Articles Written / Letter from Melbourne - Federation Square

Letter from Melbourne
Written for digital magazine, Sau Paulo, Brazil

October 2003

Federation Square, Melbourne’s new cultural and civic centre, floating on a platform on springs over the city’s largest rail-yard, is unarguably one of the world’s notable urban statements at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The square presumes to insert itself into the company of the few building developments in the world that integrate communication and information pathways into a total, built environment appropriate to a modern, urban population.

John Warwicker, graphic designer from the UK company: Tomato, who worked with Lab Architecture Studio, the practice which won the competition to design the project, claims that “graphic registration in all its forms has [usually] been an addition to architecture. Within this project the graphic elements are an integral part of the site, its programming and its architecture. In the new electronic environment, culture and economics are inseparable, demanding a new response to the role of the designer: the site, its content (and the communication of its content) are more inter-related than ever before”.

Don Bates and Peter Davidson, the two bright young architects with no previous experience of large projects, along with Bates Smart Architects, a Melbourne firm at the opposite end of the experiential scale, presume not only to compare this development with great twentieth century monuments such as Bilbao and the New York Guggenheim, they claim to have created something which those icons have not: a people-centred space. Warwicker agrees, claiming to have helped to invert the traditional authority of the architect “…and to have the conditions and issues of the mediated world, especially the Web, contextualise the site.”

Of course, some things never change. As with many great urban projects, the story of its creation includes all of the usual characters: ego driven architects convinced of their own aesthetic superiority (and, always dangerous in a democracy, their moral authority), politicians for whom civic development is a political strategy, a public yearning for recognizable historic references and a budget that, as usual, had little connection with the eventual cost.

On the other hand, true to the complexity of any civic drama, the project also presented examples of the best of our times: talented architects and designers with a genuine commitment to creating a twenty-first century site and civic leaders who empowered them to realize it. In these times of instant gratification we can forget how much time (sometimes centuries), and political manoeuvring, some of the worlds great constructions took to complete. Weeks and months have become an unbearable timeframe to the contemporary citizen.

The people, many of whom at first rejected what was to them an alien aesthetic, now flock through the site containing the Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria (the world’s first major gallery dedicated exclusively to Australian art) the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (dedicated to moving image from early cinema to the latest digital media), SBS (a multicultural TV and radio broadcaster), the Atrium (a galleria of glass steel and zinc) and a civic square capable of accommodating 15,000 of their fellow citizens. The square also contains a city information centre and numerous restaurants, bars, shops and a riverside park from which the city was previously separated by the rail yards. As a place, this building is the information highway made manifest. It has been said of the Ian Potter Centre, for example, that never before in Melbourne’s experience has a large state art gallery enabled people so much immediate, personal contact with the artworks exhibited. The hum of appreciation and critical discussion has none of the cathedral-hush encouraged by the atmosphere in so many of the world’s museums. An ugly edge of downtown Melbourne has been transformed into its centre.

For once, central to that success, was the recognition that the signs and brands, realized through an electronic signage program integral to the fabric of, and supporting public access and movement conduits, needed to be developed up-front and not added on.

It was envisaged that each tenant would have a dedicated LED colour-coded “channel” to enable visitors to navigate the site efficiently, the LED system also has technological and aesthetic synergy with web, which means that the experience of the physical site and that through the web (on line) is continuous. Information columns were proposed for strategic points to act as nodes for the informational matrix, each channel pointing towards its destination relative to the position of the column. Within each column there are LED screens, interactive site and city maps, electronic ticketing services and advertising light boxes. The signage and the graphics are integrated with the technology and physical space to link the visitor into the total experience.

Those parts of the vision that survived the inevitable cost cutting, (a challenge which, after all, defines the successful real-world designer) included the electronic type system designed by Warwicker and Sean Hogan, a National Institute of Design graduate. Hogan and Warwicker designed the typeface and colour for every tenant, and electronic signage in eight languages constantly changing through the full colour spectrum to reflect the core theme of the site: a celebration of the combined concepts of multiculturalism and federation.

The principal mark represents both the beginning and the end of the Federation Square story. F (for Federation) in the open square, refers to the boundaries of the site, while remaining open to show nothing is fixed in a fast changing, interactive and interdependent world.


Professor Helmut Lueckenhausen
Director and Dean, National Institute of Design
Swinburne University of Technology,
Melbourne, Australia