So I was walking maniacally down Flinders Street today, heading east between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Federation Square, when I was stopped by a middle-aged Asian lady coming out of St. Paul’s onto the street. Looking somewhat confused and brandishing a map, she gestured to it blankly and asked me where Federation Square was. I paused briefly, before pointing to the earth and metal-tessellated structure directly opposite us, not twenty metres away. “That’s it,” I said. “If you walk around [gesturing to the corner of Swanston and Flinders) to the middle, there’s sort of a square there”. The expression of confusion on the woman’s face changed, but did not reduce. She thanked me, and I continued on my merry maniacal way, pondering the imminent destruction of the Turnbull Opposition.
This is just a silly anecdote, of course, but in a week when Federation Square was dubbed one of the world’s ten ugliest buildings, it seems to me to be just a little prescient. First: a disclaimer. While I have lived in Melbourne for almost a year now, I am still first and foremost a Sydneysider. Melbournians should probably digest anything I have to say with a grain of salt.
Let me just say to start that I think there’s actually quite a bit to like about Fed Square. I like its nooks and crannies and somewhat hidden places, and the clash of textures and colours (and cultures?) the building embodies. The earthiness of the space, I think, speaks to our nation’s natural geography. It is a structure that really does try to be of Australia, rather than simply on Australia, as so many of the other corporate-driven structures in our cities are. When there are events on in the square (such as the Homeless World Cup or even live games during the Australian Open tennis), the place really does come alive, teeming with people enjoying the environment.
The problem with Federation Square starts to become apparent when there aren’t any events on. During the day or even the early evening, the space billed as “Melbourne’s meeting place” often resembles a ghost town. One almost expects tumbleweeds to start rolling slowly down through the square towards Flinders Street station. The central square is flanked by several solid but relatively unremarkable eateries, and a number of low-key museums. ACMI does host the odd interesting exhibition or screening, but hasn’t managed to endear itself to me yet. The NGV Ian Potter Centre is certainly worth a visit, but is so tucked away inside the building’s innards that I imagine a lot of people don’t even know it is there. And the Racing Museum? Come on!!!
Which takes me back to my initial anecdote: Federation Square is not yet the icon I think we would all like it to be, and it deserves to be. It is certain that the lady from the anecdote would not, if twenty metres away from the Sydney Opera House or Sydney Harbour Bridge, be asking people where these things were. These structures, along with Sydney Harbour itself, are true icons. Federation Square, in contrast, lies somewhere on the unremarkable, unattractive side of amazing. One wonders how many tourists wander through its left-field spaces and wander out again ten to fifteen minutes later, wondering what the big fuss was all about. Perhaps this is something that time, further investment, and momentous events will change, but for the time being at least, there still seems to be something missing from the puzzle.
ELSEWHERE: Sydney’s plans for a central public square opposite the Town Hall continue to lumber along. This much can be said about Melbourne – at least Melbourne has a halfway decent public square!