A haunting morgue. A stinking fish market. Brutalist office blocks and filthy rail yards.
These and more occupied the space before Fed Sq. until, in 1996, the Victorian Government held an international design competition to redevelop the precinct as the city’s new (and direly needed) civic space.
The project had to include both cultural and commercial spaces and an open amphitheatre capable of holding up to 15,000 people. It also had to be built above the city’s major transport hub – Jolimont Railway Yards, at the time an ugly, open-air crevasse cut like a diamond mine into what was otherwise the perfect position for a city square.
Lab architecture studio, based in London at the time, produced one of the shortlisted plans and, in order to proceed further with the competition, formed a partnership with one of Melbourne’s most preeminent architecture firms: Bates Smart.
Construction of what was then called Federation Square began in 1998 with the $450 million investment supported by the Victorian State Government, City of Melbourne, the Commonwealth Government and the private sector through various tenancies and major sponsorships.
Given its bold architectural form and large aspiration, the project had its share of changes to the brief, controversy over design and costs, heated debate and skepticism. Since its opening on 26 October 2002, however, Fed Square has been embraced by locals and visitors alike, with over 10 million visits each year.
Although Fed Sq.’s history is short, the history of its location is far, far longer. It is the site upon which the Kulin confederacy of Aboriginal peoples – the Wathaurung, the Bunurong and the Woiworung peoples – dwelled and gathered for tens of thousands of years. The Woiworung group in particular comprised a number of clans, including the Wurundjeri, who laid claim to the area drained by the Yarra River and its tributaries. Even in the initial years after European settlement, Aboriginal clans still camped at their traditional locations on both sides of the Yarra River, near the modern-day MCG and Government House.
Federation Square’s Architecture
Fed Sq. is the size of a city block: 38,000 square metres (3.8 hectares) of steel and masonry, built on top of the city’s most heavily-trafficked railway. Unlike traditional public spaces. like Venice’s San Marco or New York’s Rockefeller Centre, Fed Sq. is made up of a series of interlocking and cascading spaces, opening at all angles into the city and creating unexpected connections and vistas. In response to the brief, the design was heavily influenced by the idea of ‘Federation’; bringing disparate parts together to form a coherent whole.
By 2003, only a year after its opening, Fed Sq. had already become the most awarded project in the history of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Victoria (RAIA), receiving five major awards for architectural and design excellence.
The deck beneath Federation Square is one of the largest expanses of railway decking ever built in Australia. It took twelve months to complete, with structural work only possible during breaks in the train timetable in the early hours of the morning. The deck is supported by over 3,000 tonnes of steel beams, 1.4 kilometres of concrete ‘crash walls’ and over 4,000 vibration-absorbing springs and rubber padding.
It is designed to support some of the most sensitive uses imaginable – galleries, cinemas, and radio and television studios – and does so while flawlessly absorbing a city’s worth of noise and vibrations. It is one of the country’s most ambitious and perfectly executed feats of engineering.
The Fractal Façade
Federation Square’s distinctive look is inspired by fractals: complex patterns that are similar both on a smaller scale and when viewed as a whole.
Three cladding materials: sandstone, zinc and glass all form triangular pinwheel grids. This modular system uses five single triangles (all of the same size and proportion) to make up a larger triangular ‘panel’. Following the same geometric logic, five panels are joined together to create a larger triangular ‘mega panel’, which is then mounted onto the structural frame to form the visible façade.
In this way the exterior design of Fed Sq. is unified regardless of the distance from which it is viewed, bridging the gap between its being a piece of architectural art and a utilitarian space designed to be used and experienced from the inside.