Baillieu’s call-to-arms will attract the attention of the most revered international architectural practices, but as the world’s top designers sharpen their proverbial pencils at the prospect of transforming Australia’s oldest and most iconic railway station, Mike Sweet talks to two award-winning Melburnian architects about the challenges faced by those who have designs on, not just a Victorian icon, but a building at the heart of Australia’s identity.
Billy Kavellaris (35) is the founder of Kavellaris Urban Design (KUD). Though a small practice, KUD’s work both in Australia and overseas has become increasingly recognised for its ground-breaking urban design sensibilities. Kavellaris says that whilst any architect will set out to create a design that responds to universal principles, an intimate knowledge of the building and its functions will help.
“The site context and its history is of course critical, but the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the building, the things that need to be activated are unlikely to be in the experiential space of overseas architects applying,” says Kavellaris, who also believes a deeper notion of heritage applies for the station. “Melbourne has very much its own culture entrenched with our history of immigration over time, so that’s all part of our heritage. It’s not about ‘this is an old building, let’s preserve it,’ there are other stakes.
“Anyone looking at this project, whether it’s an architect or a lay person, the first thing they are going to do is want to understand the history, what it means to Melbourne.” Kavellaris suggests that one of the key issues that will need to be addressed is the station’s Flinders Street “interface”. “It’s completely inactivated,” says the young designer, “like a big fortress that people penetrate through small openings, and disabled access is always a problem.
“You’ll see a number of architects wanting to activate that street frontage, and engaging with the river will be an issue too.” Activation is a key expression for Kavellaris, who enjoys sharing his intellectual philosophies on the built environment.
“Understanding human nature and the human condition is the first step in understanding what architecture is,” says Kavellaris. Given that the 1997 competition to design Federation Square was won by a consortium headed by LAB Architecture Studio (a small local practice and relative novice in terms of large public projects), it’s perfectly possible that a small outfit with a creative vision can win the day.
Arthur Andronas (53) is director of Andronas Conservation Architecture (ACA), a practice that specialises in heritage projects. Andronas traces his passion for conservation architecture to the act of uncovering layers of history and meaning. “We ask, how do you live with all that layering? We’re not talking about today, we’re often talking about millenia old cultures, whether it’s post-contact European or aboriginal.”
A deep and insightful conservation agenda that supports a cutting-edge contemporary vision, will be the key to unlocking the Flinders Street Station challenge. Any competition entry is likely to involve a consortium of designers from the outset, and ACA will be in demand for their specialist knowledge. Andronas has already been approached by a number of architects who wish to compete, and who want him on their ticket.
“The most important thing is the vision. It needs to be a design that will compare with, or surpass Federation Square,” says the ACA’s director. Andronas believes that the competition’s project brief needs to clearly define the objectives of the project to realise the most successful outcomes. “The difficulty here, is how do you define what is important in terms of conservation – the whole of the main building, the platforms and the concourse are all important.” Another key question says Andronas, is what should be the scale and scope of the project.
“A successful architectural statement will maintain Melbourne on the stage of international architecture and that’s very exciting, but on the other hand, does Melbourne need anything more than a tidied up building? Re-enegrising can be done on a large or a small scale.” Andronas points to the recent rejuvenation of European stations as possible models for Flinders Street.
“All over Europe stations are being upgraded, but they’re not going necessarily for the full makeover. Look at London’s St Pancras, where they’ve done some wonderful work on the original Victorian building, but also added to it. The question is how far do we go?”
The Flinders Street Station Design Competition project brief will be available in mid 2012.