Dancing up the Square

The dance of a city is shaped by flows, dips and quick steps. Buildings and spaces are the dance floor, but it’s the flows of people, energy and ideas that create the rhythm. Fed Square has become Melbourne’s beating heart, but is the dance about to stop?

Melburnians danced with the idea of a grand public space from the city’s beginnings on the banks of the Yarra. It’s been a come hither, bow and back away dance. Countless schemes have come and gone. A city square on the corner of Swanston and Collins streets was created, then cut by a third and now it’s a hole in the ground. Melburnians have stood back and criticised, wanting to join the dance but worried the new partner might have bad breath, or roving hands.

Not until Federation Square did Melburnians find that right partner. It took them by surprise; it was not love at first sight. Fed Square offered buildings with fractured facades set an undulating terrain of rich red stone and engraved with deep-time stories of place and people. It was utterly not Melbourne. Now Apple has stepped onto the dance floor, and Melburnians are worried.

In 1837 Robert Hoddle, senior government surveyor, laid out a grid of wide and “little” streets, under instructions from New South Wales Governor Richard Bourke. Melbourne’s creation was a quick quadrille, a dance of skimming legal steps designed to contain the advances of land-grabbers from Van Diemen’s Land. The first city blocks were auctioned in June 1837; Melbourne was, from the beginning, a fast-moving commercial city.

Unlike Adelaide, surveyed by William Light in 1837 as a grid with encircling parklands and four small and one large public square, Melbourne lacked such graces.

A public square—a grand ceremonial space—offers a kind of civic morality. By the 1850s, Melburnians are demanding a square as “one of the first requirements of a town”.

And in Melbourne as it is, and as it Ought to be an anonymous writer advocates that Melbourne be styled as a Mediterranean city, with covered promenades for the heat of summer and the rain of winter and a “great central square” occupying a whole city block—Bourke, Elizabeth, Collins and Swanston streets. Hoddle suggested the block between Lonsdale, Russell, Latrobe and Swanston streets could become a “very handsome square”; it was already set aside for public purposes and occupied in part by the Melbourne Hospital.

Civic ideas had advocates, but they failed to gain support from a town Council occupied with roads and drains, street lighting and sanitation.

By 1851, Victoria was dancing to the tune of gold. Governor La Trobe, a visionary, set aside a vast sweep of parklands around the city and allocated funds for public buildings such as Parliament House, the Museum and Public Library. La Trobe’s efforts represented, in the words of historian Graeme Davison, “a concerted campaign of physical and moral improvement” designed to create “a sense of community and civic morality” and to counter individualistic commercial interests.

And yet, even these green spaces were not safe; parkland along St Kilda Road and Royal Parade, two of Melbourne’s best boulevards, was sold off for gentlemen’s residences from the mid-1860s and public buildings were quick find a home on “free” parkland.

So where did Melburnians gather? The spacious streets of Hoddle’s grid were well-suited to public celebrations, parades and protests. Perhaps there was no need for a square? But the dream of a civic square did not fade.

The twentieth century saw earnest city planners offer up a variety of city square schemes, many requiring major changes to Melbourne’s well-established urban form. Possible sites were scattered across Hoddle’s grid: Eastern and Western Markets; Jolimont railway yards; Queen Victoria hospital (Hoddle’s proposed location); even replacing the Young and Jackson Hotel. No-one asked Melburnians what they wanted nor where.

The most elaborate was the 1954 scheme to close Bourke Street and create a grand square in front of Parliament House. The square would be edged by a new City Hall and public buildings and retain the Windsor Hotel and Princess Theatre to the south and north. The scheme went nowhere.

Davison has long pursued “Melbourne’s square dance”, a term coined by Keith Dunstan, Melbourne journalist, who fondly mocked the inability of the authorities to create a city square.

Davison says: “There’s both a question of trying to discover historically what people have been aspiring for, and … as a citizen, what I want to see realised. For me, a city square is the physical embodiment of the best features of the liberal society … where everybody comes together, where we each have a right to speak … not overridden by commercial or other interests.”

In 1961, as the city’s elite in dinner suits and satin gowns dance at the annual Lord Mayor’s Ball, a new scheme for a city square is revealed. The space is empty, the image dreamlike: what might this space become?

By 1969, several fine nineteenth century commercial buildings had gone, leaving an empty space. The Regent Theatre on the east side was a bigger challenge. Closed in 1970, a “Save the Regent” committee had formed, handing the Council a petition signed by 2000 people including theatrical luminaries like Sir Robert Helpmann. A disinterested National Trust denied its importance, and Sir Roy Grounds, architect of the National Gallery, declared in The Age in 1974 that support for the conservation of the Regent was “a lot of waffle … The Regent is not the Collisseum [sic]”.

A ban on demolition by the Builders Labourers Federation smartly ended any debate. Norm Gallagher, secretary of the union was unrepentant, saying that until the theatre was restored, the ban would remain. In a way, at that moment, the future City Square, still unbuilt, was condemned, its failure as “a great square” inevitable. The site was too small and too awkwardly placed against the blank wall of the Regent.

The first city square was a plain Jane. A temporary space, stark and open. And yet almost every seat in the square is filled; something was starting.

