Archis 2009 #4

Guided by Unbuilt Ambition

— by and

For every decision made by a city – to build, to demolish, to extend, to renovate, to replan, to rezone – there exists countless alternate possibilities. The store rooms, plan drawers and hard drives of every architect’s office contain speculative proposals that, due to any number of reasons, will remain unrealized; destined to gather dust and fade from memory. Collectively, these projects form an alternate, invisible city, an archive of ideas and ambitions that never materialized.

Melbourne Unbuilt captures these architectural propositions in the form of an audio guide to this alternate city and ‘rebuilds’ each project through the voices of the architects who designed them. Drawn from a period of over fifty years, the thirteen projects for Melbourne’s CBD include large-scale public competitions, monuments, residential projects and speculative schemes that have sparked discussion about the shape of this city.

With a map and an iPod in hand, the audience is invited to stand on the real sites of these un-real projects, amongst all the noise and bustle of those spaces, to listen to an architect describe their unfulfilled ambition, and imagine a radically different place. Frustration, humor, and regret pervade these testimonies, as the architects’ ideas are at once possibilities for, and victims of, a metropolis of divergent agendas.

Here, we present three stops on this tour, each one guiding us toward an alternate future shaped by a unique and personal ambition for society.

Guide to Civic Responsibility: Edmond and Corrigan’s ‘Pyramid’

Our first stop is the Pyramid by Edmond and Corrigan, a 1986 competition entry to extend the State Library and Museum of Victoria. Edmond and Corrigan is notable for its critical contributions to Australian architecture since the 1970s, mostly through work in the Melbourne metropolitan area. The firm has developed a unique style derived from the forms, motifs, and materials of everyday buildings in Australian suburbia.

Peter Corrigan reflects on this proposal and describes the larger ambitions that informed it. These desires reveal Corrigan as not merely a guide to this project, but as a guide to the formation of a better society in general. By designing buildings that offer ‘an alternative way that you might live a life’, architecture might be capable of guiding the public and the government toward a more positive urban future.

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Peter Corrigan transcript

“Well, [the Pyramid] was an attempt to reinforce the Swanston Street frontage next to the [existing] library with a major civic presence. It was a type of stepped pyramid that went back from the footpath rather severely, and the public just slipped into the wall as it were. The old building interested me a lot, so there was an attempt to try and build a plaza into the project – in the middle of the site – that would engage with the old reading room and create a kind of ‘new reading room’. I think it had something to do with the scale of the street, the scale of the existing buildings, and the need for the government of the day to take some ownership of the artistic life of the town.

I’m inclined to think that architecture talks about issues of identity. Here we are as ‘Melburnians’ dare we say – or Victorians – rather than Australians. That interests me a lot. Buildings provide those thresholds we walk through or past, the mirrors that we look at. Aside from written texts, buildings provide more information about our past and present than any other record that we understand. So it is possible to build into buildings a lot of hope, ambition, aspiration – attributes that are not simply totted out as architectural responses – but that might offer some sort of ‘larger’ response, a type of more magical proposition to engage in a more imaginative way.

There are occasional moments when we understand what architecture can ‘do’ for us, and how it can change our lives positively. Particularly if we’re young we never forget. Those positive experiences are like first love affairs, or the first car, or the first trip interstate on a plane. They are indelibly imprinted on who we are and who we might be.

Books have become commodities, libraries have become supermarkets of information – and that’s important too; great buildings try to do everything, they can’t get it all right… but boy do they try.

I was more interested in the idea of a coherent society than I’ve ever been; interested in the nuances of architecture and how it might create a coherent and proud society. The responsibilities of architecture to reinforce social values, to behave properly in public, and not to be too engaged with some of architecture’s ongoing particular obsessions – the idea of the new, and the idea of vanguard thinking – all that very 20th century Modernist stuff. I really don’t think architecture is about that; it’s about larger more complex responsibilities.

