FoI documents show how the poll-driven State Government pushed to finish Federation Square, writes Ewin Hannan.
Jeff Kennett had promised that Federation Square would become a Melbourne icon. Icons do not come cheap, nor do they come easy.
Melbourne's masterful architectural moment has been no exception to the rule. It has become a monument not just to a grand vision but to cost blow-outs, delays, and political posturing - much of it at the taxpayer's expense.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the project had been accelerated, at some cost, and sources this week confirmed that the State Government had pushed hard for it to be opened before the state election last year. It would stand as proof that Labor could get a major project up.
The Government got a partial opening, 10 days before Premier Steve Bracks called the poll. On the day there was much backslapping but behind the scenes, the picture was less rosy.
Just weeks earlier, the Federation Square project had resembled a mad house. Hundreds of extra workers were put on to ensure the project was ready by the proposed October 25 launch. Up to 1000 employees, including project managers, architects and builders' contractors, swarmed over the site in those final weeks.
According to Peter Seamer, Federation Square Management chief executive, tensions between his team, the Government and the developer, Multiplex, ran high. "Those last two months were like the battle of the Somme," he said this week.
A senior Government MP confirmed this week that Labor had made feverish attempts to get the project to the point where it could be opened. "The longer it went on, the more it became our f----up," the MP said. "We didn't want to go to the election with the community thinking: 'The damned thing isn't built'. It would have been a residual thing - 'You had a whole term and you still didn't fix it up'. We wanted to remove it as background noise and turn a lingering negative into a neutral or slight positive."
Since unexpectedly winning office in 1999, Labor had depicted Federation Square as symbolic of Kennett's city-centric excesses; a grandiose vision that paid little heed to the public purse.
But last year, with Bracks preparing for a November 30 election, senior Government figures realised it was in their interests to get the project open.
Cabinet authorised accelerated spending. In the months leading up to the opening, the project's monthly bill stood at $8 million, equivalent to $400,000 per working day.
"The Government was keen as mustard to get it open as soon as they could for all the bloody obvious reasons," Seamer said. "It was meant to be open a year earlier. There was just the political embarrassment. They also had an election coming up, which I'm sure was something on their minds."
Brought in by Labor to deliver the project, Seamer said it was he who nominated October 25 for the first-stage opening. He was not told by Bracks or Major Projects Minister Peter Batchelor that it had to occur before the election. "As a matter of fact, I think they deliberately didn't say it to me," he said. "I think they went out of their way to not state what may have been an obvious position (and) I wouldn't say that unless that's the case."
Hundreds of documents released last week to the State Opposition under FoI show how cost estimates for the project continued to blow out throughout last year.
Under the Kennett Government, Federation Square had already been subject to major cost overruns and delays. In 1996, the former government and the Melbourne City Council had announced construction would be completed by 2000 at a cost to taxpayers of $110 million. By August 1999, the forecast cost had ballooned to $262 million. After Bracks was elected, Labor promised to rein in costs but the blow-outs and delays continued.
In February last year, Federation Square management was forecasting a "best-case" completion cost of $394 million and a "worst-case" projection of $410.2 million.
By October 2, the forecast had risen to $429 million - the worst-case scenario had been exceeded even before the project had been partially opened.
The Government has refused to detail all costs associated with the extra overtime, resources and shiftwork required to achieve the opening. In the documents released to the opposition, individual figures have been "whited-out". One company, which did not want to be identified, said project sub-contractors "received written instructions last year telling us to work all necessary overtime to get the thing opened by the end of October before the election".
Both Batchelor and Seamer said the cost of the acceleration was about $1 million. But the Opposition's major projects spokesman, Phil Honeywood, said he believed the cost would be at least several million dollars.
The FoI documents reveal how the Government moved to rein in project costs straight after the opening. On November 1, a project consultant warned the Government that the latest cost forecasts were under threat from "significant additional expenditure" resulting from the acceleration of construction. That same day, Batchelor told Seamer to start a "reduction in resources".
