An Apple store in Melbourne’s Fed Square trashes civic values

“It’s as bad as Jeff Kennett,” a property developer tells me. “No – actually, it’s worse.”

On the eve of the Christmas break, the Victorian Government announced that Apple would be opening a shop in Federation Square – not as another tenant, but by demolishing an existing multi-tenanted building, and replacing it with a bespoke structure whose sole purpose is to project a visually dominant brand presence over one of Australia’s most significant public spaces.

It’s a decision that’s been met with shock across the nation. And on Friday it emerged that this decision was made despite passionate objections by several key members of Daniel Andrews’ front bench – including planning minister Richard Wynne and Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley, who will rightly be fearing the political consequences in their inner-city seats come this November’s election.

The decision neglects the procurement process and public consultation period required of major urban planning determinations, disrupts several other key tenants across the site, and undermines the Civic and Cultural Charter that is FedSquare’s founding and guiding document. So how is FedSquare different from any other public space – and what has now been jeopardised?

Any community gathering or public event presented at FedSquare becomes coopted as cultural cred for Apple.

The Charter lays out the primacy of the site’s cultural purposes, allowing only those commercial uses that have “an identifiable synergy” with its cultural program. It sets out the objectives, key outcomes, implementation requirements and operating principles for FedSquare as a place for creativity and innovation. In his book on FedSquare’s first decade, Monash University’s Seamus O’Hanlon puts it very clearly: the Charter “mandates if there is a conflict between public and commercial use, the public will always win.”

This sets a sophisticated set of civic responsibilities for any government, as enacted through its onsite management body. And yet, rather than take the Charter seriously as a key state asset, it’s being trashed in favour of a brand awareness project.

So what will this mean for public space? Any community gathering or public event presented at FedSquare becomes an ad for Apple. Any political gathering, planned or otherwise, becomes coopted as cultural cred for Apple. Any artistic programming, whether produced by FedSquare or by Melbourne’s leading festivals and creatives, becomes colour and movement for Apple.

A lot has been said about the relocation of the Koori Heritage Trust to make way for Apple – a relocation that its leadership is ok with, just as FedSquare architect Don Bates is ok with Apple moving in – but little has been said about the consequences of that relocation for FedSquare’s other key cultural institutions, ACMI and SBS.

To accommodate the Koori Heritage Trust, SBS is being forced to halve its footprint and constrain its operations in ways that have unknown and unplanned consequences. Staff have now been told that their two floors will be merged into one floor, losing specialised tv and multitrack recording studios, as well as executive, sales and marketing offices. All within a very busy year that includes a major tech upgrade – and a World Cup. It’s long been an open secret in broadcast circles that shutting down SBS’s Melbourne operations would be an easy way to cut costs. Exactly how the Apple shop plays into that Sydney-centric agenda is impossible to determine; certainly, undermining media capacity in Australia’s most culturally diverse city is irreversible.

The consequences for ACMI are also poor. Even in the most commercially-driven of shopping centres, as a leading arts figure put it to me recently, management would never agree to opening a David Jones onsite without letting a Myer know – indeed, their contracts would preclude it. An Apple store that aims to present free daily programming in “photography, music creation, app development, visual arts, and more,” presented by “the world’s top creators and high profile talent [on] how they use technology in their creative process” conflicts directly with ACMI’s mission “to connect makers, thinkers, viewers and players” in ways that foster new thinking across “the themes that underpin screen culture.” And with plans to introduce their own massive-scale public screen programming on more façades – plans they unveiled at my Digital Publics symposia a couple of years ago – FedSquare management are actively eroding the impact of ACMI’s expertise on the state’s key creative industries site.

Disclosure. As well as being a former SBS staffer, a former ACMI board member, and a former curator of design programming at FedSquare, my connection to the site predates its opening. At the turn of the millennium I was at the Bauhaus, working with an international team of diverse practitioners on cultural and commercial precincts that would address new C21st challenges through the design of new public and private spaces. FedSquare was hailed as a leader: exploding civic potential through new forms of cultural, social and commercial collaboration against the seemingly unsolvable problem of gifting to Melbourne at long last a town square that actually worked. We studied that potential closely, identifying it as a milestone in civic practice. Such a decision was unimaginable to our thinking and our expectations of FedSquare’s future.

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Shopping malls that are closed to traffic are the natural home of the multinational flagship store – and Melbourne’s Bourke St Mall is home to several. Zara refitted several stories of existing building stock to create their massive presence. H&M occupied the old GPO, while the Emporium demolished the historically significant but rather run-down Lonsdale House to build their shopping centre.

Atop the Walk Arcade, which runs from the Bourke St Mall to Lt Collins, lie several stories of unused commercial floorspace that have remained vacant for years. Many years. They need work – probably about as much work as demolishing FedSquare’s Yarra Building – but Apple weren’t interested in that.

Rather than share a neighbourhood with other retailers, Apple imagines its flagship stores as town squares, performing a cultural role that’s elevated by the presence of prestigious institutions such as ACMI, the NGV and SBS. That readily coopted status comes precisely from their non-commercial focus: they each embody cultural values that cannot be bought or sold. To be located among prestigious neighbours whose values define the Australian culture, whose share price will never plummet, and who will likely never move out, is quite the tantalising prospect for any shop.

To all this, the public response has been swift – and organised. Several petitions have emerged that call on Premier Daniel Andrews to rethink the decision. Change.org is hosting several of these, each with thousands of signatures and fiery discussions on the nature of public space and the acceptable conditions in which it is contested. One Melburnian is calling for the retail presence to be held instead by Bunnings – because its weekend snags are a “quintessentially Australian experience.” This hilariously astute response says a lot about public expectations of public space.

