Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name… Federation Square, Melbourne

By Alli Sinclair
Apart from food, sport, and the arts, Melbourne has an obsession of combining historic buildings with contemporary. It’s not unusual to sashay down the streets and come across heritage-listed buildings snuggled up to modern-day masterpieces. Sure, there are plenty of other cities that have buildings much, much older, but there’s something in the daring combination that catches one’s eye.

I’ll admit, I am biased when it comes to Melbourne’s cityscape. Especially since one of my ancestors, John Pigdon, was responsible for some of the city’s most stunning architecture in the late 1800s, including Parliament House, Victoria, and St. Jude’s Church of England. He was also the Lord Mayor of Melbourne for a time, but that’s a whole other post.

When I worked in the city, one of my favourite places to hang out was Federation Square (or Fed Square as it’s often referred to). Sitting atop a maze of railway tunnels and perched on the banks of the Yarra River, Fed Square is a stark contrast to the grand magnificence of Flinders Street Station across the road. Love it or hate it, Federation Square gets people talking. 

When the government tore down the buildings that were causing an eyesore on the site where Federation Square now sits, they embarked on a project to create a public meeting space to better serve the people of the city. In 1997, the Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, held an architectural design competition that attracted 177 entries from around the world. The short-listed entries were put on display for the public and the winners, Lab Architecture Studio from London, in conjunction with local architects Bates Smart, wooed judges with their unique concept.

By 2002, the square was officially opened and became home to multicultural television station SBS. Housed within the walls and spread throughout a myriad of quadrangles and open spaces, Federation Square houses over a dozen bars and restaurants; the Australian Centre for Moving Image (that also offers a chance for visitors to create their own movies); and plenty of free entertainment held in the square itself, from dancing, to rock concerts, to hosting the FIFA World Cup on the big screen at three in the morning. Some of my favourite places though, are the galleries associated with the National Gallery of Victoria. There’s no better place to while away a few hours on a rainy afternoon. 

Part of the design that appealed to the judges was the labyrinth cooling system. During summer, the cool evening air is pumped into the combed space of the walls, and during the day, heat is pumped via the labyrinth and out through the vents. This system can make a difference of 12°C from the outside temperature. In winter, the process is reversed. Compare to traditional air-conditioning systems, the labyrinth uses one-tenth less energy and carbon dioxide.

After the unveiling, the architects who worked on the project were out of work within six months and received hate mail from locals and scathing criticism from their peers. In 2009, Fed Square was voted the fifth ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist, a popular travel network. Yet there’s no shortage of visitors, with Federation Square the second most visitor tourist attraction in Victoria, falling just behind the Queen Victoria market.

With 8.4 million visitors to Fed Square annually, Federation Square does exactly what it was built to do—become a memorable space for people of the city and world to meet.

I know exactly which side of the fence I’m on with this debate, but I’m keen to know what you think. Do you think Federation Square is worthy of making it to the world’s ugliest building list?


  1. I don't think Federation Square quite makes the list of ugliest buildings in the world. It's certainly one of the most unusual, though. And it could possibly win a prize for best effort to emulate a prism. :)

  2. I really like it, Alli! I like to see a juxtaposition of modern and traditional. With this and your other posts, I think I have to add Melbourne to my "must-see" list when I (soon, I hope) finally make it to Australia.

  3. Jenny, I love it too! And please, if you do make it Downunder, let me know and I am happy to be your tour guide!

    Heidi, it is unusual, eh? But the place has so much energy to it. It practically buzzes. You're right on the prism emulating!

  4. It is interesting but no I don't think it is the ugliest building! It looks a treat to be inside at sunset and sunrise though!

  5. Thanks, Alli. Be careful what you offer; I may just take you up on that! :-)