Deep designs

The Australian Institute of Architects this month bestowed one of its highest accolades on Nonda Katsalidis. Not that the Melbourne architect is any stranger to awards, but as designer of the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Katsalidis shows why he is one of Australia’s most daring and successful engineers of the built environment.

Last week in Perth the Australian Institute of Architects gave its highest national award for public architecture to Fender Katsalidis Architects, the celebrated practice that has been responsible for some of the most iconic high-rise residential buildings in Australia. But this time Nonda Katsalidis was heading in a different direction. MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – the largest privately funded museum in Australia – was designed in collaboration with its founder, the eccentric art collector David Walsh.

MONA’s very existence is based upon presenting antiquities and contemporary art from Walsh’s collection. As a self-made millionaire, Walsh set out with MONA to subvert the very notion of what an art museum is.

The multi-million dollar gallery opened its doors in January 2011 and two of its exhibits give a taste of its distinctive content. One of its key works, Cloaca Professional, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye is a machine based upon the human digestive system, which relieves itself at regular intervals and produces excrement. Another work exhibited last year was by Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis; Untitled comprised a steel frame from which joints of beef hung that slowly decayed. It required a change of flesh every three days.

While such art might be considered on the nose for some, MONA drew 600,000 visitors in its first 18 months and recently won the 2012 Australian Tourism Award for best new development. David Walsh, who made his fortune by developing gambling systems, has described the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland

Carved out of a vast sandstone escarpment along the Derwent River, MONA’s giant subterranean sandstone walls provide the backdrop for its provocative exhibits. Its 6500 square-metre underground gallery space has no windows and extends over three levels.

Arriving by ferry from Hobart, the museum’s jetty transforms into a flight of steps cut into the escarpment. According to Walsh, the inspiration for the steps was the path to the temple on the summit of the Greek island of Naxos.

Australian Institute of Architects’ jury chairman Brian Zulaikha praised MONA’s temple-like, largely underground structure. “This beautiful, poetic and still very functional museum is imposing but it’s not unfriendly. You feel like you’re entering a new world of art.”

Nonda Katsalidis told reporters that whilst he had been initially daunted by the personality of David Walsh “who has got very strong ideas” the collaboration had been a pleasure.

“This museum has actually struck a chord and we’ve won lots of awards for all the participants – the lighting, engineering, and the graphics. It is very satisfying when the whole team gets this sort of pat on the back,” said Katsalidis.

Known for their distinctive sculptural qualities, Katsalidis’ buildings often feature diverse materials and textures such as exposed steel left to weather or rough-hewn timber.

Katsalidis was born in Athens and in 1951 migrated to Australia as a five-year-old. A graduate of Melbourne University and RMIT, his cutting edge high-rise tower designs – including Melbourne’s Eureka Tower – have won a plethora of awards in Australia and overseas.

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Reinventing Greece


Global branding strategist Peter Economides is in Sydney and Melbourne this week, brimful of ideas on how to change the world’s perception of Greece.

It’s all in the DNA, says the man who helped Steve Jobs rebrand Apple in the 1990s.

Think Different was the campaign slogan, not ‘Think Differently’. There’s a subtle but vital difference. It was 1997. In California, Steve Jobs had recently returned as CEO to the company that he co-founded 20 years before.  Peter Economides was in Manhattan – Head of Global Clients at TBWA – one of the world’s top-ten most influential global advertising agencies.
Jobs had ordered the creation of an advertising campaign that reflected his philosophy for Apple: the Think Different campaign was the result.
While the first iMac was months away and long before iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad were even a glimmer in his eye, Jobs wanted to reinforce, both to his staff and the world, what Apple meant – what its DNA was made of. And behind that simple, deceptively clever advertising slogan, was a poetic call to arms.

The narration to the accompanying TV commercial – spoken over images of John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other visionaries – struck a chord so profound, that it resonates to this day:

Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently…
Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world… are the ones who do.

The Think Different campaign reinvented Apple. It laid the foundations for the company that in 2012, is the largest publicly-traded corporation in the world, with an estimated value of US$ 626 billion. To ensure the campaign would run seamlessly around the world – spreading its message of rebellious non-conformity with absolute integrity – Steve Jobs gave the task to TBWA and Economides.

