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Embracing new graphic space

Within three months of winning the competition for the design of a new civic, commercial and cultural centre in Melbourne, Australia, known as Federation Square, Don Bates and Peter Davidson, or Lab Architects, witnessed the start of work on the substructure for the site They had received no official brief, and only did so four months later.

Interestingly enough for all those project managers who may doubt the value of a theoretical education in architecture, it has been the intellectual framework of their work to date, rather than any previous experience of construction - of which they have none - which has enabled them to manage the tremendous pressures of the commission. In their Top Floor talk at the riba last week, the pair set out their intellectual stand in declaring that 'we all know and have been influenced by Jeff Kipnis'. This is clearly not the case, but Kipnis' theoretical approach did provide a provocative focal point for the establishment of a design programme in the graduate school at the aa when he arrived from the United States under the protection of former chairman Alan Balfour. Kipnis was a cause of considerable dissent, but Bates and Davidson, whose own links with the AA go back many years, are among those who embrace his pursuit of 'a new graphic space to describe a new architectural space'.

This commitment has found its manifestation in Federation Square on a scale larger than any they might have imagined possible. It was generated by the desire to develop 'another kind of organising strategy' for the structure of a complex new chunk of city space, notwithstanding their enthusiasm for the existing tartan-grid form, which sustains the city of Melbourne as a vibrant, dynamic organism quite unlike the typical grid- form American city centre blighted by 'white flight' to the suburbs and commercial decentralisation. As it has turned out, their reliance on random pattern-making techniques generated by computer, as a basis for evolving the spatial layout and architectonic form of the scheme, has allowed a great degree of flexibility in responding to the constraints imposed by the early construction of the substructure supporting the new deck over railway tracks on which the whole square will be built. The fact that they 'did not aspire to some form of absolute figuration', as Bates puts it, means that the level of predetermination generated by the position of the piling has been a positive, rather than obstructive, factor in the development of the scheme.

The architects aim to achieve dynamic spatial and architectonic expression of a programme of 'mixed uses acting in synergy'. The design of the public space evokes natural topography, and is echoed in the facade treatment of the buildings, based on a rotating pinwheel-grid geometry which incorporates built-in tolerance and so eliminates the need for construction joints. But it will not be possible to test the difficult relationship between synaesthetic experience and aesthetic form until the project is completed in 2001.

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