Face, Place, Race: Images of Australia – Mac Nguyen
4 Apr 2021

“A major public site and project like Federation Square presents complex problems. It must be for the people of Melbourne, broadly defined. It must act as a bridge between the past and the present—honouring the history of the site and the existing fabric of the city—and act as a gateway to the city of the twenty-first century. Do you just Federation Square to be a success in meeting these criteria? Give your reasons.”

It is difficult to offer a definitive measure of success for Melbourne’s Federation Square over its short seven-year history. Narrowing it down purely to poll numbers and visitor statistics, the Square has been and remains a tremendous hit, but if we acknowledge the myriad of other grounds on which it can be judged, including architectural, cultural, political and social, the implications grow more ambiguous and it becomes far more problematic to try and qualify or quantify a single measure of success. For this piece, I will base my interpretation and judgment of success on what is arguably the most fundamental goal behind the commission of Federation Square: as a site to commemorate the federation of Australia. Citing federation as a historical turning point that centred around unity, I will explain how Federation Square re-interprets or re-imagines this event as one which also had a profound impact on diversity, via the space’s own short ascendency and embracement within the public as a cultural icon.

Prior to its opening in late 2002, Federation Square had already begun to make noise. The design of the Square by the Lab architecture studio of London and Bates Smart of Melbourne has been closely associated with the postmodernist movement (Jencks, 2004: 155), described to ‘have brought about a change in perspective’ through ‘the new sciences of complexity—fractals, non-linear dynamics, the new cosmology, self-organising systems’. The Square’s designated land borders St Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders Street station and the old Forum Theatre—three heritage landmarks that remain architecturally conservative in their European appearance. Naturally, the provocative design met a great deal of opposition, including heritage groups attesting that proposed five-storey ‘shards’ in the design would potentially obstruct a view of St Paul’s (Brown-May, 2001: 19).

Upon opening in late 2002, Federation Square continued to startle the architectural fabric of Melbourne’s city centre with its unfamiliarity. National symbolism was not understated in the Square’s design; one of the most prominent features of Federation Square is the hand-laid pavement, made of almost half a million cobblestones of variegated coloured Kimberley sandstone. Crist (2003: 50) describes the surface as an ‘artificial scene of a natural, desert-like space—a hill transplanted from the Kimberley, or some equally surreal geology’. Despite this very compelling homage to the iconic Australian outback, the fragmented architectural packaging of Federation Square was still too foreign and disconcerting for the conservative portion of the public. Macarthur (2003: 46) says that it ‘combines in a pleasing manner some challenging buildings with a relation between architecture and the public that is… quite familiar,’ leaving Melburnians ‘pleasantly shocked’.

Bearing an inconsistency to its conservative surroundings, the Square was seen initially as somewhat of an intruder on the domain of public space. Macarthur (2003: 48) describes the aesthetic of Federation Square within its spatial context as a ‘kind of liberating bewilderment’ that is ‘as different and peculiar as if it came from another culture altogether, and yet there is no one thing to gasp about it’. The irony of referring to its origins as from another culture, despite its homage to the Australian landscape and its commemorative ethos towards federation, draws out comparisons to the cultural conflicts experienced by immigrants arriving in Australia. They too struggle with issues of fitting in, of cultural compromise for acceptance and the need for tolerance and cultural plurality. Grinberg (1989: 129, 132) says that ‘the immigrant in his struggle for self-preservation needs to hold onto various elements of his native environment… in order to be able to feel like himself’, adding that ‘these experiences result from conflict between the desire to assimilate with others so as not to feel left out or different and the desire to be different so as to continue feeling the same’.

The cobblestone pavement symbolising the Australian outback then presents a problematic analogy: is it an element of cultural self-preservation as Melbourne’s cityscape inevitably moves into the twenty-first century period of postmodernity, or are the Kimberley cobblestones in fact symbolising the dominant, pre-existing culture of Australia that is hosting this foreign, postmodernist design (an analogue for the immigrant)? Either way, a cultural tension exists, and Federation Square can be ruled as an incongruous landmark which, like the immigrant, is caught between allegiances: one to Australia’s history (federation, the outback), and the other to cultural movements of the twenty-first century (postmodernist architecture). Federation Square’s story could be likened to what is arguably its predecessor in terms of design controversy: the sculpture, Vault. Dubbed ‘The Yellow Peril’, an aptly racialised title echoing a hostility toward immigrants, Vault experienced tumultuous beginnings in 1980 when its abstract design startled the foundation of conservative groups (City of Melbourne, 2009). Now sitting prominently in Southbank, it has since grown to be of an institutionalised historical significance to Melbourne.