Speaking from his home in Athens – on the eve of his much-anticipated presentations in Australia – Economides says the experience of working with Steve Jobs taught him one crucial lesson: how any brand has to be true to itself. “I had the job of checking to see the campaign and the applicability of the line ‘Think Different’ around the world, making sure it was relevant globally,” says Economides.

“When I spoke to the Brits about it, they said ‘over our dead bodies, it’s grammatically incorrect.’

“In Japan they said that they didn’t want to be seen as different, and that’s because Japan is a very homogenous society, but Steve Jobs’ response was, ‘well, that’s the way we speak in California’.

“And that’s a very insightful response, because any brand has to be true to its DNA,” says Economides emphatically.

The parallels with Greece’s current need for reinvention – a subject close to Economides‘ heart and one he is regularly invited to speak about around the world – jump out, for this highly articulate and much-travelled Greek South-African. “Taking that through to Greece today, we feel under pressure to become ‘northern European’ because that’s the defining dialogue in Europe today”, says Economides, who has lived in Athens for more than a decade.

“Well, we’ll never be good Germans, we have to become exceptional Greeks. We have to be true to who we are.

“The experience of working with Steve Jobs taught me, is that if you have a strong belief in who you are – if you don’t get the brand right –  there’s no direction, there’s no guideline on what the product should be like.

“This was the big lesson for me of the Apple experience. The only thing we did was reignite the DNA of Apple, we became true to ourselves.”

Economides’ traces his own DNA back to Asia Minor. His grandparents migrated from Imbros.  Brought up in the family home in Johannesburg, he studied Business Science at university in Cape Town.

Founder of the Felix BNI global branding agency in Athens, Economides is a former Executive Vice President and Worldwide Director of Client Services at McCann Erickson. His journey through the world of advertising has taken him across four continents via Hong Kong, Greece and Mexico to New York, and just as the 20th century closed, back to Athens. It’s no overstatement to say that that his work has impacted consumers almost everywhere.

Economides’ last visit down-under was in 1995, when he was responsible for marketing Coca Cola worldwide. Nearly 20 years later, he arrives on Australia’s shores to share amongst other things, his vision on a more complex, less effervescent global brand: Greece.

“A brand is nothing more than a set of impressions that people have in their minds, but what I’m talking about is a nation’s reputation, what the nation thinks about itself and what the world thinks about it,” says Economides.

“In terms of Greece, when I talk about it as a brand, it’s the social psychology of the nation that I’m really concerned about.

“This is not about creating an ad campaign. It’s all about how a nation behaves, in the collective sense”.

Global brand strategising is what Economides will talk about in his Australian presentations.

As he has done in the United States and Canada, he will also talk about why Greece has to change how it is perceived – not just externally to the world, but to Greeks themselves – and how it should go about it.

“A brand is the result of everything you say and do, and everything you don’t say and don’t do, by the way,” he says.

Economides believes at the root of Greek society today is a lack of a sense of the collective – a sense of the whole.

“We tend to be fierce individualists, which is a wonderful quality. It’s exactly what let us succeed around the world. But in Greece itself we’ve allowed politicians and the corrupt few to determine what this nation is all about,” he says.

“Rather than deal with politicians responsibly we’ve tended to say ‘ach, let them go about doing what they do, and I’ll go about doing what I do.’ ”

Despite having to cope with the current day-to-day challenges produced by painful economic reforms, Economides believes the Greek body politic is ready to embrace and endorse a new vision for the country, – a process he says must happen for change to occur.

For someone whose life’s work has been to motivate consumers and transform people’s behaviour through images and texts, Economides says that it’s important to look at how the mass media has instilled an image of Greece historically. And it’s an image that he say needs retuning.

In the US when speaking at a conference last year, he famously remarked that it was “time to park Zorba and be more Apolllonian”.

“If you think about Greece’s image around the world, it got frozen in time with the image portrayed of Greece in the 1960s: this very glamorous black and white world of islands and Mykonos, Onassis and Maria Callas, and this character called Zorba,” says Economides.