Honeywood said this week he would pursue the Government to ensure the remaining monthly reports were released. "The Government's own paper trail exposes the fact that a pre-election opening was required, whatever the cost," he said. "After the state election, completion of the project occurred at a snail's pace."
Batchelor denies this. "It was costing us money by not finishing it," he said. "It was saving us money to open it."
He said the Government had wanted the square available to the public as soon as possible: "This was not determined by the election date, but when the work was finally finished."
Seamer said the cost of Federation Square represented a "lot of money, but isn't expensive for what's been achieved".
"The reason we pushed very hard was because basically if you looked at this place in September last year, I had hundreds of staff working here, churning through millions of dollars per month. I had to get the thing finished and I had to get them out."
But the FoI documents reveal how the decision to rein in costs provoked a fresh round of tensions between the Government, Seamer, Multiplex and various sub-contractors. Several parties had to press to have their bills paid.
On February 17 this year, Federation Square chairman Peter McMahon told the minister: "As you are aware, there is something of a crisis in the cash-flow of Federation Square. We are now unfortunately in a position where the trust fund no longer has monies to pay the bills."
On February 26, Multiplex director Simon Gray told the Government that delays in paying $10 million in outstanding bills were "causing major cash flow problems for all contractors involved".
"This situation is a time bomb ready to go off," Gray subsequently told Major Projects Victoria on March 3.
On February 28, Treasurer John Brumby intervened. He told McMahon that $14.2 million previously provided as an advance would be converted into a grant. The Government also told square tenants, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the National Gallery of Victoria, to pay rent.
The financial crisis has apparently passed. Seamer said the payment issues with Multiplex had now been resolved.
According to a report this month by the state's auditor-general, the total cost of the project, including fit-out costs, had risen to $473 million.
But Batchelor this week said the project still faced a $6 million shortfall and that Seamer's team would be required to make up the difference by attracting further private sponsorship.
"It is a great piece of public architecture and infrastructure," Batchelor said. "It is a great asset for Victoria. History will judge whether we get value for money out of it."
Peter Seamer: "Those last two months were like the battle of the Somme."
This week has seen a mix of good and bad news for the project. Seamer said the project's last big building, the three-storey pub Transport, had been hit by a fresh delay and was not scheduled to open until November.
The square is tipped to clean up the main categories in this year's RAIA Victorian Architecture awards next Friday, but new controversy has broken out over whether it is safe at night.
Seamer said there would come a point when all these controversies would be forgotten.
"Come back to Melbourne in 200 years' time," he said. "St Paul's Cathedral will still be there and so will Federation Square. We are building something that is unique. The only trouble is great projects usually have a line of, dare I say it, dead bodies lining up behind them. I'd prefer we weren't one of them."
- Ewin Hannan is an Age senior writer.
Federation Square is the creation of a new urban order on a site that had never before existed. More than just a new set of buildings, federation square is the new centre of cultural activity for Melbourne amidst network of technology, fast communication and high speed movement.
PROJECT: Federation Square
LOCATION: Melbourne, Australia
BUILDING TYPE: Recreational/Cultural, Commercial
ARCHITECTS: Donald L. Bates and Peter Davidson
CATEGORY: Urban renewal/Brownfield development
AREA: 10 acres
The metro trains, the Tram network and the Yarra River together provide a strong link to the site for the Melbournians.
The Square is conveniently accessed both by pedestrians from flinders station, the tram stops and the river and the vehicles from the two thoroughfares along the site.
Connectivity of the site is indicated by the multitude of metro and rail lines that pass through the Flinder’s Street station by the site.
LAND USE PATTERN:
Federation Square is familiar as a public building because it under-invests in floor area and over-invests in building quality.
A grand square joins seamlessly to the surrounding streetscape at Swanston Street.
It is a purely cultural and commercial facility with a complete absence of residential land use.
The federation square conforms to the reputation of Melbourne as a culturally vital city.
