What is Federation Square?
A heritage listed public space opposite St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne, Federation Square is home to several of the city's cultural institutions including the National Art Gallery, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Melbourne Festival and the Australian International Beer Awards.
On top of this it has hosted a wide range of events and protests such as the No War rally of 2003, Melbourne's largest ever peaces rally; the Tanderrum Festival, a celebration of the land's indigenous peoples; and the 200 years of Australian Fashion exhibition.
It is home to several bars and cafes, a winter garden and an amphitheatre with a huge outdoor screen which has been used to broadcast everything from World Cups to a presidential apology.
Despite all this it remains a controversial space that many locals either did not want or expected more from.
High Expectations on Federation Square
Melbourne's CBD was originally planned without any kind of public square. Many saw this as a major omission and since as early as 1920 there were talks of putting this right.
Propositions were made to roof Flinders St Station's railyards and develop a square on top. To begin with however this suggestion was ignored in favour of another plan.
A temporary square was made on the corner of Collins and Swanston St in 1968. Despite not being much of a success, this was made permanent in 1981 and until the 1990s struggled to satisfy the desire for a central public space.
It was eventually redeveloped as a plaza in front of a large hotel and, in 1996, plans for a new square were announced, this time making use of the proposals made in the 1920s to roof Flinders St Station. This square would open in 2001 on the 100th birthday of the Australian Federation, and so would be called Federation Square.
A architectural design competition was announced and, from 177 entries, a winner was chosen.
The winning design featured a complicated array of interlaced geometric shapes, sloping angular floors and an estimated $110-128m in construction costs. It was popular with the design community but immediately raised the public's eyebrows. Was this the square the city needed? In fact did the city need a square at all?
A Bad Start for Federation Square
This initial scepticism grew when delays and revisions lead to the square's cost swelling to $467m and to it not opening until October 2022. Add to this the fact that many locals thought it ugly and confusing and it is hard not to call it a flop.
Its reception was so bad its designers received hate mail.
Despite this, the government doubled down on their commitment to it, expanding it further in 2006. And with this the negative responses only grew. It was named Vitual Tourist's fifth ugliest building in the world in 2009, becoming a figure of international ridicule.
Federation Square is Listed
The square hosted many successful events but its detractors remained vocal and its supporters few until a major controversy in 2017.
The local government announced one of the square's buildings was to be torn down to make way for a free-standing Apple store. People were understandably outraged. Why was this public space being sold off to a private company?
Widespread outcries called for the square to be listed to prevent this from happening and, in the face of this pressure, the government backed down. Apple retracted their plans and in 2019 a heritage listing was presented protecting the square from future incursions.
Today it remains a divisive place but all the more interesting for it. It is well worth a visit if you are in Melbourne CBD.
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