Vote Flinders Street: part 2

What is it?

The long awaited release of the shortlisted entries for the Flinders Street Station Design Competition. Public voting on the entries opened early last week, with our assessment on sixth, fifth and fourth places published yesterday. We have marked each project out of 5 in the four criteria that underpin both the original design brief and online voting process:

1. Overall design merit
2. Transport function
3. Cultural heritage and iconic status
4. Urban design and precinct integration

Continuing in ascending order:

3. NH Architecture

nh architecture aerial

nh architecture queen street

nh architecture melbourne room

nh architecture canopy

The works of NH Architecture are fast reaching saturation point in Melbourne, and with good reason. They are able to juggle the complex and competing demands of large projects with apparent ease, and hold onto early design visions through the arduous waters of contemporary contract procurement. This proposal is no different: despite its fluctuating massing, programme and site occupation, NH Architecture have created unity across the site via the employment of the simple angled line. The jagged hole in the eastern canopy over the train platforms, the zig-zag of the western tower and the diamond patterned floor surfaces belong to the same formal family, and carve a campus out of the site.

Programmatically, this project impresses. The Urban Green is a sensibly proportioned parkland around which the transport functions, art space and Melbourne Room are arranged. The campus urban strategy is at its most visible here, generating a strong sense of community and functional overlap. It would have been good to see this extend to the denser and curiously isolated western end of the site. This end appears to be a hotel and health spa of some description, but is unusually absent in the documentation. The Urban Green is enticing and well appointed, but like Velasquez and team it misses out on the opportunity to truly engage with the river: terraced steps running parallel to it are optimised for circulation over congregation.

NH Architecture’s animation sequence is the cheekiest of the six, making subtle but poignant reference to “George’s Restaurant” within the Melbourne Room building volume (as in George Calombaris, one of the competition jurors) and their own Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre as a historic precedence. The animation does reveal however how carefully the gutsy waffle concrete canopy has been sculpted; its height, edges and jagged hole perfectly shaped to frame views of the administration building dome, clock tower and Hamer Hall across the river.

In context, we can easily visualise this project coming to fruition. It fits well within the lineage of practices like ARM, LAB and Denton Corker Marshall, whose significant projects within Melbourne are prolific. For large building sites like the the Melbourne Theatre Company, Federation Square and Melbourne Museum, we have come to expect assemblies of smaller buildings instead of monolithic form, a characteristic exemplified by NH Architect’s entry. Ultimately however, we have ranked it third due to its limited engagement with the site’s edges and its strangely familiar form making. Perhaps like our reaction to ARM’s entry, we’re ready to see how someone else will make their mark on the city.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 3
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 14 / 20

2. Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL

herzog + de meuron aerial

herzog + de meuron river

herzog + de meuron market

herzog + de meuron gallery

Herzog & de Meuron have successfully juggled the monumentality of Hadid and low-scale density of Velasquez and team, roofing the entire site in a sublime roof of interlocking vaults. Taking clear inspiration from both the original Swanston Street facade and existing brick vaults along Banana Alley (both popular departure points it seems), this project manages to be both international and contextual.

We like the way the vaults squeeze and jostle along the asymmetrical contours of the site and, in particular, the way their form is revealed and accentuated by the subtraction of the central plaza. This plaza achieves three important outcomes for the project: it acts as buffer between the hustle of the train station and market to the east, and hush of the gallery to the west; it provides a sympathetically scaled civic space framed by the lush curves of the surrounding vaults; and, with its terraces down to the south, provides the only open space amongst the shortlisted entries that engages with the Yarra as destination and theatre. While the competition guidelines gave liberty to develop land beyond the confines of the station, the low likelihood of such programme actually being built meant it could not be intrinsic to the design proposal. Herzog & de Meuron have deftly sidestepped this issue by proposing a floating platform stage, one we can easily see being utilised during warmer months by the surrounding arts precinct for evening performances.

This project is very good, but the reason we’re ranking it second stems from its remarkable whiteness. A small detail one might argue, however we’ve visited projects with similar austerity around the world – Santiago Calatrava’s arts and science precinct in Valencia, and Alvaro Siza’s ministry in Porto – and even in the middle of the Mediterranean they were international, out of their place. A gallery, no matter its oceanic or contemporary aspirations, carries the same austerity and feels unnecessary within the site’s arts dominated precinct.

We admire the singularity of this project’s vision, one whose DNA is strongly European but nevertheless manages to pay its respects to local history and culture. We think its vaults, dappled roof patterning and central plaza are stunning. But could the gallery programme perhaps be swapped out for something more lively? Would it be better clad in bluestone? Really, we ask, how will an all-white gallery fare amidst the bluestone and red brick grit of Flinders Street Station?

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 5
TOTAL: 15 / 20

1. John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw

john wardle axonometric

john wardle mirror

john wardle deck

john wardle park

john wardle river

john wardle vaults

john wardle queens street

And the winner is.

Of the six shortlisted projects, it is interesting to observe that the John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw entry is the only alliance between two practices recognised for their design expertise. It could be argued that HASSELL have been improving their design work in recent years, however it is difficult to see their touch on Herzog & de Meuron’s vaults, and BNV Donovan Hill are essentially invisible caretakers of Zaha Hadid’s cruise ship.