The design competition for the City Square was won by architects Denton Corker Marshall, and after 20 years of planning, it was opened in 1980 by Queen Elizabeth. The design was quirky, a collection of features—a sitting mound, reflection pool, amphitheatre, fountain place, water wall and upper plaza—leaving little room for a public gathering space, a deliberate design decision to prevent the staging of mass rallies.

Vault, a contemporary sculpture, glowed golden in the centre of the square. Renamed by a dismissive populace as the “Yellow Peril”, it became the lightning rod for critique of the long-awaited square. Ursula de Jong, academic and architectural historian, says of the square: “Maybe it wasn’t big enough and it wasn’t really a square … and the architecture wasn’t that exciting … even the architects themselves didn’t mind that it got pulled down eventually.”

It is even said that in opening the City Square the Queen enquired as to whether the bright yellow sculpture could be painted “a more agreeable colour”.

The City Square slowly fails: Vault is removed; the Regent Theatre neglected and unused; the shops closed; graffiti “artists” move in and the square becomes a “no-go” zone. Finally, Victorian Premier Rupert Hamer joins forces with Gallagher to “save” the Regent, selling off a third of the square for a hotel in 1994. For Davison, this was a brutal blow to the life of the city, not because of the loss of physical space, but rather the “ideal of public life it represents”. Letters to the editor expressed the public’s dismay about the commercial take-over of “our square”. The project went ahead anyway.

By 2000 the City Square had shrunk, now overlooked by a multi-storey hotel. Federation Square was waiting in the wings.

In 1992, Jeff Kennett is Victoria’s new premier. He takes on the task of reshaping central Melbourne with a series of grand projects: a new museum, convention centre, sports and aquatic centre, a casino and more. At the same time, his government ruthlessly cuts jobs, sells off state-owned utilities and closes schools to get the state’s finances back in the black.

Federation Square becomes one of Kennett’s babies, and with a budget of $130 million in hand, the project begins in 1996. The site—the partially roofed-over Jolimont railway yards on the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets—was a prime location then occupied by the openly-disliked Princes Gate Towers. The cost of extending the roofed area was predicted to be monumental.

Kennett takes the plunge. The $130 million turns into $467 million by the time Federation Square opens, late and missing the Federation anniversary by twenty–one months. As Melbourne critics warm to the news of a budget blow-out, the public too becomes sceptical. The Herald Sun, usually supportive of Kennett, joins the attack, running public opinion surveys to map the changing public mood.

Two public open days are organised at the not-yet-completed Fed Square, right when controversy about the design is running hot.

After that first sneak preview in November 2000, the Herald Sun reports positively: “From the scaffolding, dust and rubble, Melbourne’s civic heart is taking shape.” Still a year out from completion, 15,000 people had visited. It seemed to be a turning point.

That day, Brian and Fiona Brown from Broadmeadows, were treated to a special guided tour with LAB Studio architect Peter Davidson, courtesy of the Herald Sun. They came in thinking it was a bomb site and left as some of the square’s biggest fans. Brian Brown said: “It’s out of this world. It’s really, really impressed me. This is really going to show Melbourne off.” Fiona Brown said: “It’s very impressive. It’s much bigger than I thought. We’ll definitely be coming in to see it when it’s done.” In 2003, a year after the opening, the Herald Sun declared that Federation Square had won the hearts of Victorians.

Neither Davison nor de Jong can quite put their finger on why Fed Square works, looking first to its negatives: it’s hard and hot, facing the west in the afternoon sun, and distinctly disabled-unfriendly. But de Jong says that it draws you in: “One minute you are walking past, the next you are in the midst of a public debate, address, conversation.”

Fed Square architect Donald Bates, in a 2004 interview with de Jong, says he often sits in the square and watches people sit on the ground: “It’s something about the Kimberley sandstone that invites connection,” he suggests. Davidson, his partner at LAB, loves to see the square full: “Federation Square seems to make more sense when it’s packed. The odd topography of the place, the undulations and the slope of the plaza toward the big screen … It holds a big crowd very well.”

Everyone seems to agree that Fed Square is just what Melbourne needed. For de Jong: “The city square was never really an urban square.” For Davison, Fed Square wins as Melbourne’s agora—meeting place—a physical space where people can express themselves politically, creatively, collectively. Despite social media, he says we need places where “speaker and audience meet face to face” engaging directly with significant issues.

Ironically, it’s the Victorian government that has intruded into Melbourne’s love affair with Fed Square, signing a deal with global corporate Apple to allow an architectural mismatch to be built in the place of the Yarra Building. In the face of protests, Apple counters by branding its stores as “town squares” but no-one is buying that line.

For de Jong, the biggest issue is that the Apple store decision was dumped on the community. She points out that after a somewhat tempestuous beginning, Melbourne people have embraced Fed Square. “It didn’t bite. It didn’t do anything terrible to any of them,” she laughs.

Simon Thewlis, curator of the pre-opening public viewings, says that the Apple store is designed to dominate the space: “It will visually be a part of all events and activities within Fed Square … it will change the relationship of the public with Fed Square … it will no longer feel like it is their space,” he concludes.

In 2003, a year after Fed Square’s opening, 4000 people danced there together to Singin’ in the Rain, kicking off the Melbourne Festival. It rained, and there was a rainbow.

But for now, the dancers have stopped dancing.