tweets and a retraction on MPV’s Facebook page stating that “all entries should remain confidential until the close of Stage 2” and in the comments trail below that “this is to protect entrants’ intellectual property”:

What do we think of all this?

Well, it is clear that whoever is managing the social media accounts at MPV is not talking to the person writing letters. It is also clear that they should get some decent legal advice on the limitations of the competition conditions – as far as we’re aware, no contract can override governmental compliance with the charter of human rights, nor as Charbonneau notes in the Facebook comments above, is the function of the conditions to protect the entrants’ intellectual property*.

There is also certain truth in the saying that all publicity is good publicity. We saw a readership spike of 200% on our blog and 150% on our studio website following the Crikey article and subsequent social media hoohah. We suspect that other architects who have published their competition submissions online have received similar increases in traffic and can only hope that this means that more people are engaging with the content of the competition.

A social gathering

So, back to the Longlist exhibition and its attendees, who had mostly submitted proposals to the competition and were predominantly young architects, hailing from medium sized design practices or running their own small studios. This cross section of the profession made possible one of the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibition, namely taking the opportunity to talk to other architects about their entries. We noticed this happening frequently – impromptu design presentation sessions taking place in front of competition boards. In this way, we gained insight into the work of BKK Architects, Pustola & Cheng, Studio (R), Gresley Abas and Andrew Burns among others.

Good, bad and ugly, the greatest value of the non-shortlisted competition proposals has proven to be their ability to inspire conversation and debate. Despite reports that the State Government will not build the winning proposal, here we have already witnessed the competition’s true value: it can start a conversation about the future of Melbourne.

Clandestine as the Longlist exhibition was, and as limited as the opportunities it provided to examine the projects, we still managed to have this conversation. Imagine what could happen if the State Government and MPV make the bold decision to put all of the entrants out into the public eye right now, together with a detailed jury report explaining why the shortlisted entrants were chosen. The conversation could spread far beyond the borders of a hundred or so dedicated architects out into the public domain. The benefit to the competition, the architecture profession, the city and its inhabitants would be incalculable.

* Neither Warwick Mihaly nor Panfilocastaldi is legally qualified. No reliance is to be placed on any legal opinions made or alluded to in this article.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

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