So what’s the solution? We need to move well beyond profit to rethink what makes for success at FedSquare – and, thankfully, the Charter already outlines a helpful scope for that rethink. A management authority operating to a not-for-profit structure and reporting to the Minister for Creative Industries is vital to ensuring that smart thinking can drive civic and cultural innovation at this important place. Also essential is a culturally diverse board with strategic expertise encompassing planning or architecture, retail, media, arts and culture, and civic or public space practice. This is a rare opportunity for FedSquare management and its programming team to foster a long-term commitment to long-term goals and values by creating a culture of staff retention, as well as retaining key festivals by respecting their needs and championing their success. Restoring constructive relationships with key cultural tenants is essential, actively learning from their expertise, as well as collaborating meaningfully with external institutions.

Instead of making FedSquare a Christmas gift to one single business, let’s rethink Victoria’s civic and cultural responsibility to create a public space of enduring public value.

After all, even Jeff Kennett thinks it’s a bad idea.

Esther Anatolitis is Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts

18 responses to “An Apple store in Melbourne’s Fed Square trashes civic values

  1. Let’s move SBS into the Apple buildinginstead ..THEY DESERVE IT!!! And Koorie Heritage trust should have all of the “old” SBS building! or vice verca! As IF Apple doesnt haveenough presence in the world?!

  2. OMG! Does this now mean that there is the threat of some other desecration of Federation Square, e.g. a McDonald’s outlet or a petrol station?
    I, too, would have signed the petition, but it has not reached the UK – as yet. I am unable to think of an example of such cultural vandalism in the UK where, it seems, there is a genuine government appreciation of historic squares and public spaces – locally and nationally.
    Come on, Aussie, c’mon!!

  3. Daniel A finishes year with progressive social legislation Volantary Asssisted Dying and Safe needle Injection room & I think great start to the year will follow.

    I am wrong. Fed square won internationalarchitectural awards.

    This is vandalism, plain and simple,

    Future generations will wonder what moron decided to do this, and how much to rectify?

  4. Some 50,0000 people have signed the petition ‘Save Federation Square’s Yarra Building’.
    If they all rang Apple’s present flagship store on Flinders St, (03) 9662 9666. and mentioned that they will not be customers for the Fed Square store, Apple may well re-think their plans. Rusted-on Apple users can shop else where in the city. There is choice. Customers, too, have power.

  5. What a shame , I remember visiting Melbourne and watching the Labour Part choosing a new Leader in Mark Latham.How many years ago was that, have always like “The Square” and its c olours.

  6. What’s the name of the journalist who writes for The Guardian and brags about the achievements of the Andrew’s government on social media? Wonder what she has to say about this decision? Her last article was about her love for her dog – so I guess we won’t be seeing any tough journalism from her on this one. So, thanks for this great article, the privatisation of public space is a very serious issue as it impacts us all. And H&M have taken over the old GPO? That’s just as bad.

  7. Cultural vandalism, conducted by shortsighted small minded politicians who do not see or perhaps care that they have been hoodwinked by a greedy, clever, self interested corporate identity who has no interest in our cultural identity other than as a vehicle to increase their own profits. #saynotoapple

  8. This one has lost me. Fed Square was a joint state Givernment and Melbourne City Council initiative yetvtve Council has now been bypassed by an arrogant government oblivious to the whole rationale of this wonderful LuLi space. It suggest large pots of money has or will change hands. If not, there is no rationale at all for state vandalism.

  9. A lawless act by a lawless premier. First he lets all the criminals off and now he gives away fed square to a criminal corporation that sue everyone, make billions of dollars and pay no taxes.

    I think this is the final nail in the coffin for the lawless Dan government.

  10. A contemptuous decision to allow a corporation, especially one that does NOT pay its fair share of tax to build on public space.
    Fed Sq has been the most successful of public spaces in the CBD and should be kept for the public.

    If Apple desires a new store there are plenty of options elsewhere in the CBD…to coin an Australianism…’BUGGER OFF”

  11. Great article Esther Anatolitis. Thank you! This is a woeful decision and I hope people recognise it for what it is – an assault to our civic spaces. Enough is enough…is there nothing off limits if money can buy it? It is time to crawl back some sense moral ground. The public of Melbourne and indeed the whole country deserves better.

  12. Surface idiotic ideas like this always leave us with drop jaw but of course this has come about in the echelon of big business meeting big Government and the executives of Apple who are masters at co-opting government dills to their business model are acting as all mega businesses act. But why would government ministers vote for this? We suspect that only a few of them do but they are the ones who control the Party funds and the Pre-selection votes. This has all the marks of a shitty deal done over drinks and in offices that look out over Melbourne from above the 20th floor.
    It is this sort of dealings which bring governments down. Pipelines and De-sal plants that are not needed. A mega Foreign National who buys its way into our public space. All of that commercialism in the CBD and just this little space for the people but even that is to be given up who no longer stands up for its people but sells us out to a stupid deal. Grubby!

      1. I did read it and am entitled to state an opinion. But if you can only resort to abuse then I guess you win the argument – which I guess is in line with your soubriquet.

  13. A fine article Esther.

    This is an important public site. Instead of selling out to one commercial interest why wouldn’t the State government consider commissioning public art by one of our great Australian artists? Good public art would contribute to a sense of place and reflect the unique character of Melbourne, as well as becoming a beacon for cultural tourists.

  14. “… is OK with …”? Repeated, this is a pretty tepid concession. Or is ‘dismissively grudging’ the right description? ;o)

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