From the archives: Southern Cross Station

September 10, 2009

Ahead of its completion in 2006, Hamish Lyon reviewed Grimshaw’s take on the modern transportation hub.

Architect’s statement
Melbourne has developed as a well-structured city. The CBD and its surrounding areas are vibrant, with its people enjoying the life and character of its streets. The recent expansion of the Hoddle grid westwards, beyond its original limit at Spencer Street, is essential in sustaining Melbourne’s Docklands. With this in mind, our primary consideration was that the station’s plan should occupy a city block: its extent should be defined by its roof; its users should activate the streets that define it. The station should thus be entirely subservient to its urban setting. Nonetheless, from a transport perspective we also set out to make the railway journey more enjoyable and for the trains to be visible from the city. As a building we wanted the design for Southern Cross Station to make thoroughly good sense. By this we mean that the proposed station plan should be straightforward and understandable to the user. The building’s envelope should adequately define and protect the interior; and the roof and its structure should allow for off-site construction and long-span erection and not preclude future rail expansion. Our ambition for a low energy station led to the roof geometry, which was generated to let the station ventilate itself naturally. The elongated moguls act as reservoirs over which the prevailing wind creates negative extraction pressure for diesel smoke and stagnant air. This eliminates the need for ongoing energy consumptive air-conditioning or large and visually obtrusive diesel extraction systems. By seeking a performative solution, rather than an architectural proposition, the project’s essence has remained unchanged through the political, contractual and financial process.

With the building approaching its completion, it is important to reflect on its qualities. With the roof lifted so high, and the facades as transparent as possible, the vistas within and from the station work well. The scale feels right for the city and reinforces a legacy of grandeur on Spencer Street. The station is also helping with the growth and the difficult connection between the city and the Docklands, as well as the regeneration of the western CBD. Grimshaw has become encouraged to remain in Australia and to establish a permanent office to compliment those in London and New York.

Grimshaw has become encouraged to remain in Australia and to establish a permanent office to compliment those in London and New York.

Icon Fever
The new Southern Cross Station by Grimshaw architects in association with Jackson Architecture has claim to being a major new urban landmark in Melbourne despite the unenviable political tag of ‘world class icon’. It is due to be ready as part of the Commonwealth Games experience and provide a symbol of Victoria’s growth in the national and international arenas.

At an ideological level the project reveals an ongoing debate over the role of the public institution in the contemporary city and a growing dislocation between public architecture and public interest. In contemporary culture this issue is constantly shadowed by the blurred relationship between the private and the public, and the reality that most public infrastructure projects in Victoria are funded through private sector financing. The political dimension of this cross over relationship is being felt in Sydney, with the privately financed cross-city tunnel falling short of the public’s expectations and traffic queuing patience. This places the architect at the centre of a Faustian deal, caught between the egalitarian needs of the public citizen and commercial demands of a market economy.

The public private partnership debate is evident in recent State Government television advertisements, which herald Victoria as the home of world-class businesses. The new Southern Cross Station has been drawn into the fray. One of these advertisements depicts an animated young man sitting on a train telling us that the station will connect new Melbourne (the Docklands) with old Melbourne (the city grid), followed by a woman who informs us that she has arrived from Warrnambool today and will return tomorrow. This is a lecture on the relevance of Public Architecture compressed into a 10 second sound bite: an attempt to explain the project to both the local Melburnian and the country Victorian.

As a culmination of this process the existing name has been re-branded from Spencer Street Station to the Southern Cross Station in an attempt to engender a sense of the ‘new’, convey the message that the development is providing more than just a new railway station and to avoid any prejudice against regional patrons.

Local or Global
Grimshaw architects have challenged this climate of uncertainty with a confident project grounded in their extensive international experience in transport and urban infrastructure projects. Established in London in the early 1980s by the founder Sir Nicholas Grimshaw the practice also brings a deep connection to the traditions of English architecture, which extend back to the days of the industrial revolution and the power of the British Empire during the 19th Century. As Sir Nicholas Grimshaw states on the firm’s website, the practice is “fundamentally forward looking but nevertheless has strong roots in the past, in the heroic structures of Paxton and Brunel but also in the great sailing ships, barns and cathedrals which form part of our history.”

The web message also contains an endorsement of the modernist tenet that certain materials are functionally appropriate, and therefore it embodies the idea of beauty. Grimshaw has taken his personal vision from its London epicentre and applied it to the urban landscape of Melbourne. The concept for this project is clearly grounded in the typology of the grand European Railway stations of London, Paris and Madrid. In this case, the figure of the great 19th century station hall has been transformed from a single arched or vaulted span into a dynamic and undulating surface of peaks and troughs. The project also operates within the contextual imagery of global transportation hubs; despite its newness you feel as though you have landed here before. This raises the issue of whether the project is intellectually grounded in its Melbourne context or is the projection of a generic or international ideology. The answer lies in the response to the particular urban context.

The Station and the City
The site is located on the western edge of Melbourne’s original grid and the threshold of the emerging Docklands precinct. Historically it marked the shift between Robert Hoddle’s orderly 19th century geometry and a network of rail yards and industrial warehouses. Beyond the physical terrain, the site exists in the memory of most living Melburnians as a precinct inhabited by the slightly dangerous fringe dweller, or disoriented country folk looking for familiarity within a strange new world. The urban strategy for the project was to use the public function of the station to knit together these two urban conditions and engage with the extensions of both Collins Street and Bourke Street as part of the city’s public promenades. This is reinforced by the primary entry on the corner of Collins and Spencer Street, which provides a seamless transition from the footpath to the station’s main concourse. The draped glass skin suspended above further accentuates the connection between the interior of the station and the city’s street life. A further critical decision by the design team was to extend the platforms northward to allow them to be accessed at street level allowing the interstate trains to engage with the main public concourse while the suburban lines are feed by escalators from an upper level promenade.

Lumps and Bumps
When viewed from the panoramic vistas afforded by the high-rise towers and tourist lookouts at the western end of the city, the undulating terrain of the roof is a remarkable spectacle. It has become the emblematic image for the project. Yet it is the interior of this terrain, which was the generative condition. The lumps and bumps response to a passive ventilation system to deal with the emission of diesel fumes from the trains. Unlike the original 19th century examples of a single barrel vault the project team investigated alternate models in order to prevent the emissions from remaining trapped within the station’s roof. The mogul forms, combined with ventilation hoods at the peaks, were developed in parallel with the prevailing wind conditions to produce the final articulation of the roofscape. The nominal misalignment of the roof’s primary geometry from the city’s grid is the recognisable outcome of this empirical research. The interior hall is also defined by the serpentine steel structure designed to allow each of the module spans to be erected incrementally while the station remained operational. As a counter point to the subdued colours of the ceiling and structure there are two bright orange pods facing out towards Spencer Street. Raised on tapering steel legs, these pods provide a necessary break in the monumental scale of the station hall and generate a secondary landscape under the ever present roofscape.

Grimshaw architects have completed a complex project in difficult circumstances. The result is a considered piece of urban architecture and a major contributor to the redefinition of Melbourne’s West End. It is ambitious in its attempt to reinstate the civic nature of public architecture and to provide a level of amenity commensurate with the station’s city and regional status. The call for the project to be named a Melbourne icon will only be played out with time and the entanglement of public and personal histories: or one can apply the more traditional and parochial form of judgment by waiting to see if it makes the cover of next year’s telephone book.

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