Station to Station

November 15, 2013

University of Queensland doctoral student, Andrew Steen, analyses the recent Flinders Street design competition from an oblique angle.

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The Flinders Street Station redevelopment competition amassed 118 submissions. This number was reduced to a shortlist of 6 by a jury comprised of Victorian Government Architect Professor Geoffrey London, architects Cassandra Fahey and Peter Lovell, urban planners Professor Rob Adams and Caroline Bos, transport expert Gillian Miles, lawyer John Curtis, and restaurateur and Masterchef host, Melbourne mascot, George Calombaris.

We will not, here, evaluate the designs produced by the 6 shortlisted entrants, relative to each other or to the complete field. What this article will do is analyse one of the key – though perhaps most underrated – aspects of the submissions: the blurbs supplied by the entrants to summarise their proposal in less-than-50 words.

These small paragraphs are effectively the caption to the image of the project. It is the chance to frame the entrants’ argument, to subtly influence their reader-assessor’s perspective. According to art historian Ernst Gombrich, images themselves cannot lie, but captions can. While this will not be an exercise in pointing out explicit untruths, our investigation will show how the blurbs are working in what we can think of, using Roman Jakobson’s famous definition, as the “poetic function” – that aspect of the linguistic construct which focuses attention on the message – and how this relates to what might be framed as the objective, transparent and perhaps more ‘honest’ communication of the references involved. We will take each entry in turn, and see how the key words function.

Our first entry – the people’s choice award winner – was submitted by Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. They write:

“A courtyard within a station is an urban vision that respectfully embraces the site heritage whilst meeting the demands of a modern train station. It is a project for the people where a new urban forest will become the true heart of Melbourne.”

The two sentences of the blurb work independently. This becomes clear when focus is trained on the ambiguity of the word ‘It’: is the subject of the second sentence the ‘courtyard’, or the ‘urban vision’, or the ‘train station’, or something else? Obviously the authors would say, ‘all of the above’ – probably while shrugging their shoulders and looking slightly quizzical. This lack of clarity, however, is a mechanism for attaining a Chazz Michael Michaelsesque ‘provocative’ quality. The courtyard is, or is mistaken for, the urban vision, and the train station is conflated with the courtyard. It is perhaps little wonder ‘the people’ chose this entry. The part-to-whole relationship is blurred, and the image created in the mind of the reader becomes a shifting object, telescoping in and out in scale. By a sort of synecdoche, the courtyard seems a naturalised urban vision.

The effectiveness of this manoeuvre is exaggerated by the content of the two sentences. The first employs a time-honoured technique of duality: the courtyard embraces the old while meeting the new. Heroic architects of the early 20th century ironically quite selflessly helped produce this potential by their single-minded rejection of tradition, and what can be understood as their disrespectful relation to all that came before. Velasquez, Pineda and Medina’s first sentence, drawing this historical panorama, is expansive. Then the second sentence closes right in. It focuses on the body of ‘the people’. The two work in concert to create a vivid picture. We can imagine an animation: a suit-and-tie salary-person walks into the heritage façade, we zoom into the blood-filled beating heart in the chest, and we zoom back out to see a tree-and-deer filled woods. The scene appeals to the romantic spirit caught in a nine-to-five world.

An appeal to the reader’s inner-child also forms the base of Ashton Raggatt McDougall’s (ARM) blurb, which reads:

“Our scheme provides a new school in the iconic old building; brand new connections to platforms, city, and river; the riverwalk wanders over water and under a green roof ecology for plants and birds.”

The most attention grabbing element of this extended sentence – what Roland Barthes might call the punctum – is the nominalisation in the first clause. By writing the project “provides a new school”, the authors have taken the colloquial adjectival phrase ‘new school’, conceived in opposition to ‘old school’ and sometimes purposely spelled incorrectly as ‘skool’ to emphasise this revolution in at least one or the three R’s, and turned it into what can be read as an actual place of education. What does this do? Apart from drawing attention onto the awkwardly inserted ‘iconic’ that breaks the symmetry of ‘new school’ and ‘old building’, it infantilises the reader, or perhaps the reader’s jaded, cynical, urbanite self. It places them back in year one, into a position where the city’s forms are objects for creative play.

In this context the later personification of the riverwalk – itself an awkward hybrid: as if the river does not flow, or at least row or swim – is a piece of surrealist whimsy. One can imagine the riverwalk wandering over a body of clear blue still water, such as the Yarra, with a striped umbrella in hand, whistling as it ducks under the clichéd green roof, bluebirds chirping on its shoulder. The motif brings on a second childhood. Is this, perhaps, the metaphor ARM were aiming for?

NH Architecture’s blurb also has a syntactical punctum, but one that by contrast has none of the childlike sense of wander. Indeed the conspicuous word choice looks likely to have come out an uninspired meeting of a marketing company:

“NH Architecture’s proposal connects Flinders Street Station to a new future through elements drawn from the memory of this city’s citizens…our collective Melbourne-ness.”

The addition of the suffix ‘-ness’ makes a noun out of whatever it is added to. It changes an adjective; say ‘formless’, into the state, ‘formlessness’. It changes a description into a final resolved quality or condition. What does it do, then, when added to a proper noun? The suffix here is not required to make a grammatical change: it does not make the adjective mean the state. To put it another way, could NH Architecture have more simply written of “our collective Melbourne” without any discernable difference?