“I’m not talking about Kazantzakis’ book, I’m talking about the image of Anthony Quinn on the sand when Alan Bates says to him ‘will you teach me to dance?’ And Quinn’s response is ‘did you say dance?”  Economides impersonates Quinn’s Zorba as he theatrically delivers the punch line.

“I think we need to park that a bit,” he says quietly, back in his own voice.

“This is something I’ll be talking about in Australia”. Going back to the Apple experience, it’s all about DNA, he says.

“I feel that this Greek love of life is actually where our know-how resides, but the issue is how to create a value-driven proposition based on this know-how of life. We need to be able to monetize it more effectively.

“This is where nation branding begins. It’s about how we feel about ourselves, how we define ourselves, what our narrative is.”

The role of the diaspora and how to make the global Greek network more effective says Economides, is key to changing perceptions of Greece internally and externally.

“The nation has become so disconnected with so many things. It needs to realise it’s a global community, not just the Greeks in Greece.

“Greece is 11 million people, or 20 million people globally, that’s what it’s all about”.

Talking surface language with Nick Hogios

Security is tight at Toyota’s design studio in Port Melbourne. It needs to be: the sleek and seductive designs conceived at Toyota Style Australia are not for prying eyes. With the long lead times of car design and the intensely competitive nature of the global automotive industries, protecting against leaks of images and information, is something that Toyota takes very seriously.

Once past security with my ID tag attached, Nick Hogios ushers me into, if not the inner-sanctum, then a meeting room close by. We pass a scale model of a sleek, sensuously-lined car. Perhaps later I can get a photo of Nick beside it, I suggest. Nick lets me down gently: “That one’s not for public consumption just yet.” Nick joined Toyota Australia in 2002.

This quiet achiever rose through the ranks to become Manager of Design three years ago. He now leads a studio that has become a significant part of the Toyota machine, designing state-of-the-art vehicles for the domestic and burgeoning Asia Pacific market.

Nick was born in Sydney in 1974. His father Stelios arrived in Australia as a teenager, from a village near Argos in the Peloponnese. Anna, his mother, was born in Egypt, her parents were  originally from Kastellorizo and Symi, migrating with her family as an infant. They set up home in Sydney’s Paddington, then Brighton Le Sands (where Nick was born) before settling in the Sutherland Shire, “which back then, wasn’t very European,” says Nick, “they paved the way.” “Dad had cafes at first and then worked in the building industry.” Nick speaks of his family’s experience as, “a typical story”, counting himself, “very fortunate that my parents were extremely hard-working. They encouraged my brother Basil and I to do what we wanted to do.”

Basil went on to study architecture, but would later give up the profession for music, becoming an award-winning composer and sound designer. Attending the local public schools, Nick’s own creative passion for design, surfaced early.

“I’ve been drawing since I was six. Some people are inspired by buildings, but for me it was the motion of a car and the promise that every year there would be a new one that came out that looked even more futuristic. I guess I’ve always been a future-thinking person.”

Having made the connection between his passion for drawing, and the technical processes of industrial design, Nick bumped up his sciences from Year 9, firmly focused on pursuing a higher education course that would lead to his chosen profession. In 1992, he enrolled at the University of New South Wales to study Industrial Design.

Four years later, he had duxed his year and graduated with Class 1 Honours. After uni, Nick freelanced, before winning the Young Designer of the Year award in a competition organised by Ford Australia and Wheels magazine. His winning entry was a design for a Falcon in 2020, “which seemed so far into the future back then,” says Nick, who was then invited to join Ford as a junior designer in Melbourne.

Promotion to a senior designer position followed two years later. In 2002, Toyota realised a long held ambition to create a design studio in Australia, that would not only interpret the company’s design vision for the domestic market, but in time, the wider region. Nick was in the right place at the right time.

“I always had a desire to work for a Japanese company. Japan has come up with amazing ideas and products,” says Nick, “though it was as a massive culture shock.” “Toyota has a very specific culture, a set of rules almost, called ‘the Toyota way’, and you live by that, you’re trained in that, and have to practice it. It’s a very powerful tool.”

With two design studios in the United States, one in Europe, and a number in Japan, Toyota’s only Australian design facility has increasingly focused on Asia. “We’ve just completed a major facelift on the Fortuner model for the Asian market that took about two years. They’re very pleased. Early sales are up significantly. The new design gave it a much more premium, fresh and strong feel.”

