Federation Square heritage council submission

The Heritage Council of Victoria is accepting public submissions for a potential heritage listing of Federation Square. Here’s my response.

I endorse the inclusion of Federation Square in the Victorian Heritage Register. I generally support the recommendations of Heritage Victoria and the Executive Director in terms of the extent of registration and the permit policy/exemptions. I also wish to draw to the attention of the Council the submissions prepared by the Victorian National Trust, Simon Reeves for the City of Melbourne, and Professor Graeme Davison on the importance of civic and public places.

I think it is fair to suggest this is one of the most high-profile nominations brought to the Heritage Council in recent years. It is also one of the most important because the Council has an opportunity to protect and shape the future of the leading public and civic space in Melbourne, Victoria and perhaps Australia. Thousands of hours of paid and pro-bono work have gone into preparing the hundreds of submissions before the Heritage Council, and as many hours if not more have been dedicated to drawing public attention to Federation Square given its current at-risk status.

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I believe that the Heritage Council must enter a listing into the Victorian Heritage Register of Federation Square in order to fulfil its statutory role. No doubt Federation Square exceeds the threshold requirements for Criterion A, D, E, F, G and H. I wish to echo the comments of other submissions when I write that age does not preclude a heritage listing of Federation Square. Sufficient time has passed for the cultural heritage significance of the place to be rationally identified and for a conservation policy to be developed.  It is one of the most celebrated places in the State, not only for architects, planners and historians, but also for tourists and the citizens of Victoria.

In the remainder of this submission, I propose additional substance for Criterion A and G. I draw on the notions of ‘historical’ and ‘social’ value contained within the Burra Charter (2012) and related Australian and international heritage management approaches. These approaches adopt the terminology ‘historical value’ and ‘social value’ to refer to the notions of cultural heritage significance that are intended by Criterion A and G respectively (among others). This additional substance is intended to inform the citation and permitting policy.

When it comes to the Federation Square registration, the Heritage Council has an opportunity to adopt leading contemporary thinking around heritage. The focus of the Executive Director recommendation and the other submissions that I have been privileged to read have been on the ways that the existing historic fabric of Federation Square possesses cultural heritage significance. While I agree, this line of reasoning does not adequately capture the full richness of the significance, both historical and social, that Federation Square possesses. It also does not sufficiently account for the Civic and Cultural Charter under which Federation Square is governed, its objective defined as the provision of a public space for the city.

Rather, it is equally crucial that the Victorian Heritage Register listing for Federation Square also protects the ‘sense of place’. This idea has been variously referred to as the ‘spirit of place’, ‘feel of place’, ‘familiarity of place’ and ‘power of place’. While the spirit of a place is tied to historic fabric – what has been designed and built, which today is seen and touched – it is also intangible. The sense of a place is about the relationship of a heritage site to people and communities, both right now and historically.

A heritage listing must capture the sense of a place. Key reports prepared by the Heritage Council, Heritage Victoria, and its federal and state forerunners, have identified that a ‘sense of place’ overlaps with cultural heritage significance and produces social and historical value. A ‘sense of place’ is just as much about the historic fabric of a site as about what the heritage place means and does for the community. In 1990, Joan Domicelj and the Australian Heritage Commission published a report on this topic, and these ideas then circulated widely including in revisions to the Burra Charter. The idea of a ‘sense of place’ for heritage places is tied to urban thinkers of the 1970s–90s. Yi-fu Tuan wrote on the ways people relate to places, Jonathan Raban on the ‘soft city’, Kevin Lynch on familiarity and landmarks, and Dolores Hayden on the ‘power of place’. These are not new ideas, but it can be difficult to explicitly translate these abstract ideas into practical classifications.

