Flinders Street Station Design Competition

Flinders Street Station from the northeast, courtesy of Major Projects Victoria

What is it?

An international design competition to redevelop Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s busiest train station and home to 200,000 passenger visits a day. With a site area of over 40,000sqm and a significant presence between the Hoddle grid and Yarra River, the competition offers one of the city’s most important opportunities to redefine its southern urban edge and relationship to the river.

What do we think?

117 entrants from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, China and others submitted their Stage 1 proposals a few weeks ago, with competition organiser Major Projects Victoria (MPV) announcing the shortlist on Sunday afternoon:

  • Ashton Raggatt McDougall
  • John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
  • HASSELL + Herzog and de Meuron
  • NH Architecture
  • Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
  • Zaha Hadid Architecture + BVN Architecture

The 6 shortlisted projects will proceed to Stage 2 and undergo significant extra detailed design to resolve structure, services, finances and universal access. Despite their selection, they have yet to be released to the public and are not slated to be for some time yet, thus it is impossible to judge what sort of vision they each propose for the station precinct. MPV have promised they will stage an exhibition of all entries at the conclusion of Stage 2, some time in the middle of next year.

We aren’t certain why they are electing to wait so long, particularly when there is so much discussion of, and enthusiasm for, the competition at the moment. We sincerely hope the promised publicity does not get conveniently forgotten. The studios that entered the competition deserve to have their hard work rewarded with public exposure, the architecture profession deserves insight into the competition process, and the population of Melbourne deserves the chance to discuss the aspirations and future direction of their city.

This competition is an unsurpassed chance to start a conversation about Melbourne, about what it is and what we want it to be. The exhibition should happen right now.

Our competition proposal viewed from St. Pauls Cathedral

Our own submission, a collaboration between Mihaly Slocombe, Steve Rose Architect and Foong + Sormann, may not have been shortlisted but it has left us with lingering insights into the city, the challenges and benefits of teamwork, and the real value of architectural competitions.

What did we learn?

The north bank of the Yarra River

The city

The Hoddle Grid both defines and binds Melbourne. It provides order, a hierarchy of streets that encompasses the largest of thoroughfares and smallest of laneways, and supports towering office buildings and tiny clothing boutiques alike. And it crafts identity, a clear edge marking the extent of the city, a quality never more necessary than today, where the inexorable sprawl of greater Melbourne establishes an ever-increasing gulf between the centre and its fringes.

But this order and identity also limit the city, rendering uncertain its relationship with surrounding areas, whose urban plans reorient and dissolve the grid. This is no more evident than towards the south, where the city, despite 150 years of European settlement, still doesn’t know how it should behave. What was once a means for industry, the Yarra River is trying to redefine itself as a source of leisure and entertainment, yet the grid generally and Flinders Street Station specifically continue to obstruct this objective.

In rethinking the station as a conduit via which the city might connect to the river and beyond to the arts and leisure precincts of Southbank, we gained insight into Melbourne’s ballooning affluence and shifting aspirations. We learnt that cars and roads are the opposite of a new connectivity now recognised as the most optimistic path forward for Melbourne. Long gone is the 9am – 5pm central business district of the 1980s: what has usurped it is a rich and diverse urban environment open 24 hours a day and plugging directly into the natural and cultural resources around it.

An interface between programme (farmers market) and landscape (vegetable garden)

Canoe in Rapids by Winslow Homer, 1897

Teamwork: the analogy of the river

Belonging to a competition team that comprises three small studios, each with aspirations for, and talent in, design is like navigating a swiftly moving river in a three-man canoe.

Momentum must at first be extracted from nothing, yet in time it develops a life of its own, carrying the boat on a strong and irresistible current. The river has many forks, with some tributaries running true, others meandering maddeningly and still others ending abruptly. It is also of unknown length: the time taken to reach its end has a strict deadline, but the amount of rowing required to get there is impossible to predict. And through it all, rocks and eddies threaten to capsize or beach the boat at any moment, demanding vigilance and care.

When all is said and done however, three oars are better than one. Once they fall into a complimentary rhythm, the boat begins to eat up kilometre after kilometre, the river speeding by beneath the hull. There is a sense of synergy, that more is being achieved together than the single rowers could ever hope to achieve alone. And finally, there is the undeniable attraction of camaraderie: companions with whom to share the journey and celebrate its conclusion.

Our revised, luminous Elizabeth Street clocktower

International competitions

The competition guidelines enforced the strict adherence to anonymity, with submissions prevented from incorporating any “name, business name or logo, motto, identification or distinguishing mark”. Despite this, one juror confided to us that 80% of all 117 entries were recognisable. Such recognition went staunchly undiscussed, but we imagine it can’t have helped but nuanced the jury’s conversations and influenced their decisions. Thus it was without surprise that we accurately guessed 4 of the 6 shortlisted entrants.

On the one hand, we could argue that the big names in the shortlist deserve to be there a priori. Zaha Hadid and Herzog and de Meuron are world renowned starchitects, lending gravitas to any competition they enter. ARM and John Wardle Architects are local heroes, producing fine work of significant scale and importance. But on the other hand, what is the likelihood that the entries of all 4 were so much better than 111 other proposals?

The cynic in us suspects that the jury, easily recognising a Zaha Hadid project when it’s handed to them on a silver platter, had no choice (consciously acknowledged or otherwise) but to include it on the shortlist. The State Government and MPV, for their parts, have wasted no time in extolling the virtues of their star-studded cast, we imagine giddy with excitement over the possibility of commissioning the next Guggenheim. Minister for Major Projects, Denis Napthine, said that “this competition has always been about finding the best local and international talent to reinvigorate Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station precinct and looking at this shortlist I think we’ve managed to do that.”

Is it just us, or was the purpose of this competition to find the best architectural proposals to reinvigorate the Flinders Street Station precinct? A subtle distinction, but an important one.

At any rate, entering an international competition was a task we undertook with eyes wide open. We knew there was a strong likelihood we would be competing against a large number of established architectural studios both locally and globally, studios with greater resources and competition experience than our own. Between our three practices, we may have dedicated 350 hours to the competition, but this pales into insignificance when compared to the 19-strong project team of HASSELL + Herzog de Meuron. We knew also that there was little chance MPV would include such small, relatively unknown practices on the shortlist (our hats off therefore to the young and energetic Eduardo Velásquez + Manuel Alejandro Pineda + Santiago Medina).

From the outset, it was inevitable we would not win. Luckily though, winning was not our primary objective. Nor was it our secondary, or tertiary.

The real value in entering competitions is a topic we discussed some time ago, in a strangely prophetic response to a critic of their propagation. Now, as in then, we remain very clear why we entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition.

We entered to learn something about our city. We entered to expand our design horizons beyond the much smaller work that makes up our regular practices. We entered to test our capabilities. We entered to learn how to work in a team of passionate designers. We entered to fill out our websites with another concluded project. We entered to enjoy ourselves. Most of all, we entered so we could be involved. The redevelopment of Flinders Street Station is our generation’s Federation Square: a project so big and so important it has the power to change a city. No way were we going to pass up that golden opportunity.

Landscape in the city: a public garden at the edge of urban grid and river

Competitions will continue to be an important part of our practice, a well-spaced but reliably consistent interlude between our typical projects. They push us, improve us and may one day even win us a commission. Perhaps next time we’ll opt for something a touch less ambitious than an international competition with a site the size of two city blocks… Maybe a project only 50 times the size of our biggest house.

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