This design-based collaboration is an approach JWA have pursued previously, notably on their success with NADAAA on the University of Melbourne’s new Architecture Building. Despite the collaborative intentions, John Wardle is clearly the form maker of both projects; his angled surfaces, sliding volumes and rich material juxtapositions all evident in abundance. But perhaps Grimshaw had more impact on the Flinders Street Station design competition in other design areas: urban design or siting strategy for instance. According to one Grimshaw insider, the two practices collaborated extensively on their entry, with ample agreement on design. It’s possible that Grimshaw’s strongest presence is in fact the absence of a roof, an area of exploration for which they are generally renown.

This absence is significant and for us represents one of the proposal’s strongest characteristics: instead of a roof, it has a roof deck on top of which a series of buildings, walkway connections and parkland are arranged. Even more than the NH Architecture entry, it achieves a strong campus environment, with amongst the best treatments of the heritage administration building. Duplicating the Flinders Street walkway within the site confines, the transport functions are expanded into generous civic space, leaking around a new Design Museum, platform access and park.

These programmes are complemented at the west end of the site by a creative incubator, residential and commercial precincts, council office building, market and hotel: a rich, varied and genuinely interesting mixed-use strategy. The site’s edges are activated nicely, missing the front-on river relationship of Herzog & de Meuron’s amphitheatre, but gaining nooks, crannies and flexible usage possibilities. The project is carefully crafted, but gives the strong impression of adaptability and uses that cannot yet be envisaged. We particularly like the Design Museum, “part grandstand and part civic landmark,” which offers a clever relationship to Federation Square, augmenting its theatricality and celebrating one of the world’s busiest transport hubs.

Formally, the project has drawn much from the existing heritage conditions of the site, achieving a level of detail missing from the other entries. The Flinders Street Station steps, long a popular meeting place, have been expanded into the city’s largest outdoor seat; the Banana Alley vaults are extended and reinvented, continuing along the river’s edge with subtly nestled programme; the floral patterning in the pressed metal ceilings of the administration building is abstracted into lighting elements that appear and reappear across the site.

JWA + Grimshaw have understood the site and the city with unparalleled thoroughness, extrapolating existing usage patterns and establishing new ones in a powerfully compelling proposal that boasts great urban engagement, is programmatically inventive and formally stunning. For us, it is the pick of the bunch.

Overall design merit: 5
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 5
Urban design and precinct integration: 4
TOTAL: 18 / 20

john wardle light fitting

What have we learnt?

The jury vote has already been cast, locked in before the public vote was launched to protect the jurors from public opinion. Our main concern is that the jury might have instead been unduly influenced by political agendas. Hadid’s glamorous name and signature design could very well prove irresistible to the policy makers, spin doctors and money men. Ironically, her entry might likewise win not because her curvaceous form is liked but because they make her proposal the least affordable: an inevitable and easy escape clause for a State government commonly understood to have neither intention nor means to build the winning proposal.

Our general distrust for the architectural attention span of Melbourne’s general public makes us fear that Hadid might also take out the public vote. The immediate and seductive impact of her project’s form trumps the other five denser, more subtle entries. Whatever the decisions, we will be paying close attention to both results and will be fascinated by the media attention that is surely to follow a split decision.

It will be important to remember the context of the two announcements however: the jury and public decisions will be the culmination of a vast collective design effort, as much reliant on those 111 projects that weren’t shortlisted as the six that were. This was a significant labour of love undertaken by many individuals passionate about architecture, urbanism and Melbourne. If we are to gain insight from the comments of one JWA staffer, who queasily admitted that the $50,000 Stage 2 purse offered scant reimbursement for time spent and the $500,000 first prize money would permit them to barely break even, countless hours were dedicated to this competition by architects across the world, expended willingly but for most achieving little.

There is a deep and extremely problematic issue at work here: as a profession, why are we all selling ourselves so short? Is there any other single professional body – lawyers, engineers, doctors – that gives away so much for so little? It is a topic discussed widely within architecture circles, most recently by the president of the Victorian Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects at this year’s State awards, but one as yet without resolution.

Let’s hope the people of Melbourne understand and appreciate the gift they have been given by this competition. Already, the release of the entries has sparked ample media coverage and significant Twitter buzz (grouped under #voteflindersst). With luck, this interest will translate into a broader awareness of the importance of our city’s architecture and the vision of its architects.

Author: Warwick Mihaly

I am an architect, writer, teacher and father.

6 thoughts on “Vote Flinders Street: part 2”

      1. The juxtaposition of the smooth white curved structures against the harsh angular lines of the city. The curves mimic the dome perfectly.
        That gorgeous roof.
        And lastly, the grand steps leading to the Yarra.

  1. Great review Warwick – just stumbled across your practice’s blog!
    I was personally partial to Herzog/Hassell and JWA/Grimshaw. Herzog has won as of this morning though. It’s a great form – I’m silently chuckling about how Melbourne will react to this abundance of ‘bubble like’ vaults being placed next to an already controversial Fed Square.

    1. Nice to hear from you Renee,

      I’m not at all unhappy with the Herzog & de Meuron + HASSELL win. It’s a great project – let’s just hope now the government finds the courage and money to build it!

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