The Best Architecture in Melbourne is Free!

After much discussion so far about urban design, planning regulations and government policy, I thought it was time to focus in on some specific buildings. In today’s post I would like to share my thoughts on Melbourne’s free Architecture. Put away your wallets, here come five of the best in Melbourne Architecture.

Do you agree? What buildings would be on your top 5? 

Have your say in the comments box below.

Number One – Federation Square

Red and Black Architect Federation Square

Why is it on the list?

No tour of Melbourne Architecture would be complete without Melbourne’s controversial Federation Square. Designed by Lab Architecture Studio, Fed Square is ten years old this October and has been the subject of much debate in the community since.

What should I look for?

Federation Square is a physical interpretation of the best aspects of Australian life, culture and landscape. Indeed the building itself could be read as a metaphor for the complex and multicultural society that is Australia; diverse but strangely unified.

The gently flowing sandstone paving evokes images of outback deserts, whilst the concrete and zinc elements which reflect the urban surrounds.  At Federation square, look for the metaphors, the unexpected smaller enclosed spaces and the vistas framed by the dynamic elements.

What are the criticisms?

There are several common criticisms of Federation Square.  Many commentators don’t like the intense geometry of the façades whilst others believe it will ‘date’.  This second point is an interesting concept which is perhaps worthy of its own post at a later time. After all, many Melbournians adore our stock of 1880’s terrace housing, much of which even has the year it was constructed on show for all. Are these dated too? On the other hand buildings from the 1960’s are often described as having dated.

Another analysis often made is the comparison between Melbourne’s Federation Square and Sydney’s Opera House.

Commentators look at these two buildings as if they are the key position players, in each of the rival cities’ architectural line ups.’

At this point it is hard to imagine that Melbourne’s identity will be quite as linked with Fed Square as Sydney’s is with the Opera House. Melbourne, however, has greater firepower in other players such as the Royal Exhibition Building which incidentally was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2004, three years earlier than the Opera House.

The red and black view

Federation square is one of my favorites for the way it feels just as much as they way it looks. If one wanted to understand Melbourne or Australian culture a trip to Federation Square is a must.

Number Two – The Shrine of Remembrance

Red and Black Architect Shrine of Remembrance Melbourne

Why is it on the list?

The Shrine is Victoria’s soul manifested in a building. Every Victorian should visit at least once. It was originally designed by two World War 1 veterans as the symbol of our loss, sorrow, gratitude, and respect for generations of Australians in wartime. Like so many of our great buildings, this one forms the backdrop of many of our community’s rituals.

What should I look for?

As you approach the Shrine, you will notice its strong use of symmetry and its traditional and formal language. Most important with this building is how you feel in its presence.

In 2002-2003, a visitor centre and gallery of medals was added to the building. This centre is particularly impressive for the way in which it successfully integrates with the historical structure, adding to its spaces for quiet reflection, whilst taking away nothing from the power of the original masterpiece.

Be sure to take the stairs up to the top for an impressive view back down Swanston Street to the city.

What are the criticisms?

No criticisms here, only respect.

The red and black view

For me, this is one of the best examples of contemporary architecture harmonizing with heritage.

Number Three – Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Red and Black Architect St Paul's Cathedral

Why is it on the list?

This building made the list because of the presence it exerts on Melbourne’s most iconic street corner. Indeed, views to it were deemed so important that the original Federation Square design became subject to political meddling. St Paul’s was designed by William Butterfield in a Neo Gothic style and construction started in 1880.

What should I look for?

Like the Shrine of Remembrance, the architectural language used here is very formal. To get the most out of this building, one needs to go inside and sit down. Mere metres from the hustle and bustle of trams, buskers and the rest of Melbourne, seated in the Cathedral, there is a complete transformation of perspective.

What are the criticisms?

St Paul’s is a fantastic piece of architecture and history. The problem with this building is that stone is rigid but religious ideology can be fluid. There is a very good reason why new churches are not built like this one. Contemporary church design prefers less imposing spaces which tend to be more light and airy. This helps to make new churches feel more like a place of dialogue and engagement rather than of architectural shock and awe.

The red and black view

The design intent here is to create a sense of awe and a central focal point; the altar. By sitting down and experiencing the space in the way originally intended, you can feel the architecture rather than just see it.

Number Four – Southern Cross Station

Red and Black Architect Southern Cross Station

Why is it on the list?

Southern Cross Station is an award winning piece of contemporary architecture which makes a statement just as much about the architecture industry in Melbourne as it does about the construction industry that put the jigsaw puzzle together. What made this puzzle so difficult was the irregular spacing between the rail lines and platforms which required a highly customized design solution. What makes it particularly significant for Melbourne is the fact that it is the primary gateway for interstate and rural train travelers as well as being the city terminal for the airport shuttle bus.

