What are we to make of the Apple Flagship Store at Federation Square?

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Earlier in the year I went to an exhibition at the Design Museum in London about the influence of Californian design on the whole world. One of the original Apples built by Steve and the Woz was in the exhibition. It was great to see how primitive it seemed, then I kind of forgot about Apple for a bit. Even though, I was surgically attached to my my iPhone 7 plus. Apple design is so clever and I was living the Apple dream without even noticing.

But, then a few days ago there was an eruption of outrage in my social media feeds. OMG!!! Apple were knocking down a big chunk of Federation Square to replace it with an Apple store and the Koorie Heritage Trust (will the new Apple building acknowledge country?) has to move. Apple are building a flagship store on that most loved of Melbourne sites Federation Square. Thankfully, the Koorie Heritage trust, or at least that is what we are told, is moving across the way, to the Alfred Deakin Building, on the other side of Federation Square.

So Apple is going to take over Federation Square. Another bit of creeping and insidious privatisation of public space in the city. The outrage on Twitter was incessant.

So, what about all of the other moments in the history and memory of the city when public space has been eroded and privatised in the city? As the Melbourne architect Stuart Harrison famously once said: try riding your skateboard down the so-called lanes of the QV development. It’s not long before the low paid security guard tells you it is private land and turfs you out.

Of course, it would be easy for me to say horror, outrage and sacrilege and jump onto Twitter etc. But then again Professor Donald Bates, whom readers should note that I work with at the Melbourne School of Design, one of the original designers of Federation square, is in support of the Apple proposal. Donald Bates stated:

The design of Apple Fed Square is necessarily of a different and distinct architectural vocabulary. We would abhor a faux-LAB Architecture design, replete with triangles and shifted geometries. The Foster Associates design is simple, pure and of its own aesthetic. Its success will lie in how it maximises the civic nature of Fed Square to form a tight connection with events and activities, bringing an engaging program of debates and discussions, as well as offering a new vista onto the Yarra River.

So given this argument, perhaps we need to think through the issues and fault lines at play here. So, let’s not jump onto the Trumpian cycle of social media Outrage vs. Outrage. Evil Apple versus People who love Fed Square (now).  So, without taking an immediate position of media Outrage here are a few questions to consider:

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Q: Why are the political hacks suddenly interested in Architecture and Urbanism ? 

Suddenly all the politicians got interested in Architecture, Apple and Federation Square. The collision of place branding and technology tends to get them out of the woodwork. It was an unlikely cohort, Adam Bandt (the Greens), Jeff Kennett (neoliberal liberal) and even Senator Derryn Hinch (independent centrist crusader) had something to say about it.

James Norman in the Guardian wrote as if the store was going to destroy Fed Square as we know it. His bio states the he is “a Melbourne-based writer and author of the book, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.” Obviously someone with a deep and abiding interest and knowledge in architecture and urbanism.

The Sun Herald was probably the worst. 

I just wish these people would be more interested in architecture and urbanism when it matters. I don’t see this motley bunch saying much about the lack of affordable housing or the crap towers now adorning our city. Nor do this group seem to do much every time a bit of our 1960s or 70s modernist or brutalist heritage gets knocked over in the name of development.

A: It’s like a brand collision, a car crash of the big brands:  Melbourne, Fed Square, Crazy Architecture, and the biggest brand of all APPLE. Thats enough to get the political opportunists, who I am sure hope, to build their own little brands by being a part of the ecology of outrage. 

Q. Why don’t we have politicians who can talk more with more nuance when it comes to issues concerning public space or new projects?

This question is, I admit a particular bugbear of mine, and of course a number of state politicians jumped in with the hyperbole in defense of the project:

“The tourism minister, John Eren, said the store would bring millions more visitors to Victoria and breathe new life into Federation Square.”

The trade minister, Philip Dalidakis, said the deal “reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as the undisputed tech capital of Australia and creates hundreds of ongoing jobs in the process.”

I draw your attention to some of the above phrases that were probably dreamed up by their junior advisors and spin doctors: “millions more visitors”,“breathe new life” (Fed Square wasn’t dead), “undisputed tech capital”, “hundreds of ongoing jobs” (all casual retail).