The development of Federation Square began in the mid 1990s as part of the Jolimont Rail Yard rationalization project that reduced the railway lines running parallel to the Yarra River from a total of 53 lines to 12.
The Government of the state of Victoria and the Melbourne City Council looked at the concept of developing a square over the rail lines and bringing down two universally disliked buildings called the 'Gas and Fuel' towers, that stood as a physical and visual divide between the city and its river.
Conceived as a public civic centre and meeting place, the Federation Square links the city’s central business district (CBD) north of the Yarra River to the river itself and the gardens and parklands across.
For decades the Jolimont rail yards have been an unsightly scar on the face of central Melbourne, cutting it off from the Yarra River. But now, Federation Square has been built on a deck over the top of these rail yards removing this sight from the city scape.
The construction of the deck beneath the Square is understood to be the largest expanse of railway decking ever built in Australia.
The deck is supported by over 3,000 tonnes of steel beams, 1.4 kilometres of concrete 'crash walls' and over 4,000 vibration-absorbing spring coils and rubber padding.
The deck is designed to support some of the most sensitive uses imaginable - galleries, cinemas, and radio and television studios - and it needed to isolate them from vibration and noise.
THE FRACTAL TECHNOLOGY:
The building represents the need for a common man to address public space as something, which generates variety and breaks out of the familiar.
Sandstone, zinc and glass have been used as cladding, structured within a triangular grid.
The modular system uses 5 single triangles to make up a self-similar larger triangular panel. Five panels following the same geometrical logic are joined together to create a mega panel that is mounted onto a structural frame.
The fractal façade system allows for individual buildings of the square to be differentiated from each other while simultaneously maintaining an overall coherence.
Façade panel comprising five tiles:
Maze of zig-zag corrugated concrete walls is a unique passive climate control system for the glazed atrium's north and south sections. Zig-zag profile doubles the cooling capacity.
Spread over an area of 40x40 metres, the labyrinth is positioned beneath the civic plaza and above the deck over the railway, using a space that would have otherwise been unoccupiable.
It simultaneously provides support for the plaza deck slab.
Cool air is pumped through the labyrinth's cells at night, which in turn cools the concrete walls. By day, air is again pumped through the cells, this time being cooled by the concrete. In winter the labyrinth's thermal mass maintains an inherent warming potential, which will be supplemented as required.
The system directs air to the atrium, introduced at floor level, dispersed by use of a low-velocity displacement system.
Equivalent to conventional air conditioning but using one tenth of the energy consumption.
The square is the civic and spatial component, establishing connections with the diverse context of the city and the surrounding urban and riverside landscape.
It opens to the surrounding streetscape and rises up one level towards the east, providing entry at an upper level to further buildings.
To distinguish it from the city's existing pavement, the square was surfaced in hand-laid (approx. 500,000) cobblestones of variegated colored Kimberley sandstone.
The sandstone paving has been laid in a patterned design. It comprises a series of overlapping stone tablets inlaid with layers of typographically scaled and interwoven texts.
The Federation Square has re-covered a ground and folded it back to the city
The design's geometry allows for a vast array of configurations and arrangements, from the largest scale public gathering of up to 15,000 people to intimate sites of relaxation and contemplation.
The atrium is a unique covered public space which provides a complement to the open plaza.
Symbolic of a public street running through the site.
Continuously open and publicly accessible, the atrium is emblematic of federation square's intended connection of city and river.
Interior volume-16 metres high and up to 20 metres across.
South atrium steps from the deck level over the railway down to the river side promenade offering transitional perspectives of the city beyond.
The deep space of this supporting frame acts as a thermal chimney, evacuating the build-up of hot air. the atrium space is conditioned by a passive-cooling system, using a low-level air displacement system to keep the atrium cooler than the outside temperature in summer.
To learn more, visit: Comparision Between Barbican Center, Federation Square, BatteryPark City & Jian Wai Soho
This presentation was created by: Meghna, Nivedita, Sunny, Ved (2005)