Federation Square

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.

Inside Fed Square...


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!

4 thoughts on “Federation Square

  1. It’s problems go back a fair way. I gather that, aesthetically, the intervention by the grumpy conservative Bracks to chop off the main tower that sits ‘in the way’ of the cathedral effectively removed a significant part of the sense of enclosed space.

    But the idea itself, like Crown, was something that belonged in a different place, such as Sydney or Canberra, where the organic growth of culture seems to be a permanent uphill challenge. Why would Melbournians stop meeting in their dark, quirky laneways to move to a purpose built square, and why would you want them to?

    This being said, as an event location I think it’s fine, if not exceptional. Fed square would probably increase in significance if they expanded on the gallery and museum side, but I don’t know, I think we’re just moving on now and perhaps the main problem for outsiders is the insistence in the literature on how it’s such an important icon.

    Brunswick street, Degraves, and the Espy are Melbourne icons. It’s astonishing to think that while they put billions into something like Fed Square, the Espy nearly got turned into flats.

  2. Yeah, you have to love (not) misguided development. I don’t think any major Australian city has got the balance right on that score. The Fed Square cause is far from lost, but clearly throwing millions of dollars at it has not in itself done the job of making it what it could be, or encouraged enough organic use of the space.

    BTW – I think we must be due for a beer or two to celebrate the season and the current state of the Liberal Party!

  3. Thanks for sharing this. But there are many structures in the world that can be stated as the most ugliest structures. some of them are Ryogyong Hotel, Royal Ontario Musuem, Petrobras Headquarters, Markel Building, Zizkov Television Tower, Beehive, National Library of Pristina, Center Georges Pompidou, Federation Square, Morris A. Mechanic Theater for more details on this structure visit http://www.travelworth.com/die-before-you-visit-these-top-10-worlds-ugliest-structures.html

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