“It’s anything and everything – the Fortuner is an SUV, the Aurion, sold as a Camry in Asia, is a saloon, so we go right across the range,” says Nick. “A full model change from first pencil sketch to production is about four years, sometimes it can be shorter”.

And what of the design process itself, I ask. How do you begin designing a world-beating car? “As a rule of thumb, proportion is number one, how it’s proportioned out is extremely important, if it’s not proportioned correctly the car’s not going to be right, no matter what follows.”

“We get information from planning teams, we get engineering ‘hard points’ and we get the chief engineer’s vision. Then it’s our job to put all those things together and propose designs.” “People often say ‘you must know so much about aerodynamics’ and the truth is we don’t. We have people who provide us with that information. We’re dedicated to making the cars look as desirable as possible for the intended demographic.”

As Nick describes the workflow that comes together to create some of the world’s most popular automobiles, there’s an almost evangelical impetus to Nick’s mission as a designer. “I love exotic sports cars, but to me being able to design a more mass-market car that is driven by thousands upon thousands of people, and seeing them use it and enjoy it, is the most satisfying part of the job.”

“Good design has to be global now, it’s in the nuances of the design, where you can tailor it to certain markets, and that’s an interesting challenge,” says Nick, who ends our conversation with a telling and very appropriate remark. “One of the most powerful notions Toyota holds dear is called Kaizen, which means ‘continuous improvement’. It doesn’t matter how good you did it last time, you have to continue to improve.” But meeting the next challenge and seeking improvement is nothing new for this driven designer. Evidently, the Toyota way is Nick Hogios’ way.

Perfect Paxos

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Surrounded by sparkling blue waters, elegant harbours and tranquil bays, Paxos is rated as one of the world’s Top Twenty Great Escapes. But then it’s always been a place for a good escape: legend has it that Poseidon created Paxos by bashing Corfu with his trident to create a peaceful getaway for himself and his partner Amphitrite. Perhaps his actions were partly a premonition of the port of Corfu in the 21st Century – disgorging thousands of camera-clad tourists, or pale holidaymakers from northern Europe, descending in their droves in the charter jets that arrive continually from dawn until midnight at Corfu airport.

It’s enough to make anyone fling his trident, and it’s just as well he did, because Paxos, and its tiny sister island Antipaxos, are sparkling gems set in this part of the Ionian, and if you know where to go, there is much that is serene and magical in these islands off the beaten track.

The pioneers of tourism in Paxos were two Brits, Eliot Watrous and Patrick May, who first visited the island as servicemen in WWII. After the war, Watrous went on to create the Greek Island Club, one of the first travel companies that began to open Greece up to the British and European tourist market.

By the 1980s tourism had replaced olive oil production as the mainstay of Paxos’ economy. Today the permanent resident population of Paxos is around 2500. In summer it rises to 10,000 and the sleepy port of Gaios is transformed as tourists arrive in droves on day trips from Corfu and the Greek mainland. On the waterfront is the office of Yannis Avranitakis, born in Paxos in 1953, Avranitakis has established Gaios Travel as one of the island’s most successful small businesses, offering quality accommodation, car and boat hire – all with a sensitive personal touch.

Yannis’ insights into tourism on Paxos are enlightening. “We don’t need more tourists,” says Yannis. “We need a different kind of tourist.” And what he means by that, is tourists who want more than the packages offered by the big tour operators – visitors who want to explore aspects of Paxos’ rich culture and environment so often ignored.

I soon got a glimpse of what Yannis means: a stroll along the port brings you to the Paxos Municipal Museum and Gallery, an elegant neo-classical building that houses an extraordinary collection. The exhibits include the traditional Paxiot dowry gift of ‘leg-stirrups’ for the bride, to attach to the marital bedposts for that extra something to help the baby-making process. Now you can’t find those at Ikea!

Some of the most interesting items in the small museum are the remarkable paintings by the Paxiot artist and priest Christodoulos Aronis (1884 -1973). A 1908 graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Aronis specialised in portraiture and landscapes as well as religious paintings. Many of his commissions adorn in churches in Corfu and Paxos, and in some of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the UK where he spent the latter part of his life. The paintings at the Paxos museum are the single largest collection of his work in one location and show his most personal figurative and landscape work.

