Federation Square and Birrarung Marr

Federation Square

Jeff Kennett, former premier of Victoria, announced an architectural design competition in 1997 for a new civic square in Melbourne, which received 177 entries from around the world. The aim of the project was to better connect Flinders Street to the Yarra River and to complement the neighbouring heritage buildings.

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The winner of the competition was LAB Architecture Studio. Originally estimated to cost between $110 and $128 million, the project experienced repeated cost blow outs and construction delays. The final cost of the project was over four times the initial budget, coming in at approximately $467 million. Construction began in 1998 and the building opened in 2002.

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Federation Square has been described as being part of a deconstructivist style; post-modern architecture that involves the manipulation and distortion of the structure.

Champion's Bar at Fed Square.

Demonstrated throughout the design of the square, director of LAB Donald Bates places emphasis on various aspects of human interactivity. The square is enveloped by the surrounding buildings in order to create a sense of intimacy and security. Buildings are designed with multiple axis points; each entrance serving as a transition zone, encouraging a more “incidental and accidental passage”.[1]

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The materials used are bluestone that matches the footpaths in Melbourne and ochre-coloured sandstone blocks from Western Australia that invoke a sense of the Australian outback. Various local artists designed pieces for the project, such as the plaza paving, which was designed as a huge urban artwork by artist, Paul Carter.

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Facilities within Federation Square include:

  • Melbourne Visitor Centre – contains an interactive news display promoting current events.
  • The Edge – theatre space that seats 450 people.
  • Zinc – event and function centre.
  • National Gallery of Victoria – houses Australian art collections.
  • Australian Centre for the Moving Image – 2 cinemas and interactive presentations.
  • Transport Hotel Bar – 3 storey restaurant, bar and lounge.
  • SBS – television and radio headquarters.
  • Melbourne Festival Headquarters.


Awarded the “World’s Fifth Ugliest Building” in 2009 by Virtual Tourist, many people took a dislike to the aesthetics of the newly built project. Over time Melbournians have learned to love the building, as evidenced by the 80 million plus people who have visited it since it opened.[2] Also a sign that public opinion is changing, Federation Square made an appearance on The Atlantic Cities’ 2011 list of “10 Great Central Plazas and Squares”.

Birrarung Marr

Formally a rail yard, Birrarung Marr is an inner-city park created as a result of the reorganisation of infrastructure and land uses near Federation Square. The site is a contemporary landscape consisting of dramatic earth forms, formalised water courses, feature display planting and linking bridge structures.[3]

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Costing approximately $15.6 million to construct, Birrarung Marr was established through a joint venture with the City of Melbourne and the State Government of Victoria. Construction began in 2000 and the park opened in 2002.

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The area encompasses 8 hectares of land and is described as a “festival park” that can accommodate sporting and cultural events, such as Circus Oz and Moomba.

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Birrarung Marr was imagined as a series of open terraces, each with a robust surface to accommodate different events, such as grass, gravel and shell-grit.

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The park contains:

  • Federation Bells – inverted bells controlled by computer that sound 3 times a day.
  • Speaker’s Corner – historically used for public lectures, protests and demonstrations.
  • ArtPlay – historical railway building converted into a children’s art and cultural centre where workshops are held.
  • William Barak Bridge – allows pedestrian access over CityLink and railways.
  • Angel – sculpture by artist, Deborah Halpern.

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Federation Square East Development

An extremely sought-after piece of land, according to a list compiled by the industry group of 20 publicly owned Melbourne properties, Federation Square East is worth $4.6 billion.

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LAB Architecture Studio were commissioned by the state government to propose a design that utilised the space above the Jolimont rail yards. The design included a market hall, retail outlets, a corner hotel and commercial developments surrounding a major green urban park used for festivals, exhibitions and entertainment. The proposal was modelled on Chicago’s Millennium Park, a big tourist attraction also developed in order to cover an unsightly rail yard and to connect a body of water to the city. Opposition leader at the time, Ted Baillieu, ridiculed the proposed redevelopment. A flythrough of LAB’s proposal can be viewed here.

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Donald Bates believes that allowing developers to take over the site will not benefit Melbourne in the long run: “I think the government has been trying to look at ways to develop it without spending any public money, but I think there is a risk of an over-commercialised project.”[3]

Controversy over a new public design proposal is not always a bad thing. Community reaction can spark conversation between stakeholder groups regarding the creation of spaces that address the needs of the users. Similar to the principals adopted by Streets Without Cars, this dialogue results in a deeper understanding of community character and in turn, makes for a more versatile design.


  1. Scott McQuire and Nikos Papastergiadis; The Evolution of Federation Square; Australian Design Review; October 2012
  2. Ibid.
  3. Melbourne CBD Waterfront. Birrarung Marr, Federation Square. Australia; A + T Architecture Publishers; May 2012
  4. Aisha Dow; Federation Square extension plan unveiled; The Age; November 2013

Image sources

  1. Aerial view of the south of Melbourne’s CBD, copyright Michael Evans.
  2. Aerial view of Federation Square, copyright the author.
  3. Champion’s Bar at Federation Square, copyright the author.
  4. Time Out Cafe at Federation Square, copyright Fed Square Pty Ltd.
  5. Federation Square tiles, copyright Farsouth.
  6. SBS Headquarters, copyright Donaldytong.
  7. Aerial view of Birrarung Marr, copyright John Gollings, Ron Jones and the State Library of Victoria.
  8. Shell-grit surface at Birrarung Marr, copyright Ben Wrigley and Swaney Draper.
  9. Birrarung Marr, copyright Luke Tscharke.
  10. Children’s Play, copyright City of Melbourne.
  11. Federation Bells, copyright James Henry.
  12. Google Earth map of the south of Melbourne’s CBD, copyright the author.
  13. Chicago Millennium Park, copyright the author.