Went and had a stickybeak at Federation Square while I was in Melbourne to see how it had changed in the five years since I last saw it and 10 years since it was built.
I’ve had people (mostly Sydney people) say to me that this was Melbourne’s attempt at a Sydney Opera House but not 10 years overdue and without the fourteen-fold budget blowout. Lab Architecture’s design used (mostly) commonplace construction techniques to create a cluster of buildings around a common square, a fitting typology for the relatively fine-grain melbourne centre. Wrapped over that was a unique custom cladding that made the best of repeated pieces to form a constantly modulating pattern.
I’ve always felt it was a good strategy that just needed slightly better resolution (or maybe just more money and time). The buildings don’t seem to be in quite the right place. The square is isolated from the waterfront. The cladding pattern looks good from a distance but doesn’t have a secondary level of detail to appreciate up close; it feels like it needs just one more level of complexity, one more governing rule to its pattern, to be interesting enough. (Complexity isn’t the only way material can be interesting but this particular pattern feels like it would benefit from it). There’s a section with complex 3D steel structural frame, but the detailing/joints seemed a bit off-the-shelf. Overall, the square felt just a bit too bland, a bit like looking at a 1:100 drawing blown up to 1:50 size.
Going back though, it seems like it’s settled really well. A bit of weathering was adding a layer over the original materials. Unlike pristine concrete, the pink sandstone was marbled enough to handle water-staining pretty well. Nothing seemed particularly broken or obviously chipped, though sharp-cut corners on the sandstone steps had been rounded off just slightly by use.
The zinc cladding wasn’t really winning or losing yet. The exposed galvanised steel structure had started to develop a little patina, softening it up and making it seem a little less like a temporary scaffolding. The Flinders St side of the square was full of people, people seemed to use the square as a proper landmark - an orientation point within the city, to meet, to describe other parts of the city in relationship to, as a proper amphitheatre in a way the SOH is more rarely used.
I had a lot more faith in it as a contribution to the city. But it felt like it still lacks a kind of exuberance, which seems key to me to great public spaces. True, Melbourne was suffering from a burst of outlandish buildings constructed in the early-mid 2010s boom, so was looking about five years out of fashion, and Fed Square’s less gimmicky design saved it from the same. Still, in silver steel and pastel pink stone, the square can’t help but feel just a little bit reserved and business-like, something that shattered geometries can’t shake.