The answer, of course, is no. Adding ‘-ness’ to the city’s name was a purposeful act. It added two things. It imbues the sentence with a certain type of vernacular, that advertising language corn that says there is something that is beyond words, but that we can put it into words. It also manufactures a redundancy. The suffix, like a hot press, extracts the most out of the simple city moniker, strengthening its presence on the page, reinforcing the contextual aspects of the project. There is something decidedly ‘Melbourne’: its ‘Melbourne-ness’. It is interesting to note that NH Architecture are the only shortlisted team that works extensively in that local context and as such may well be best able to capture the urban condition. (The question of whether the competition should have been run anonymously, allowing no such home-town advantage to come into play, is a pertinent one, but one I will not ask here.)

On the opposite end of the contextual continuum, Zaha Hadid Architects and BVN Architecture’s statement reads as a-contextual and perhaps even cosmopolitan. It takes the form of an extended metaphor. The figure of speech stretches as it tries to capture the project-specific content within a poetic form:

“Our proposal weaves together the history of the station with a potent new form creating a new public place for the future, resolving the functional challenges and celebrating the grandeur of travel.”

The romance of a bygone era is infused with a contemporary reworking. We again see the classic post-heroic-architect dualism that resolves (questions can be raised as to whether it fell out of solution for a time) the by-the-book functional parts of the brief with a more enigmatic, lyrical aspect characterised as the ‘grandeur of travel’. Readers might be excused for expecting Agatha Christie’s Orient Express to pull into the station, not the 4:04pm Packenham Line. What, precisely, is ‘grand’ about the service provided by Public Transport Victoria? Are there silver trays and white gloves? Personal experience suggests that the only thing worth ‘celebrating’ is on-time arrival. Nevertheless, the fact that the blurb takes this tenuous metaphoric form gives it a poetic strength that only a careful consideration places in doubt. The architect is cast at the loom of the city, the warp and woof of the concrete and steel gracefully handled by the seated artisan. The image is quite evocative, but does it faithfully translate the architect-at-work? Even Hadid?

Contrary to my earlier proclamation, I will allow myself one comment made on the basis of the image-to-caption relation and point out that the design, a strictly-to-type if not cliché “Zaha Hadid”, does not in fact weave old fabric with new, but simply butts the new against the old. Rather than weaving (how can one ‘weave’ with an unpliable masonry building?) the project more accurately adds one new whole to another; it gives an old pair of two-tone trousers a new look with a fancy new white shirt. This refigured metaphor gives us a handy segue into our next shortlistee.

John Wardle Architects and Grimshaw Architects also exploit the imagery of clothing. Could it be that Melbourne, or ‘Melbourne-ness’, is essentially connected to fashion – somehow inextricably linked to the apparel industry? Their blurb explains:

“The station is an ensemble, each part precisely considerate of its place in the city. Its theatrical nature is amplified by the stitching of city to river. Landscape, bridges and vaults are the threads.”

Whereas Hadid–BVN extend their artisanal metaphor to, and arguably beyond, breaking point, Wardle–Grimshaw subtly mix theirs. The implied protagonist is not a romantic seamstress, but rather an individual that lies between a high-end connoisseur, a fashionista that shops in exclusive stores, and an op-shop bricoleur, a DIYer that stiches together second-hand garments. Two poles mark a composite identity: a Chanelesque precision, heavily deliberate, nothing extraneous, and a Westwoodian exuberance, a melodramatic opportunism, and an anything-goes electicism.

We again see the value of the illusion of poetry that comes from ambiguity. It is impossible to construct a precise schema around this ad-hoc combination. Reflecting back now on the idea of Gombrich previously mentioned, we arrive at an important set of questions: Does the Wardle–Grimshaw blurb-caption give us a truthful version of the imagined project? Are Coco Chanel and Vivienne Westwood a plausible couple, a workable duality, a viable hybrid; or do they combine to form an acutely dysfunctional schizophrenic? The motif seems as tenuous as the individual ‘threads’: how are elements as disparate and unequal-in-scale as ‘landscape, bridges and vaults’ classified as equivalent units of material? The blurb, while not a ‘lie’, certainly presents an implausible construct as plausible.

We have saved the jury’s first choice for our last blurb. Hassell Studio and Herzog & de Meuron (HdM) occupy the extreme opposite position to Wardle–Grimshaw. They argue:

“Our proposal respects the heritage, improves all aspects of the transport hub, and underscores its central civic nature with new cultural and public functions for all residents and visitors to Melbourne.”

What is the punctum of this sentence? What linguistic feature draws attention to the message, to the forms? By my reading: nothing. The Australian-Swiss combination has delivered a Helvetic-neutral combination of words that says very little, and uses the most referential wording available. The blurb is entirely benign, almost unobjectionable. It’s a polished and pragmatic butter knife.

But can we escape ‘poetry’ so easily? Is this the one example of a ‘truthful’ caption? Is Hassell-HdM purely communicating the unelaborated facts of their proposal? It is tempting to say, “yes”. I would say, however, that such an innocent position is unattainable; that it is naive to think that any blurb effectively captioning an architectural scheme can be written like a scientific report. Such an attempt merely falls into an established type, a set genre: that sachlichkeit affectation of non-poetry. Readers who have progressed this far into this current piece will no doubt have read many such blurbs. It is an election slogan of a sentence, a combination of bullet points. Once we see through the bland exterior, we see that there is no escaping the poetic function. It is perhaps the most thrown together, ad-hoc blurb of all, and as such can indeed be seen as being the most poetic. The blurb is its rough, brutal, marketing-style language.

We could, of course, speculate here why the jury might have chosen such a bland project, why they might buy into the scheme supported by the most ‘honest’ accompanying words. Such a process, however, is outside the scope of this current piece.



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