In a city that boasts an impressive collection of freeway architecture and roadside sculpture, Melbourne’s new Habitat Filter looks to set a new benchmark in urban art.
The Power Street Loop has been an industrial by-product since the construction of CityLink by Transurban in the late 1990’s. This island site sits isolated inside a ring of bitumen and fast moving traffic, but is now home to Melbourne’s latest piece of urban art – Habitat Filter.
The project itself is the result of an open design competition held by Transurban. Landcare Australia were looking to re-vegetate and rehabilitate the site, whilst Transurban were also looking for a sculpture that would sit comfortably within the adjacent arts precinct.
The winners of this competition are a tight group of design professionals each with their own complementary skill sets. Urban designer, Matt Drysdale and graduate of architecture Matt Myers both have strong architectural backgrounds, whilst Tim Dow who studied landscape architecture, also brings to the team substantial expertise in wayfinding and user experience.
The result is a collection of monoliths playfully interspersed around the site. During the day, the colourful pixelated cladding on the structures feather their colour as they reach for the sky. At night the angled forms suggest a critical reflection upon the apartment buildings of the Southbank skyline, as the lighting from within the sculptures mimic the lights within the buildings beyond.
“When initially designing the skin, the main focus was never really about colour or materiality. Rather the main priority was for the skins to have a layers of transparency, ensuring the forms blended into the landscape and wider context.”
Whilst the monolithic forms and the vibrant colour pallet are bold and distinctive, the more functional aspects of the project are less obvious. For the design team there was a conscious decision not to just have a meaningless object in space, it had to be more than a ‘one liner’. As the name Habitat Filter suggests, the intention was to create habitat for birds, insects and other small creatures, whilst allowing natural vegetation to filter the air.
“We are interested in how the urban and natural environments interact. The form becomes secondary to the more the pragmatic processes of capturing [water and sunlight], filtering [air] and creating habitat”.
Sustainability was embedded within the brief of the competition. The steel and concrete used within the project contain high levels of recycled content. The lighting of the sculpture at night is powered by the integrated solar panels and the natural vegetation is maintained with rainwater collected on site.
When running the competition Transurban had to allow for the possibility of an artist winning the competition and had therefore arranged for the winning design to be documented and delivered by Tract Consultants. For design professionals accustomed to the process of documenting and delivering projects this might have been a strong point of contention. However Drysdale, Myers and Dow were relaxed about this process, having great faith in the team at Tract to deliver on their design.
“On any large project you need to be willing to allow a project to evolve.”
Perhaps the most unusual aspect to this project is that within our city it is one of very few places where vegetation is encouraged and people are specifically excluded. Whilst Melbourne is fortunate to be well serviced with parks and vegetation it is very difficult to think of any other such space where people cannot visit. For some, such as the outspoken Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, this is a missed opportunity. He described Habitat Filter as “too intrusive” and just “a road with some stuff that you look at”. The issue of pedestrian access is an interesting one that the winning design team did consider carefully.
“Our design response aims to facilitate an open discussion about the meaning of public spaces. By addressing sustainability on a number of levels, Habitat Filter provides our community with a living, breathing sculpture and an opportunity for education and cultural engagement. We encourage all contributions to this conversation.”
Due to the nature of the site within the freeway context, pedestrian and public connection into the loop site was ruled out as an available option. This however creates a unique opportunity to provide dedicated space back to flora and fauna. A “human” free zone.
Visiting the site today, whatever you might think of the sculptures, it is still just a work in progress. Whilst the built environment components are complete, the natural environment is only just getting started. Over time the steel mesh will be used as scaffolding for creepers to grow, and the bird boxes will become nesting spots for Melbourne birdlife. The true measure for this site will be how well the natural elements will thrive within the hostile setting that surrounds the site.
“It is not designed for today when it is opened, it is designed for five, ten or fifteen years down the track”
The decision for Transurban to hold a design competition and invest in the built environment in this way is to be applauded. As a result of this commitment, our city has a new multifaceted sculpture that is a provocateur of thought, and a unique environmental refuge. As our city continues to grow and evolve, it will only become more important to allow spaces such as the Power Street Loop, where the natural environment can thrive alongside the built environment.
Architecture is for everyone.