However, there are successful instances of conserving a sense of place in Victoria. An example is the heritage listing for Flinders Street Station. It identifies ‘the steps under the clocks at the entrance of the main station building have been a popular meeting place for generations of Melburnians’. When a proposal was made to transform the analogue clocks into digital clocks, this was rightly opposed because it would have too dramatically impacted the sense of the place. It would not necessarily matter to me whether the clock faces or mechanisms were replaced with some new analogue parts and pieces. But any broader changes to this historic environment needs to be in keeping with the sense of the place – as conjured within the Flinders Street Station heritage listing when it speaks of the steps, the clocks, and the historical and social aspects of this space. As Melburnians and Victorians, we intrinsically know precisely what is being protected here, both historically and socially, but a person with no familiarity of Melbourne would be hard-pressed to know exactly what is being conserved or the reasons this is the case.

Federation Square requires an analogous approach to Flinders Street. It is of a larger scale and performs a significant function for Melbourne and Victoria. The Executive Director Report and many other submissions have identified the ways in which Federation Square is crucial for the public and civic life of our city. But Federation Square is also a public and civic place in itself, generating its cultural heritage significance. There are specific sections of Federation Square where this public and civic character is especially produced. This ‘publicness’ and ‘civicness’ is intrinsic to the sense of place produced by Federation Square, and so is what means this place has significance, historical and social value.

The reasons that Federation Square has cultural heritage significance for civic and public reasons has been detailed elsewhere. Many examples have also been provided as to how this civic and public pre-eminence was achieved. I will briefly summarise. Federation Square’s social value is demonstrated by the ways the community is attached to this place, its use for civic and public purposes, and the important role it plays as a local landmark (as at Flinders Street Station). Its historical value is demonstrated by its embrace by Victorians not only over the past decade, but also as the culmination of more than a century of unsuccessful attempts at building a Melbourne town square. As Professor Davison writes, the historical significance of Federation Square begins not with the design competition of the 1990s, but in the nineteenth-century with the debates around the possibilities of a civic life within this settler-colonial city.

If we accept that the civic and public character of Federation Square is essential to its cultural heritage significance, this civic and public character must be identified, listed and conserved. This is a key challenge for Federation Square and for the Heritage Council. In my view, it is not the historic fabric that is the primary generator of the civic and public character of this place. It may well not be a stretch to suggest that the public and civic importance of Federation Square has emerged in spite of its architecture and design, given the mixed views among the community about the architecture of this place. (We rightly accept that places can be protected even if they are not universally appreciated for aesthetic reasons.)

The point is that the civic and public importance of Federation Square will not be protected if the heritage listing only focuses on aesthetics, architecture and historic fabric. To do so would be erroneous, because it would be a failure to capture the richness of social and historical values contained within this place. Further examples of civic and public places will help to illustrate my point. Architecture of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century, which have a civic and public role in our cities, are straightforwardly protected today. The neoclassical architecture of Parliament House and the Supreme Court is immediately associated with their civic and public role. The Shrine was deliberately designed as an elevated temple, to rise at the conclusion of a ceremonial way. So long as the architecture and historic fabric of these buildings are conserved, along with their setting, the civic and public nature of them are in essence protected.

While Federation Square is also ultimately owned by the Crown and its ongoing public use is ostensibly assured, there are some ongoing risks here. The proposal to demolish the Yarra Building for a supersized retail store is one of them. Another is the increasing commercialisation of Federation Square, particularly the hiring of it by corporations that are not publicly-spirited such as gambling companies. Meanwhile, community groups are increasingly locked out of using Federation Square due to the high costs of hire. As recent discussions over the Sydney Opera House have demonstrated, a situation echoed in other places such as the Acropolis of Athens, heritage only has so much power to prevent these kinds of overly-commercial activities.

What heritage can achieve at Federation Square is the protection of the ‘sense of place’. How do we protect the civic and public aspects of a place when these aspects have not been primarily generated by its architectural style? This requires an engagement with the everyday life of Federation Square and the responses and usage by Victorians. Hundreds of responses to this place have been submitted to the Heritage Council. Usage should be characterised as the way we walk through the space, surround ourselves in its nooks and crannies, and share experiences and memories of having been there (virtually and physically).

Figure 1: LAB Architecture Studio, Federation Square Design Competition Display Board, 1995/96,
State Library of Victoria, CC BY.

