Vote Flinders Street: part 1

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 full documentation now available on each of the six projects. In addition to the project boards, we are able to access drawings, area summaries, project descriptions and digital animations.

After ten months of secrecy, it is a relief to finally see these design proposals, however it remains puzzling to us that competition organisers Major Projects Victoria elected to keep them and the 111 unsuccessful entries under wraps for so long. How much positive media attention was missed in discouraging public discourse? Also puzzling is the decision to keep the jury and public votes separate from one other. While the former will ultimately decide the competition and the $700,000 prize money still to be awarded, the latter will have no influence on the jury decision. A more cynical commentator might suggest that this strategy is archetypically political: appearing to involve the public without really having to involve them.

Minister for Major Projects, David Hodgett, has made the dubious promise that public feedback will “be used to refine the design belonging to the winner.” How this will be achieved and whether such a strategy is even desirable remains to be seen: should Zaha Hadid add a green roof to her organic white cruise ship? Will NH Architecture be encouraged to incorporate brick vaults beneath their jagged canopy? Hodgett also cemented our tentative disregard for his understanding of architecture with his flippant remark, “a lot of architect’s [sic] designs are wonderful things but they still have to be built and feasible.”

What do we think?

Criticism of the competition organisation aside, our lengthy involvement with the first stage of the competition has left us indelibly intrigued by its ambitions and fascinated by its potential outcomes. It would be remiss of us therefore not to take this timely opportunity to review, contrast and rank the shortlisted entries. 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

Having had difficulty viewing the animation sequences for each project on the Vote Flinders Street website, we were able to successfully access them directly via YouTube (listed alphabetically):

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

So, our judgement in ascending order:

6. Zaha Hadid + BVN Donovan Hill

zaha hadid aerial

zaha hadid river

zaha hadid atrium

zaha hadid plaza

Of all the projects, this is the least sensitive to its context. It could be anywhere in the world, indeed it has more in common with Hadid’s projects in Rome, New York and Leipzig than it does the streets and laneways of Melbourne. It is part of a fragmented diaspora owing great allegiance to Hadid’s singular artistic vision but none to its people or place. Its dramatic sculptural form will always be an alien presence along the river, distinct from rather than part of the city.

Yet again, Hadid reveals the fallacy of her reputation as one of the great urbanists of our time. Where is the connection between city and river? The urban porosity? The civic space? The human scale? This project may very well address the transport requirements of Flinders Street Station, but its footprint is dominated by private space: a multi-storey hotel / office building that takes up the western half of the site and leaves room for only one public plaza, both vast in scale and meagre in amenity.

The project’s relationship to the Banana Alley vaults reveals how hostile it is to the heritage of the site, its mammoth proportions pressing heavily on the delicate brick arches as it crushes them into the ground.

We are deeply unimpressed by this project. Its imagery is dangerously seductive, lavish in its glamour and undoubtedly a ready-made icon to make politicians and private developers drool. However, Melbourne is no Bilbao: we have no need of icons. The qualities we need – urbanity, humanity, richness – are all but absent in yet another illusory offering from Zaha Hadid.

Overall design merit: 2
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 1
TOTAL: 8 / 20

5. Ashton Raggatt McDougall

arm aerial

arm river

arm riverwalk

arm platforms

This project has a lot going for it: the best understanding amongst the six entries of the historical contexts of Flinders Street Station, the Yarra River and surrounding precinct; an engaged programme arrangement including a high school and beautiful rooftop garden; a series of delightful spaces across the site; and all of it designed by architects with a proven history of successful integration of new urban functions within heritage fabrics.

Special mention must also go to the digital animation sequence produced by 21.19 and Marcus Skinner: it offers tantalising glimpses of ARM’s narrative without surrendering all its secrets. Its production values are as high as we have seen in any animation festival, and equally alluring.

Unfortunately, and we are surprised at ourselves in saying this, to our tastes ARM’s vision is just too ugly to support. Using the original but never built vaulted elevation to Swanston Street as their departure, they have developed an organic series of forms that squelch and contort their way across the site. While any given moment might hold great promise, taken as a whole they are uncomfortable and alien.

Unlike Hadid, ARM have chosen to occupy only parts of the site, leaving much of the rail tracks open to the air. This offers the likely benefit of more modest construction costs, but still manages to provide a dense tower footprint at the west end of the site for private development. At the same time they have enlivened the edges of the site, locking in activity along the river, existing administration building and Swanston Street frontage.

This project is grounded in a strong understanding of place, but it sits awkwardly along the river and up against the administration building. Perhaps clad in a different skin, we would love it. Or perhaps we simply feel that ARM have had their fair share of major commissions in Melbourne. It’s time we see how someone else’s ideas might impact on the city.

Overall design merit: 1
Transport function: 3
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 4
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 11 / 20

4. Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina

velasquez pineda medina aerial

velasquez pineda medina atrium

velasquez pineda medina office

velasquez pineda medina ballroom

The clear underdog of this competition, significant kudos must go to Velasquez, Pineda and Medina, three Columbian students studying at the University of Melbourne, for progressing through to Stage 2. Win or lose, over coming years they will certainly be architects to watch.

Their project offers a magnificent green space to the city, its rooftop parkland the generous glue that binds the large site and its disparate functions together. We like the way it ramps up from Swanston Street, tapping into the steady pedestrian thoroughfare there and marking its place alongside Federation Square. We also like how it ducks and weaves across the site, successfully integrating transport and commercial functions with continuous civic space. The sliding roof plane connects neatly with adjacent thoroughfares, though could have made more of its proximity to the river.

While our competition entry suggested a rooftop park also, we wonder now whether it is sufficiently meaty for this site. Two full city blocks make it much more than a mere train station: does such a significant slice of Melbourne demand more intensive or imaginative programme? The choice of a rail museum inside the heritage administration building is similarly prosaic: obvious and curiously conservative.

At three storeys in height, the glass atrium is suitably lofty, making interesting use of expressed steel structure and advanced plastic membranes developed by the CSIRO. Its heritage aspirations are more shaky however: appearing to smother the administration building instead of protecting it.

We like an underdog as much as anyone, but ultimately we don’t think this project is as sophisticated as its competitors. The undercover spaces below the parkland fail to inspire: far too modest for this site and lacking either the bravado of Herzog & de Meuron’s monumentality or confidence of John Wardle’s formal sculpting.

Overall design merit: 3
Transport function: 4
Cultural heritage and iconic status: 2
Urban design and precinct integration: 3
TOTAL: 12 / 20

In the interests of brevity, we will publish our assessment of the top three projects tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “Vote Flinders Street: part 1

Add yours

  1. Interesting I’m wondering why there was not a restoration option in the short list for the original winning design? The work of Zaha is like a white shirt of architecture and the high line has less confusing flows compared to the green roof proposal.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Donald. All six projects restore and preserve the heritage administration building. Some also preserve the Swanston Street verandah and platform canopies. Acknowledgement of and response to the historic importance of the site was a key requirement of the competition brief, as well as one of the four criteria for the people’s choice award.

      By high line, are you referring to the High Line project in New York by Diller Scofidio + Renfro or the tall volume of Hadid’s Flinders Street Station proposal?

      In the end, how did you vote?

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