A: Because they are ignorant when it comes to architecture. 

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Q. We all live in the Apple economy now, so why be hypocritical?

Every now and then I ask my architecture students if they have Samsung or Apple phones. They all say Apple. So what is wrong with the Apple building given that most architects in town own Apple phones, perhaps we have turned a blind eye to Apples cross-border taxation arrangements or who makes actually makes the stuff. So given this blindness then what is now wrong with the having an Apple store at Federation Square. Is it any different to crafting your architectural or personal brand and career through Instagram on your iPhone ?

A. Apple’s success is its ubiquitous invisibility. Are we not, already as architects, totally embedded in the Apple economy? Do we not love Apple because of its design ethos?

Q: At what point, prior to its completion, do we judge the Foster and Partners design?

I am not sure about the Foster and Partners design. The design looks like one of those things old star architects, and their interns do, when they have run out of ideas. Just put together a bit of minimalist, and proportioned to an inch of its life, faux classicism with some smoochy and luxurious materials. Design it like a temple and make it “disappear” with transparency via glazing. A lawyer friend said it looked like a pagoda. Maybe, thats the easy way to build next to an already significant architectural building. There is an example of this type of thing here. It is not an unknown design strategy.

But maybe this design is actually a piss-take on Apple. Who knows? If Phillip Johnson was alive and had proposed it, that might be so. Also, and arguably, maybe Denton Corker Marshall could have done a better job than Foster and Partners. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of the building itself, the increased amenity seems likely, but lets wait and see how the thing actually pans out when it is built. I probably won’t be able to tell until it is built. It could be great, or pretty good, but I would prefer to wait and see in this instance.

A: Maybe when it is built. 

Q: Is urbanism just all about the brand now

It is unfortunate, if not outrageous, that we need an Apple Store to financially support a civic space like Federation Square. We need one of the biggest brands in the world to support the biggest and most important civic space in the city.

Architecture is a global system and brands circulate in that system, in Melbourne in many respects, Federation Square ushered in the idea of the iconic building as a global brand and nowadays, it’s all about the brand. The central Melbourne grid is now part of a property market, if it hadn’t always been, firmly embedded within the circuitry of global capital. This is evidenced by the privatisation of public assets, the commercialisation of public facilities, the private management of public spaces, developer driven regulatory frameworks and the product design of property assets.

A: Yes, and architects need to recognise and counter this. 

Q: Do Australian architects have the theoretical instruments and maturity to cope with global competition? 

Lord Foster and Partners is coming to town; and globalisation has always meant that architects like Foster would come to town. The winning design of Federation Square by Lab Studio Architects was announced in July 1997 and completed in 2002. It was a shock to the Melbourne system as Lab Architecture was not part of the Melbourne’s entrenched architectural networks of architecture schools and various tribal cliques.

Lab had a new way of practicing, that seemed to rankle with the entrenched networks, a way that seemed to say that architects were advocates, equal partners with policy and decision makers. The contractors hated this approach. Lab never got another job in the town again.

My worry is that architects and urbanists in Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, have not developed the theoretical instruments, advocacy skills or research and industry infrastructure to contend with the worst excesses of branded architecture in the global system.

A: I don’t think they do. 

Q: What should have happened? 

A1: The better solution would have been to have given Donald Bates and Lab Architecture the job

At least that way Melbourne could have been absolutely sure we weren’t getting a ironic piss-take building or more than a techno temple for the international tourists. Maybe I would have liked more of that crazy triangle stuff and space frame stuff or something new  from Lab. Even the punters and the bogans love Fed Square now. Lab Architecture would have done a great job.

A2: A design competition would also have been a great idea.

If Apple’s, and all the Silicon Valley rhetoric about disruptive innovation is real, then a design competition would have been the way to go. I might have won that one. But that would have provoked even more outrage.

Architects and urbanists need to avoid the hypocrisies of piling outrage onto outrage. What we really need is better theoretical instruments to build our own capacities as advocates of architecture. Maybe then we can get better at theorising, recognising, and avoiding, the really schlocky outputs of corporate capitalism.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. Again, Thank you all for supporting the blog in 2017.

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