Flinders Street Station has stood, grinning at Melbourne’s busiest intersection for a nudge over 100 years, its golden mouth wide open. Bearing its overhead timepieces and unfurling its infamous steps, the triumphant façade watches as Melburnians walk, wait and dawdle.
Completed in 1910, the main building that stands at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets was the winning entry in an international design competition in 1902. The eclectic architectural style expresses French Renaissance elements externally, with its rusticated stone base rising up into classical archways. Internally, it references the Art Nouveau in its stained glass window patterning and extensive use of pressed metal ornamentation.
Always envisaged as much more than just a train station, the main building housed not only administrational buildings for the Victorian Railways Institute, but also private and public recreational spaces. The illustrious list of facilities included a lecture hall-turned ballroom, the city-hatters and an extensive library. The 1930s also saw the establishment of a station nursery, with a most enviable feature – an open-air playground on the roof. With such a burgeoning repertoire, which had less to do with getting on and off trains and more to do with servicing the needs of the wider community, Flinders Street station flourished to become the busiest station in the world by 1926.
In the wake of World War II, interest in maintaining the station began to wane, with many of the recreational spaces falling into a helpless heap of rotting timber furnishings and a collage of peeling paint. While countless attempts to revive the station to its former civic glory succeeded in thwarting demolition plans in the 1960s, the renovation plans of the 1980s remained un-financeable. The stride of disrepair marched on, all the while commuters passed through that golden – albeit faded – archway.
So, what is it that still makes Flinders Street Station so close to Melburnians’ hearts? For Victorian Government Architect, Geoffrey London, who also plays the role of Chairman of the Flinders Street Station Design Competition Committee, the station has fashioned an indelible imprint on the city. “For me, that photograph of that corner is such a familiar image; it identifies Melbourne instantly,” he says. “Everyone has passed through Flinders Street Station at some stage,” from brisk-walking business suits to idiosyncratic stairway loiterers.
Melburnians breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Victorian Government recently announced a $1 million prize pool for an international design competition to revitalise and restore the Flinders Street Station precinct. “There is a huge potential to activate all the way along Flinders Street, right down to Market Street, as well as along the river with links to the Southbank Promenade,” explains Mr London. “It’s a city-changing scale of project!”
Quite apart from improving the transport function and heritage elements of the site, competition entries are to address the integration of the station with its surrounds and to provide significant civic spaces for a mixture of uses. With the competition commencing midway through 2012 and aligning with the recommendations of the Australian Institute of Architects, the competition jury is seeking a breadth of submissions.
To encourage this, competition organisers are accepting concept entries by anonymous submission. This offers an insurmountable opportunity for the Melbourne public, young designers and small local firms to be involved in on of the largest urban renewal project that our city has seen in decades. In the evolution of much more than just a train stop, the future for Flinders Street Station could finally be on the right track.