Less than six kilometres to the south of Gaios is the tiny island of Antipaxos. In peak season many flock to this tiny pristine isle (with an area of just 5 square km) on day trips from Corfu – heading out on packed sightseeing boats to swim in the crystal clear waters for which the island has become famous.

My advice is to steer clear of its most famous beaches like Vrika and Voutoumi where every day in the high-season you’re likely to find yourself too close for comfort with others wanting to experience the Ionian’s most perfect beaches. Go for a walk; you’ve got every chance of getting a beach to yourself.

I was lucky enough to stay the night and savour Antipaxos’ delights without the daytime invaders. With very few properties on and a resident population of not many more than 30 owners and their families, this is the ultimate getaway location.

Yannis invited me to stay at the stone and timber house he recently finished building on his family’s land – an elegant property on high ground that took eight years to construct. After a 20 minute boat ride we tied up at the tiny harbour of Agrapidia in the early evening, and soon Yannis was introducing me to his neighbours, all of whom are winemakers. The island is famous for the quality of its wine, with the oldest and largest commercial producer being a local priest Papa Vangelis. Plots of land passed down through the generations are separated by rolling hills of vineyards and joined by a few meandering lanes.

We headed off into the warm evening to toast the sunset on the rooftop terrace of Vasilis Vlachopoulos, a former merchant ship captain, who having sailed the seven seas, now prefers to tend his vines on this idyllic isle. And who can blame him. Perched on a hill with sweeping views to the south we sat on his rooftop verandah as the sun set.

To the west, a vast expanse of the Ionian sea and hidden beyond, is Italy. If ‘sublime’ was a word invented to describe one experience, one place, one time; then it would be sitting in good company on that simple terrace that late summer evening, and as the light began to fade, sharing the sweet fruit of the vines which surround us.

Though rooms and villas are available to rent on Antipaxos, they are in short supply, so best to book early. Contact Gaios Travel or Lychnaria Paxos Accommodation for details. The author is grateful for the assistance of the Municipality of Paxos, Spyros Bogdanos, Yannis Avrantakis of Gaios Travel and Faye Lychnou of Lychnaria in the research for this article.

Bathing with Herodotus

Faded elegance: the 1920s Aigli hotel at Edipsos, Evia, Greece.

Mike Sweet takes the waters in northern Evia, Greece.

The healing powers of Edipsos’ thermal springs in the north of Evia have attracted politicians and artists for centuries; millennia even. Less than two hours drive from Athens, the luxurious Thermae Sylla Spa Wellness Hotel beckons at Edipsos. Built in 1890 and lavishly restored recently, the hotel has direct access to the famous ‘Sylla’ thermal spring, which flows up through the nearby rocks.

The name ‘Sylla’ dates back to ancient times when the spring was a favoured haunt of Roman general Cornelius Sylla, who (on his days off from destroying the port of Pireaus in 86 BC) did his r’n’r in these parts. Emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius also de-toga-ed here, but the town and its thermal springs go back even further.

Herodotus, the truly ancient Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC, reckoned twenty-one days of bathing in the waters was the recommended dose, but then he didn’t have to put it on his Visa card!

The therapeutic properties of the springs are apparently a result of the metallic salts and trace elements that occur naturally in the water, particularly iron, calcium and magnesium. Heated some three kilometres below ground, the water reaches the surface at a temperature of between 70 and 85 degrees centigrade. Handy for boiling eggs, though I didn’t try.

Some of the more modest accommodation available in Edipsos gives a fascinating glimpse into early 20th century history, and the Belle Epoque of this loutropolis when the likes of Winston Churchill, Eleftherios Venizelos, Maria Callas, and Greta Garbo took the waters here.

The faded elegance of the Aigli Hotel, two hundred metres from the harbour, with its chic art-deco design, stands out proudly amongst the drab sprawl of the contemporary waterfront. Its modernist features are a must see for anyone even vaguely interested in architectural history. A modest renovation, retaining its precious design features would be an idea for this dusty jewel of a building.

