In order to avoid the threat of democracy no city in Victoria was designed with a square. Now that democracy is no longer a threat squares are being retrofitted into city plans. I’ve visited two new squares in Melbourne: Prahran Square and the smaller Maddern Square in Footscray. Both are multifunction spaces made from converting carparks.
Prahran Square is on the site of the old Cato Street car park in Prahran with the carpark now beneath the site. It is a very large space like a amphitheatre with steep sides. Facing in on itself it ignores the borrowed scenery of the old buildings around it. The central elements of the square are all created by the architects. Taken from the same set generic contemporary elements that architects around the world currently use, including the fountain with jets of water flush with the pavement. The green playground equipment is more central and sculptural than any of the actual sculpture.
Indigenous artist Fiona Foley’s work, murnalong, is literally on the periphery of the square. ‘Murnalong’ means ‘bee’ in the local Boon Wurrung language, a subtle reference to the location. Attractive as these cast aluminum bees are, they fail to identify the place; firstly because they can hardly be seen and secondly because there already is a building in Melbourne with several large gold bees on it – Richard Stringer’s Queen Bee on the Eureka Tower. So that identifying the place in conversation; “You know the place with the bees?” could be confusing.
Not much of the arts budget was spent on Jamie North Ringform 1 and 2. There is minimalism and then there is North’s basic forms; a couple of zeroes scores well for being garden sculpture.
The only public art that is allowed to work in the square are The Pipes 2019, a site-specific visual and audio installation co-designed by light artist Bruce Ramus and sound designer Material Thinking, because they were designed in collaboration with Lyons Architects. The visual and audio can be seen and heard almost everywhere in the square.
When I visited, none of the shops were occupied and there was also two temporary black wooden cubes with street art painted on them; the standard city council move to use street art as an urban social-aesthetic solution.
The Foley’s bees is the only part of the square that refers remotely to the location. Otherwise, it could almost anywhere in the world and I expect to see it or its underground carpark in a movie that is not set in Prahran. There is much about Prahran Square that is forced, contrived and strained; it was controversial and the two year build doing nothing to assist local traders. The arts do not account for a single percent of the $64 million budget.
Contrast this to Maddern Square in Footscray in Melbourne’s west. It is smaller in many ways, less money was spent on the space and the public art is all aerosol. It has a drinking fountain, shady trees, seating and a shipping container being the only facilities that the square needs. The architectural elements in the square are the same set of contemporary elements that are used everywhere but at least you know where you are because it uses the backs of buildings: “Keep Footscray Crazy”.
Thanks to William and Matt for showing me these squares.