This was an attempt to show the government a way that it could fulfill its responsibilities to the public of Melbourne and Victoria. A grand building, open generous spaces that went all the way down to the back, with vast halls for museum and display, and a vast plaza.

There was, just briefly, a point in time in Melbourne where some politicians thought that there might be an opportunity to build a major public facility, which you wouldn’t have to pay to enter, and which our children could go, and if the school system didn’t work, you might just get an education at the public library. That’s what interested me. It was an alternative way that you might live a life.”

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What stands today: As is so common, despite a winner being announced for the competition – of which this scheme was an entrant – it did not lead to a constructed outcome. After remaining vacant for a number of years, the public ambitions for this site were eventually overshadowed by commercial interests, resulting in the large mixed-use development that stands on the site today.

Guide to a Technological Future: Tom Kovak’s Icon Tower

Our next stop is to a motorcycle shop in Little Latrobe Street, site of the twelve-storey Icon Tower designed by Tom Kovak in 1996.

In the early days of the Internet, mobile telecommunications, and computer-generated architecture, this boutique apartment building engaged materials, technologies, and construction techniques on the edge of what was possible.

Seamlessly integrated with the consumer experience and financial promotion of the project, Kovac proposed a dynamic and evolving architecture conceived like a computer. Just as a computer can accommodate various upgrades to its software and hardware, the building anticipates these upgrades in technology which are included as part of the package. In this sense, the architect guides not only the design and construction, but also the way the occupants relate to the technology of the future.

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Tom Kovak transcript

“We proposed a twelve-storey building, which – if you look at the relation of the site, it’s about five meters wide and about seventy meters deep – would make a knife-edge thin structure. This was considered at the time by the Melbourne City Council to be overscaled for such a small site.

What was really significant about the project was that it questioned the fabrication and components of the building. Each floor plate was customized with a cellular structure, enabling it to scale up with a very non-traditional type of architectural response. Each floor had a very unique characteristic in the way it responded to the street-frontage and how the spaces within were actually utilized.

Due to the car parking problems – essentially we couldn’t have a ramp carpark configuration – we opted for a stackable car parking system which acted on a kind of hoist system, which means you could actually recall your car from the security of your own apartment through your mobile telephone or a remote device and the car would arrive waiting for you at the ground floor. This essentially meant there was no congestion of vehicles at street level at all. This system cleaned up that aspect of what we call ‘urban life’.

The 12 apartments were seventy-five percent sold before we even got to planning. So there was never any marketing at all, it was all word-of-mouth and general discussions we had in the six months leading up to submission, that enabled this building to be self marketed.

For a city which has no real aesthetic measures in planning, this was probably the first building that was ever subjected to them. We were then in a position where we either had a confrontation, or had to accept the fact that they were asking for a 25% reduction in the building to bring it in line with the current street frontage – which is at the moment about four or five storeys. We were trying to relate the project back to the urban setting of RMIT – which is up to twelve storeys – and to Elizabeth Street, which is even higher. So the density of the city is moving, and what we were trying to do was not fit into an urban setting of today, but pre-empt a city ten years in the future.

One of the other significant aspects of the building was its customization. You had choices in your environment, which would have customized furniture, customized interiors, and also came with a customized car. We very much assume that apartments come with certain kinds of whitegoods or certain facilities in the bathrooms – but we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to control the aesthetics down to a very fine detail. So we took the architecture to a kind of extreme and we designed in these aspects of technology, so that each apartment would have broadband – which at the time fifteen years ago was still in its primal stages – we looked at things such as Bluetooth, we understood that the mobile telephone was going to be the future so we looked at how we could tie the architectural intelligence back to a thing like the telephone, so you could actually control the apartment from the palm of your hand.

So upon purchasing the apartment, you actually have the pride of possession of a completely finished product. In a similar way to when you purchase a computer, it has certain software packages and the potential for upgrades, this apartment formed a shell of potential opportunities that was going to be upgraded for the consumer in the future. So in a way we produced a technological shift, where things can continuously grow with the architecture, not just as a building, but as part of the everyday experience and living tissue.”