Back at the Thermae Sylla Spa, the service, rooms and amenities are top-class. Fresh organic produce from the hotel’s own farm supply the kitchens. Refreshingly, particularly for Greece, there is a total ban on guests smoking in public areas.

A great gym and spa centre offering body wraps with algae and fruit, aromatherapy and shiatsu, sits above interior and exterior pools that combine thermal and sea water at a constant 28-30 C. A package booking at the hotel includes a free consultation with the spa’s resident doctor.

According to legend, Hercules would bathe in the waters of Edipsos before each of his ‘labours’ in order to relax and regain his strength. I know the feeling. I drove back with the E75 national road packed with fellow travelers returning after the weekend break. By the time we pulled off the highway with a sigh of relief towards our home in Kifisia, I could have done with another long soak in those ancient rejuvenating waters.

http://www.thermaesyllaspa-hotel.com

Cretan Journeys: Elixirs of life

It’s a short drive from Chania into the natural beauty of the Armenoi district in western Crete and a relief to be away from the kitsch of Chania’s old town, which in April attracts the first streams of tourist swarms. They mill through the alleyways, past the shops selling ‘Miss Kitty’ towels and the other globalised tat that blights today’s most popular tourist destinations.

They search for something picturesque, ancient, serene. Perhaps some feel they have found it here, but discerning travelers will find far more rewarding experiences to be had close by. Thirty minutes away, turning south off the national road to Rethymo at Megala Chorafia, you are thankfully, in another world.

The road to the village of Maheri weaves through groves of avocados, oranges and olives, as it rises into the foothills of the majestic White Mountains in the distance. A hairpin bend in at the end of small valley leads up to Maheri, and on the one road upon which the village sits, Roula Kastrinaki, creator of Kamares is outside to greet new arrivals.

Roula Kastrinaki, originally from Chania, began work on Kamares 20 years ago with her partner Costas whose family has lived in Maheri for generations. Their simple but elegant  terracotta stone houses comprise five apartments and three villas overlooking the serenely peaceful plain of Apokorona. In the distance the Ottoman castle of Koules looks out towards Souda Bay, swallows glide and swoop, darting into a nest in the kitchen on the ground floor, and below in the  gardens organic fruit and vegetables grow in profusion.

Last year Roula was persuaded to run as the Green party candidate in the local elections, but she points out that she has no major ambitions to be a politician, preferring the role of citizen campaigner for change. In November  she  will be involved in a new environmental project aimed at protecting the unique marine eco-system that exists south of Crete, in between the tiny islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula – the southernmost isles of Europe.

A kindred spirit, Manolis Kindelis owns and manages a farm 3kms south west of Chania that his grandfather bought in the 1900s. Built more than 350 years ago, Metohi Kindelis is today a working organic fruit farm of 3.5 hectares. Manolis remembers visiting the farm as a child when it produced mandarins and olives.

Today the organic orchards grow strawberries, nectarines, apricots, pomegranates, oranges, and grapes, mostly for the Crete market. The large stone Venetian farmhouse, with an inner pebbled courtyard and dwellings where farm workers and their families once lived, has been converted into simple but superb accommodation.

Look out of the tall windows of the Kynthia guestroom to the courtyard below and it’s Tuscany that you see. Inside, high ceilings, period furniture, a fridge stacked with organic delicacies, and hidden in an antique Chinese armoire, a CD player with Manolis’ eclectic mix of jazz, classical and new age titles.

This is no formulaic five star experience. Here imagination and sensitivity ensure that the farmhouse remains true to its origins, while just the right creature comforts are on hand.

Perhaps the real magic of these special life-enriching places is that a kind of alchemy has taken place. The history of the simple village of Maheri, its traditions, its lore of the land, and its relationship to nature has been re-cast. No less so, at the Kindelis family’s ancient farm. Manolis Kindelis and Roula Kastrinaki share an understanding of life and nature. It’s a vision as rich and healthy as the elixir-like olive oil made at Kamares, and the succulent fruit of Metohi Kindelis.

Redrawing the station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the  launch of the $1 million Flinders Street Station Design Competition, Victoria’s Premier Ted  Baillieu described the initiative as a vital first step in the area’s revival that would require “creative brilliance from across the globe.”

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.