As at Flinders Street Station, the area of Federation Square that is most important from a civic and cultural perspective can be readily identified. The heritage listing should emphasise the publicly accessible and particularly the outdoor spaces: (1) The Square, or public plaza and (6) The Atrium (numbers per Executive Director Report, page 27). In the original plans prepared by LAB Architecture Studio in 1995/96, ‘The Square’ was called the ‘Civic Square’ (Figure 1). The ‘Physical Description’ of the site should be updated to refer to Item 1 as ‘Civic Square’. Furthermore, the ‘Civic Square’ should be divided into three sections. Each section of the ‘Civic Square’ is fundamentally different. At the very least, three sections of the Public/Civic Square exist: (1A): Central Civic Square [in front of the large screen]; (1B) Steps and Congregating Areas; (1C) Labyrinthian Entranceways [from Flinders, Swanston and Yarra River entrances].

These four distinctive public and civic spaces (three outdoors, one indoors) must be identified and protected in the listing for their varied ‘civic’ and ‘public’ character. Criterion A and G already provide some guidance here, along with existing listings and some thinking around Federation Square. 

To preserve the public and civic character of Federation Square is possible. Given this character generates its cultural heritage significance, its sense of place, it is an imperative that it is conserved through the listing and permitting process.

From a fabric perspective, any proposal which alters the scale, aesthetic or texture of these four spaces has the potential to change the civic and public sense of this place. Alterations must be counter-balanced against the impacts for civic and public character. On balance, changes to the fabric at Federation Square could increase its civic and public character. After all, heritage is not about fixing places in an imaginary past state, but rather needs to operate dynamically for contemporary and future needs. That said, as a successful ensemble of buildings that has engendered ‘civic’ and ‘public’ importance, Federation Square would do better to remain physically unchanged (when also considering its high architectural significance). In other words, a consideration of civic and public outcomes must guide any future change at Federation Square.

Demarcating the four civic and public spaces provides an opportunity to identify the reasons each one is individually significant. I would suggest the most important of these four spaces is the civic square in front of the screen, and therefore that square requires the greatest degree of protection to ensure it retains its existing character through minimal to no changes to this individual historic environment (incorporating its surrounding/framing buildings). It is crucial the listing identifies the ways that memories, associations and meanings of this space must not be dislodged in future, which would occur with a dramatic change to its attributes. For instance, the existing enclosure of the main civic square contributes to its public and civic character. To reconfigure access to/from this main civic square – irrespective of whether the intention is to increase circulation, capacity or openness – would be destructive of cultural heritage significance. To change the boundaries or shape of this square would have a similar impact. It is not used or important as a space of flow or circulation but rather as a key civic gathering place for day-to-day relaxation and special public events. Future physical intervention into this space would too greatly impact the civic and public sense of the place.

There are additional factors that have contributed to the civic and public character of Federation Square. Commercial activity and branding within and viewable from public and civic spaces must be limited. Commercial activity to date has been generally publicly-spirited and those with permanent establishments are for the most part cafes, bars and restaurants, in the tradition of the European and Asian square. No single commercial operation dominates, and these kinds of hospitality places contribute civic and public life to the square. Irrespective of what may have been intended, this describes Federation Square as it has been since opening. The reason that people visit Federation Square is as a social, arts and cultural destination (see fedsquare.com). This is part of its social value.

Another tool available to the Heritage Council can be drawn from heritage planning. Areas can be protected for their function; in this case, civic and public rather than commercial or retail. A maximum floor space to be hired, leased, controlled or used for commercial purposes (both by a single entity and in total by all entities across the site) is suggested to safeguard the site’s civic role and cultural institutions. As this property is owned by the Crown, the Heritage Council has greater leeway to guide development and provide advice in future.

I have made only preliminary suggestions about the conservation of Federation Square’s civic and public character and its sense of place. There is greater scope to relate this character to the four public spaces identified. By doing so, it will be possible to adequately account for the cultural heritage significance of this specific late-twentieth-century place. By entering intangible civic and public factors as a dominant feature in the heritage listing means these would have to be considered as part of any future permit applications. Suffice to say, no additional permit exemptions should be granted.

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