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What stands today: In the fifteen years since Kovac’s scheme, the world has changed less than he anticipated. This portion of the city has remained relatively static in terms of density, leading the building to stick out just as the council had expected. Technologically, the communications infrastructure that was only emerging in the mid-90s – mobile phone integration, Bluetooth, broadband – have since become commonplace. While architecturally, this scheme remains a challenging prospect for even the most technologically-enabled construction team.

Guide to Spatial Engagement: LAB Architecture Studio’s Western Shard

‘Our final stop is Federation Square, Melbourne’s major cultural destination and a key public space in the city centre. Designed by LAB Architecture Studio following an international competition in 1996, Fed Square – as it is known by locals – was completed in 2003. Well, not ‘entirely’.

Controversially, a key urban element dubbed the ‘Western Shard’ was reduced from 22 to 6 meters in a decision taken by the Victorian State Government; some thought the shard negatively impeded the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The current Western shard shares the same footprint with the proposed taller form, but with no time to redesign, LAB agreed to reduce rather than remove the building. As Peter Davidson – founder of LAB along with Donald Bates – explains, the space that was once captured by this element now ‘leaks’, disrupting the spatial containment and the relationship of the public space with the cathedral opposite. The Shards as they were designed were intended to ‘guide’ the space, and to guide the public’s spatial engagement within it.

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Peter Davidson transcript

“The Shards should be thought of in the same way as we imagine and experience the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road. They are small elements that describe a residual component of land, which has now been eaten away and is in the ocean. And so the Shards are themselves small elements of the buildings that define in this instance ‘space’, not water. They try to appropriate that space and to make it part of the experience of the square and of the entire site. At the same time, when you swim amongst the Twelve Apostles, you feel like you’re in the ocean but there’s still land there. So it’s that ambiguity, it’s like an archipelago condition, and that’s what we were trying to create with the Shards.

It was partly a response to an expectation in the brief, that [St Paul’s] Cathedral was the most important urban player in this piece of theatre, and I have to be honest and say that we did not share that view. But it had a place here, and so what the two Shards were doing was like two hands; if you stand facing the cathedral, they were holding the space. And actually by compressing the space here, that building becomes part of the site, and it does so simply by holding and compressing the space. Almost like a gesture, and that’s exactly what they do.

[What was built] is an incomplete and partial experience of what was intended. I mean, it’s kind of weird as an architect, you don’t often get the chance to make full scale mock ups of what doesn’t work, but this is what we have done here. The space ‘leaks’, the enclosure that exists between the two shards and opposite the cathedral – it leaks to the sky, it leaks to the adjacent buildings – there just isn’t that containment. And I think that the more this is contained, the more the cathedral becomes part of Federation Square.

Now, to some degree we succeeded, because they turned the door [of the cathedral] from the western face to the southern face, because they had to acknowledge that there was something here saying ‘come and join us’. But, in a way, they haven’t been urban in the way that they’ve turned it, because it’s made a glass bank rather than a set of steps that people can sit on and be part of this space, even though they’re on the other side of the road.

What people don’t realize, is that making a public space that connects to a city on two faces – that are in fact six lane roads of traffic – is actually quite difficult. And it’s not a condition that really exists if you go through and look at historic precedents in Europe – there are very few spaces that have the same kind of relationship. Trafalgar Square is one that comes to mind, which is in essence a traffic island with some big fountains in the middle. It has now become public space through the stopping of that traffic, and it’s absolute direct engagement with the National Gallery.

In order to make these connections across the traffic, you have to be ‘willful’, you have to ‘do’ something, and this gesture of compression of the space to make [the cathedral] feel like it’s in the same space – even though there’s a road in between us – is why we did that.”

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What stands today: The difference between the proposed image and what was built is subtle at best; as far as unbuilt projects go, Federation Square definitively rests in the ‘built’ category. Despite this, LAB’s very public defense of this arguably minor detail of the larger scheme is a testament to their strong understanding and care for what makes a good public space.