Federation Square, despite a shorter existence, has realised a similar growth trajectory as the city slowly adapted to its presence. The Square needed a phase of transition or adjustment in order to move from pure novelty to the originally intended iconic status. The idea of a differential between space and place is useful in considering this transformation. Tuan (1977: 6) writes that ‘what begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value’, while Crang (1998: 103) adds the idea of ‘time-thickening’, suggesting that ‘places provide an anchor of shared experiences between people and continuity over time’—that space becomes place as it is ‘time-thickened’. From early on in its existence, Crist (2003: 51) declared ‘we need to wait… for significance to emerge, for the events of urban life that can imbue this landscape [Federation Square] with significance’.  That is, in order for it to be truly embraced by the city, the space depended upon interaction between the public and itself.

The beginning of 2003 marked a significant turning point for the Square when thousands of demonstrators utilised the space to protest the Iraq war. Bernard Salt, of KMPG, says ‘whether you are for the war or against it, is irrelevant, the point is that it was the natural place of assembly for people wanting to exercise their democratic right. Where else could that have taken place? To me, that’s a win’ (Coslovich , 2003: 9). To be instilled with a powerful, patriotic value such as democracy meant an extraordinary victory for Federation Square, as it abolishes any lingering aversion to its unfamiliarity and instead inspires meaning that would become the avenue to unify it with the city—a transformation from space to place. By 2005, the Square’s marketing and events manager Stan Liacos called it ‘the long-awaited community gathering space’ which has made Melbourne ‘more complete somehow’, while former Lab architecture manager Elly Bloom said ‘so many people hated this place and suddenly it became the heart of Melbourne’ (Kyriakopoulos, 2005).

As the undisputed key gathering place of Melbourne, it is both important and interesting to note the nationalistic overtones of many of the gatherings that the Square has hosted, including the FIFA World Cup in 2006 (Australia’s first appearance in 32 years) and the aforementioned Iraq war demonstrations. These events appropriately reflect Federation Square as a national commemorative site celebrating the federation of Australia—the birth of Australia as a nation. The unifying function provided by this type of gathering place can also accentuate the constructedness of national identity, particularly Anderson’s (1983) idea of  ‘imagined communities’. The federation of Australia was certainly an attempt to unite the population and ‘encourage the idea of a coherent and shared identity amongst a group of people of diverse ethnicity, sexuality, religious conviction, economic status, age, cultural affiliation and geographic location’ (Elder, 2007: 23-24), even though on such a scale and with such diversity it would be impractical if not impossible. This was the thesis behind Anderson’s idea of the community being imagined rather than existent.

Game (1990: 106) says that ‘the rather blatant attempts at constructing a unity are having the effect of making differences more visible’. Federation Square loudly proclaims its diversity as an architectural work, which ironically translates as a contradiction to the unifying gesture of Australia’s federation and hence undermines its own commemorative value. And yet even as such an inherently contrasting site to its surroundings, the Square manages to unify people in gatherings and ultimately transform itself into an institutionalised focal point of the city. Unity, in this case, should not be construed as an attempt at assimilation—that is, an attempt to homogenise cultures in such a way that fits a constructed national identity—rather, it is the gathering or formation of a population that can acknowledge and celebrate its own a diverse make-up. In its fragmented design, the Square makes this distinction; Crist (2003: 50) claims that, according to the architects, ‘this same fragmented figure is analogous to pluralistic democracy’, while Robertson (2003: 16), referring to the geometric web of steel and glass and solid buildings that constitute the Square, says that ‘this diversity is fitting for a site that commemorates the coming together of a nation of so many different peoples’. Even Steve Bracks, former Premier of Victoria, took on the analogy by describing Federation Square as ‘a striking monument to our federation… as complex and intricate as the people who make up our nation’ (ABC News, 2002).

Federation Square succeeds in capturing the symbolic essence of the eponymous historical turning point it commemorates, not just in the substance of its design but also the turbulence of its existence. Witnessing the initial disharmony the Square’s postmodernist design originally brought to the city, the adaptation and evolution undergone to achieve its iconic status is testament to the adaptability of Melbourne and to a greater extent, Australia as a nation. Federation Square, in its design and placement, becomes that crucial link between past and present that reminds us of the essence of a federated nation that is willing to allow for a co-existence of cultures. McCaughey (2003: 175) sees this link quite literally, claiming that ‘the hand-off between the two complexes as you walk up Flinders Street towards the new buildings is a deeply satisfying urban experience, as past turns to present’. Notwithstanding its bold façade, the harmony Federation Square has achieved in its environment, the centrality it has been assigned by the city and the emblematic values of history it still manages to evoke makes it a fitting gateway to the twenty-first century.

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