What should I look for?

The parabolic forms are specifically designed to capture and vent diesel fumes from trains at their highest points. These forms are supported by undulating steel spines which allow daylight over the platforms. The overall composition is grand and spectacular.

In addition to the geometric roof structure, I particularly enjoy the oversized yellow boxes with their rounded corners which seem to wander around the platforms with cheerful personalities in an otherwise controlled environment.

What are the criticisms?

The main problem with this building comes down to the unfortunate issue that the diesel fumes are not always fully vented. It is unclear if any design of an enclosed space would have been able to fully vent this area.

The red and black view

This building certainly makes an impression for Melbourne as a city. It is part of the ritual of attending events at the Docklands stadium and it is hard to imagine a contemporary Melbourne without it.

Number five – Melbourne Central

Red and Black Architect Melbourne Central

Why is it on the list?

Melbourne Central is on the list for the inspired decision to preserve and incorporate the original 1888 Coop’s Shot Tower. The resulting atrium space under the massive glass cone is both iconic and vibrant.

What should I look for?

Look for the intricacy of the brickwork of the shot tower and be sure to take the elevators right to the top to get the full impact of the space.

What are the criticisms?

When the entrance podium was completed on the corner of Swanston Street and Latrobe Streets the timber façade looked to be a stunning choice. Now several years old, this façade is turning a very unattractive black colour.

The red and black view

I personally don’t understand the fascination tourists have with the giant novelty fob watch. Far more attractive to me is the heritage shot tower and the impressive dome. As a final point, consider a factory built today in the industrial belt of Victoria. Some of the time, they can barely be bothered to paint. Compare this to how a completely utilitarian building was also a piece of art.

More free architecture

If you are interested in more free architecture, visit the Victorian Architecture Awards entries, on show at 45 Flinders Lane until 14 July. Stay tuned for a review of the exhibition next week.

Architecture is for everyone.


About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Free architecture, Heritage, Review and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Best Architecture in Melbourne is Free!

  1. livsmith21 says:

    I know some may disagree but I’m not into southern cross. I like the idea of the form of the roof, but not the way it’s been done. I don’t like how some of it is transparent and some isn’t. I know it lets light in, but the way it is makes the roof look unfinished to me. If some has to be transparent, it should be, say, the high or low points; something that fits with the established geometry of the roof rather than straight lines.

    • livsmith21 says:

      Also, the yellow boxes look cool but it annoys me that they aren’t a public space. It’s like the funkiest things are out of bounds which seems somehow unfair.

      • Hi Liv, thankyou for your comment. I think what you are trying to suggest is that there should have been more uniformity in the concept. This is a very sound argument but also extremely difficult to achieve with so many complex inter-related ideas. In terms of form-making, the architects started with an irregular grid form which was dictated by the nature of the track layout which is common when dealing with train stations. The requirement for natural daylight above the platforms to make them usable spaces is different to the ventilation requirements of the spaces above the trains. Thus to design a unified building fabric would have been impractical.

        In regards to the yellow boxes, I’m glad you appreciate their quirkiness. Whilst I have not been inside them, it may be that the best experience is looking at them rather than from them anyhow.

        Architecture is for everyone.

      • Caroline says:

        I’ve been in the yellow boxes! A career in rail is good for something. Unfortunately they’re just offices and not particularly funky or yellow on the inside. Clearly a missed opportunity.

  2. Jenny K says:

    Like I said last night: I think that Fed Square is severely lacking in vegetation. This is a big problem in Australia with our hot summers, and I think it’s a failure on the part of the architect to consider function as well as form. Sure, it very artistically represents Australia and its iconic red earth and debts, but a square is ultimately designed for people and needs to be a comfortable place to be. This is where vegetation is necessary: to keep the summer heat at bay.

    • Thanks Jenny for your comment. The question of vegetation in a public square is a tricky one. Too little vegetation, as you are suggesting, may be a disadvantage in the summer months. Alternatively, too much vegetation and your public square can turn into a park. Whilst some people might prefer a park on that site, the intent of the design was that of a public square.

      Squares are notoriously hard to design. Many have failed, for a variety of reasons. Aspects that contribute to a good design include good positioning, appropriate dimensions, and the ability for people to congregate and be seen.

      Activities in a public square should feel communal. Part of this is being able to see people come and go. Big trees which could provide shade may segment the space into a series of smaller spaces. For example, one of the uses of the square is acting as a live site where people can watch an event on the big screen, somewhat like a communal lounge room. Too much vegetation throughout the square could impede this functionality.

      Of course, the square is for all of us to use, and it’s impossible to please every Melbournian. The architects made a decision about how much vegetation to put in and it’s fantastic that you’re engaging with the space and sharing your opinion about that decision.

      Architecture is for everyone.

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