Federation Square: A Web of Controversy in the City

By Christina Kim - September 07, 2015

Caught in the light and intersecting embrace of St Paul's Cathedral, Flinders Street Station, and the Yarra River waterfront is the open space of the Federation Square.


Federation Square is a public and open space found right in the middle and is a whole urban mix development bordered by three streets; Swanston, Flinders, Russell Streets, and a river; the famous Yarra River.

The layout of the square occupies two public spaces; mainly the St Paul's Square and The Square which make up the open squares and also the Atrium, which is the covered space.
The design of this precinct is intended to connect the historical part of the city to the newer urban area of the other side marked by the new Birrarung Marr park, bordered by the Yarra River.

Like most of the city's landmarks, Federation Square is unmistakably iconic and its strategic location surrounded by the other beautiful historical city icons such as St Paul's Cathedral and Flinders Street Station in its vicinity puts it high on the list of Melbourne city's attractions.

While most of the city landmarks are the pride of the Melbournians, surprisingly, this is not the case though, with the Federation Square, until most recently.

Entangled in a series of controversies for decades, the Federation Square did not start off on a good note with the local city population.

From the bad impression beginning with its predecessor, the City Square (the city's first public square); which many considered to be a product of a bad planning by the City Council back in the year 1968, the call for a new square and the design and development of the new square led to many controversies and disagreements with regards to the design.

When the City Square's redevelopment in the 1990s did not appease the needs and the calls to fix the major flaws in its design as a public space, it was then seen immediately the need to call for drastic action in its resolution and that meant a new public space.

It was then, that the Victorian State Government took serious note of the issue and initiated the early planning of a new square which soon led to an architectural design competition for the square in 1997.

The site selected for the new square was the south of Hoddle Grid; where the Princes Gate Towers of  what was previously the Gas and Fuel Corporation, Jolimont Yard and the Princes Bridge Railway station (which was once a mortuary in the 19th century.
It was a move welcomed by the government and public to remove the obstructive Gas and Fuel Corporation buildings which were then since the 1960s and have been blocking the view access to the Flinders Street and St Paul's Cathedral, and have deemed as the city's eyesores.

The initiative for the design competition, led by Jeff Kennett, was centered on the concept of connecting the Flinders Street to the Yarra River, which was like the waterway backbone that runs across the city, in an efficient manner.
While the primary focus of the design was on the connection within the city, the emphasis was also to  improve the access to, and accentuate the beauty and historic part of the city in the existing heritage landmarks; namely the St Paul's Cathedral and Flinders Street Station.

The competition saw a warm response and the board of judges had to select from a number of 177 entries from all over the world and there were even several designs from high profile and renowned architects which were shortlisted, and further showcased for public viewing.

However, the winning went to a combination of the designs from a trio selection; namely the Lab Architecture Studio (London), Karres en Brands Landscape Architects and Bates Smart, a local architect.

Architectural Design
The initial design totaled up to A$100 to A$128 million and saw a fulfillment of the requirements as intended with the design competition; with a proposal to construct a few five-stored shards; with two free-standing ones on the north western edge of the space to provide a spectacular view of St Paul's Cathedral and is said to be similar in its concept to the Roman's St Peter's Basilica.
Depicted in the design is also a series of interconnected laneways and stairways from the square to the Yarra River and included a huge open space of a square with a large viewing screen perched in the square for major events to be put on public display.

The design of the shards, which were part of Lab Architecture Studio's plan, were heavily protested by the heritage conservationists, who claimed that the positioning of the shards were not beneficial to the sights of the iconic heritage buildings in the city; particularly the view of St Paul's Cathedral which was apparently obstructed by one of the 'offensive' shards.

The design was then ordered for a modification, when the government changed to a new administration and in their attempt to quell the dissatisfaction of the traditionalists.

The change and redesign put a strain on the construction schedule and timeline and burst the overall budget; with the finalized budget estimated to be almost four times the original; at approximately A$467 million.

Federation Square finally opened in the year 2002, but the controversies did not end there.

The square's launch was not officiated by the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Her Majesty was not even invited to the official launch of the square and it was only almost a decade later that her Royal Highness was only there in person at the square, in the year 2011.
That is the first feature, and historical dot in the Federation Square that sets it apart from all the major landmarks in the city.

However, that was not the reason for the following controversy or its unpopularity among the locals.

The high and excessive costs in its constructions displeased the Melbournians, and to add to that, the overall design architecture of the square was probably the ultimate source of aggravation of it all.

The locals disliked the architecture of the Federation Square so much that they even incited hate mails to the designers who were not solicited for any design works for at least six months following the completion of the square.


To make matters worse, the Federation Square was even cited as the 'World's Fifth Ugliest Building' by the Virtual Tourist in the year 2009 with a list of criticisms primarily focused on its chaotic complex design.

However, it was not all hate and no love for it was only time that could heal and the Federation Square, despite its long line of controversies and unfavorable appearance, has finally made it into the hearts of the Melbournians slowly, as reported by The Australian Financial Review, which has reported the popularity of the building for public events and city visits among the locals and tourists, which has seen an increase in their numbers over the years.

Inside the complex

The worst may have ended for Federation Square, when finally they landed their spot on the list of "10 Great Central Plazas and Squares" compiled by The Atlantic Cities in the year 2011.

My take?

Love or hate, Federation Square will always be caught in this indecisiveness but its usefulness and strategic spot makes up for more than that dislike.

It is a great place to enjoy the view of the city, to rest and relax and to take in that panoramic view of the city.

View of the city on one of the steps on Federation Square


Melbourne Visitor Centre is one of the anchor tenants

The unobstructed view of St Paul's Cathedral from Federation Square

Be prepared to be surprised by the eclectic mix of the design of the building and the actual mix of the urban versus the historical and heritage parts of Melbourne, all at one view, as one stands on the steps of the chaotically charming web design of the Federation Square.




Take it from the birds, this is a cool place to hang out~


For all it's worth, Federation Square is not just caught in that intersecting embrace of the major landmarks that lands it in this hot spot, but the major highlight of it all lies far beyond its strategic spot and all in that evident web of controversy in its place.

It definitely puts Federation Square right in the centre of all the attention, and right in the heart of the city of Melbourne~

List of tenants on the Federation Square:
1. Melbourne Visitor Centre
2. SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) television and radio headquarters
3. The Edge theatre
4. National Gallery of Victoria
5. ACMI - Australian Centre for the Moving Image
6. Melbourne Festival Headquarters

*Author's Note: 
This is not a sponsored/promotional post, and solely based on author's personal opinions and preferences and do not represent the general public. 
Experiences vary from one individual to another.

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