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in at the deep end

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LAB Architecture Studio came from obscurity to land a multi-million-pound project down under. Partner Peter Davidson explains how the firm coped with being suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the international arena by isabel allen. photograph by charle

If you've ever failed to get a commission on the grounds that you don't have the relevant experience, don't read on.

Any admiration for LAB Architecture Studio is likely to be overshadowed by envy.

In 1997, having built precisely nothing, it won the competition to design one of Australia's foremost projects, Melbourne's Federation Square. To say that the partners, Peter Davidson and Donald Bates, were taken aback is something of an understatement.

'When you enter competitions, you never think about the consequences of winning, ' says Davidson.

Like moving abroad, for example. At the time LAB was based in London, where it was 'strongly connected' with the Architectural Association. 'Our office was two blocks away so we were a refugee centre for the disgruntled, ' he says. The four staff immediately moved to Australia where, within a month, the office had 75 staff. 'For a year we were living out of a suitcase, ' Davidson recalls. 'We came back a year later and still had milk in the fridge.'

The technical challenges were immense.

'The day after the announcement that we'd won we were discussing a particular silt that lies under the site and its liquification ratio under earthquake conditions', says Davidson. 'The engineers were looking us as if to say 'these guys are out of their depth'.'

Frankly, they had a point. The project is, by any standards, enormous. The 3.6 ha site includes a Museum of Australian Art, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image - which itself includes two cinemas, offices for a broadcasting company and two commercial buildings that LAB added to the brief at competition stage. One houses a book and music store and cafes, the other is a tourist and visitor information centre.

Altogether there is some 55-60,000m 2ofenclosed space, not including car parking, along with a vast civic plaza designed for gatherings of 15,000 people.

This is a A$375 million (£144 million) project paid for, incidentally, by poker machines. Per capita, Australians are the biggest gamblers in the world.

As Davidson says, the scale is such that 'you can actually go out and find material in the ground'. To find the stone for the cobbles of the main plaza LAB tracked down redundant quarries using planes, fourwheel drive, global positioning co-ordinates and the 'getting warmer, getting cooler' techniques. The search led to a sandstone that comes in a rich assortment of purples, mauves, yellows and greys, and had previously been quarried by an Italian immigrant who used it to make rock gardens.

Inevitably, a project of this size carries serious political baggage. It started life as part of a wide-ranging public construction programme initiated by a conservative government Davidson describes as 'Thatcherite in every sense except in its understanding of the need for the regeneration of cities', but ran into trouble 18 months ago when the political climate changed.

Having refused to be briefed on the project when in opposition, the new government made its mark by removing one of the corner buildings from the plan, on the basis that it would block a historic vista. LAB was adamant that the building - a tourist information centre - was crucial to the project. 'It was difficult, ' says Davidson. 'You don't normally publicly feud with your client.' The building stayed, but its height diminished from 22m to six.

In retrospect, it may be that this particular battle served a useful purpose by concentrating disagreement on a small part of the scheme. 'Some people thought it was the most superbly managed deflection policy they had ever seen, ' says Davidson. It is certainly remarkable that a complex that is both high-profile and radical has materialised so swiftly, especially compared to the UK's protracted prevarication over London's South Bank.

Like the South Bank, Federation Square is concerned with how to connect the city on the north side of the river with that on the south.And like every major public project, it is touted as 'a new civic heart'.

In this case it's pretty convincing. 'Even though it was planned in the mid-19th century as a Victorian city, Melbourne is an American city, ' says Davidson. Set out as a grid, it has never had an obvious centre - until now. Historically, its public space has been characterised by Victorian arcades and passages which still remain. 'It is incredibly permeable, ' says Davidson. 'We wanted to use that aspect of the city but to apply it to a contemporary geometry.'

LAB's geometric games apply as much to the facades as to the plans. Each building is enclosed by a multi-coloured patchwork of triangular panels made of sandstone, glass or solid or perforated zinc. The surface is folded 'like origami' so that some panels are offset from the vertical by anything up to 20 degrees. The glass panels provide the necessary windows, although many areas are window-free.

'We wanted a facade that would provide coherence across the site and allow us to go from solid to translucent without noticing the change, ' says Davidson.

He is bemused by the fact that 'somehow it's seen as virtuous' to give express elements such as sun-screening rather than designing them as part of a seamless whole. 'Life doesn't have these delineations; it's blurred.

Most of the clarity architects search for is actually an expression of a discomfort with the world, ' he says.

LAB's overlapping worlds include teaching, curating, writing and design. 'We are called LAB because we want to be a laboratory, ' Davidson explains.

Whether this approach will appeal to British clients remains to be seen but, says Davidson: 'London is where we want to be.'

Although Federation Square will not be finished for at least a year, LAB has 'made every decision that needs to be made', and is ready to return.

This time around it has a trump card to play: 'We were always told that because we hadn't built anything, people were unlikely to risk using us. Now we've built one of everything.'

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