This article was originally published in The Age on 20 December 2017.
Five days before Christmas, news has dropped that a section of Federation Square has been given to Apple for its flagship Melbourne store. The Yarra Building will be demolished, and its tenants, including the Koorie Heritage Trust, relocated to make way for a globally familiar glass cube design.
Ever since Apple’s first Australian store opened on Sydney’s George Street in 2008, Melburnians have been waiting for their turn. Rumours have swirled about Apple’s agents scouting Bourke Street Mall and Collins Street for an appropriate site. In September 2016 news circulated about Apple’s plans for Fed Square, and a year later these have turned out to be true.
Opening in 2002, Federation Square has become the heart of this city. Melbourne finally had a public civic square after decades of aborted and less-relished attempts like City Square. The once-derided architecture has become accepted as part of the fabric and life of the city. Our Fed Square may have been operated by a private organisation under a charter, representing the creep of private interests to control public space. But this only roused the most ardent critics of these kinds of partnerships.
After all, Fed Square hosts hundreds of community events each year, and houses institutions like the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia and ACMI. Mostly, we ignored the roaming security guards (preventing protests) and enjoyed the assortment of eateries on offer. This place has a buzz all day and night. Few places represent the rejuvenation of Melbourne in the 1990s and 2000s more than Fed Square.
The trouble with this Apple Store is that it suggests a disregard of what has made Federation Square successful. Public interests seem to have mattered little. The broader community was not consulted about giving up this part of the square to a shop. Unlike Apple’s plans for the abandoned Carnegie Library in Washington DC, the site of the new Melbourne store is successful in its current form. Apple’s San Francisco outlet sits opposite Union Square rather than within it.
More broadly, Apple’s urban track record has been rightly criticised. Its new Cupertino headquarters contributes to urban sprawl, and the company has provoked headlines like: “Why Apple’s New Campus Is Bad for Urban America” and “Apple only wants to put its stores where white people live”.
Ultimately, a commercial store trading in goods and services is being put at the centre of Melbourne urban life. The store replaces a building used by community organisations, reworking the already-compromised design of the site. That the original architects have been engaged to create Apple’s building does not mitigate the design heritage issues. It offers little back to the broader community and lacks the social purpose of the current site.
No one has justified why the Yarra Building must be demolished for an Apple Store, and what the benefits will be for Melburnians. The status quo that exists at Federation Square is being unsettled. The store will be a convenient place for Apple customers to buy its products and attend its events, but there are many alternative buildings nearby. Apple is exploiting the power of its brand to claim a part of our city. The people that shape our cities have been cast under Apple’s spell, and have lacked the courage to engage the community.
Our long-desired civic square has finally been realised only for another chunk of it to be re-purposed for commercial use. No doubt it’s time to heritage list Federation Square in national, state and local registers, to create a barrier to redevelopment. What happened to the rights of all Melburnians to the spaces of our city? We are citizens before we are customers.