Red and Black Architect interviews Ted Baillieu, the architect premier

Editor's note: This is the first part of a wide-ranging interview that Michael Smith, a.k.a. The Red and Black Architect, has conducted with former Premier Ted Baillieu. Follow the links at the end of this article to read parts 2 and 3 on the Red And Black Architect's blog.

From November 2010 through to March 2013, Victoria had an architect as Premier. Ted Baillieu was responsible for bringing White Night to Melbourne as well as instigating the Flinders Street Station design competition in 2012. From his experience in politics and his background for architecture, he has a unique insight into Victoria’s built environment. Recently he sat down in the magnificent Old Treasury Building, to talk at length with The Red+Black Architect on a broad range of issues.

Part 1 – The Architect Premier

Red +Black Architect – It’s perhaps not widely known that before you entered politics you were an architect. How would you describe your architectural career before entering politics.

Ted Baillieu – I certainly didn’t hide it. I guess people don’t focus on other people’s professions.

I wouldn’t pretend to be the greatest architect in the world although I may physically be one of the biggest! We had a small practice, the practice ran from 1981 to around 2006 and my architectural partner died in 2005. For the last few years he was obviously pretty much on his own and I was just a token partner, there for moral support. Prior to that I worked for McGlashan Everist, they had a notable track record. I worked on school projects and some civic projects. We were the first architects on the transformation of the Bourke St Mall many years ago, and I was the project architect for that. Along the way I’ve done some other bits and pieces, but we were residential, we worked some small commercial projects. We did a ski lodge in New Zealand which got a fair bit of attention I still love architecture and I’ve still stayed in touch with most of my colleagues and stay in touch with the faculty. I’ve now got an honorary job with the University of Melbourne helping the faculty.

R+BA – Did your background as an architect assist you in your role as premier?

TB – One of the reasons why I got in to politics was because I was looking at architecture, in the long term, particularly in school work. We did strategic thinking and master planning for schools which was 20-25 years out, and the decisions that are made now affect things long term. That was one of the reasons I got involved. Another reason I got involved was I didn’t like the no ticket no start mentality and I didn’t like an authoritarian approach to the issues of the day that were happening in Tasmania in the early 80s, so they’re pretty much the reasons I got involved. There are very few architects who have been politicians. It’s actually a very good education for a politician, to be able to think about the future, to be able to plan for the future, to be able to read drawings, to talk a language with those who are dealing with long term projects, it’s an asset.

R+BA – I imagine that the broad nature of architecture, knowing a little bit about a wide variety of areas helps?

TB – I think architects have a sense of place, a sense of environment, a sense of footprint, a sense of relationships to other buildings, a sense of the spaces between, a sense of generations, all that is important. And you get a very acute sense of cost.

R+BA – One of the best things, I think, to come out of your premiership was the genuine discussion around the possible futures for Flinders Street Station. Do you regard that competition as a success?

TB – Yes, I absolutely do. The conclusion of the competition took place after I had stepped down, but I thought it was an incredibly valuable exercise and I think the winners[Hassell with Herzog & De Meuron] didn’t get the credit they deserved. Anybody who actually saw their presentation rather than just the superficial photograph in the paper was just blown away. I spent quite a bit of time with Hassell afterwards trying to promote their scheme to other people. Those we took it to were blown away. In the end, the current government made their decision, and I think that’s a shame because they had set up a design process which saw the final product staged, implementable in stages, and you could graft on or graft off various aspects of it. It was an incredibly compelling piece of work that they had done. Unfortunately it got reduced to one picture and there were a few in the public arena who didn’t want go there. It will eventually need a brave solution. Just the sheer volume of traffic that will go through Flinders Street Station will require a brave solution, and it can’t be a piecemeal fix the ballroom approach. It wasn’t about the ballroom, it’s about the long term future. They took a bold approach to it.

Winning Flinders Street Station Design Competition proposal by Hassell and Herzog De Meuron

R+BA – Do you think there’s any possibility that that could be brought out of mothballs?

TB – Well it certainly lends itself to that. There’s nothing happening now that would prevent it, or parts of it, being adopted in the future. They took a design approach which dealt with the transport issues as well. People think it’s just a building, there are transport issues to be dealt with, there’s retail issues, there’s building use, maintenance, there’s everything that goes with it and one of the challenges that we have in Victoria is to accommodate the freight task in this state. Freight and logistics drives our economy in Victoria and a lot of it obviously takes place on the roads and on the rail system. Where those two meet, priority needs to be given to the freight task. I’m not sure that’s happening, and I was continually pressing the need to put the freight logistics exercise first.

R+BA – Stepping back to the Flinders Street Station conversation, there was a substantial community engagement website where you could see videos and you could have your say . Did you have a favourite entry? Was the Hassell and Herzog & De Meuron entry your favourite or was there another one that you thought ‘if it was up to me I’d choose one of the other six’?

TB – Well I deliberately chose not to look at them in advance of the decision being made. I stayed right out of it. And when it was made, I sought a briefing from Hassell, I was blown away by what they did and I noted that it was a unanimous decision. I think that if you see the whole presentation you can understand why it was unanimous. The level of thinking in terms of the engineering, the transport, the service involved, the building itself, the opportunities, the relationship to neighbouring buildings, the other major project tasks that the city faces in terms of the gallery development, the indigenous gallery , the contemporary art space, all of that stuff. They had gone way way beyond the brief to look at the future of Melbourne. I think probably the only thing that featured in people’s eye was the barrel vaults over the tracks themselves and that tended to dominate the discussion.

Winning Flinders Street Station Design Competition proposal by Hassell and Herzog De Meuron

R+BA – For me, one of the strongest elements of that proposal was the way that the Swanston Street interface worked and how it related to Federation Square. Obviously the corner is very iconic and beautiful, but going towards the Yarra, I see that relationship between Federation Square and Flinders Street Station as critical.

TB – It’s a difficult in between space actually, with all of those rather clunky tram stops which interrupt the traffic itself and the pedestrian traffic, but I thought they’d done a good job opening up that Eastern face, and the barrel forms actually resonated with the original plans and they’d done a lot with thinking about the history of the building as well. Unfortunately the discussion gravitates to what’s happening to the ballroom, which was operable 50 years ago, and what does it look like from above. They are probably two of the least significant things about the station itself.

R+BA – Is part of the problem with that site that one it needs an awful lot of money to do the brave gesture, but two in some quarters it’s seen only as public transport infrastructure. It does have an important public transport role, but I think more importantly, it really is the heart and soul of Melbourne’s cultural identity.

TB – Yes, and I think that’s what Hassell’s tried to bring in to it, to actually reinforce that. Their effort was to turn it in to more than a train station, because it plays a bigger role that that. It has to grow in terms of its capacity, so at the same time it has to grow in terms of its cultural significance and it would be very easy to spend $200 million or $300 million on the station now and not notice the difference, in fact I think the current government have set aside $100 million to effectively do some repair work. And at the end of that I presume we’ll be able to walk around the ballroom and say “hey, the ballroom’s fixed”

R+BA – My understanding is that it doesn’t even stretch as far as the ballroom.

Well if it doesn’t go as far as the ballroom, then the ballroom will remain the standard bearer of the need to do something. The ballroom is an interesting space in itself but it’s a very small part of it. I tell you what, there’s nothing like being up inside the tower, I’m a complete sucker for towers, and to be up inside the clock-face, and then to be above the clock-face and open the windows and look down Elizabeth St.

R+BA – Well to see the photos inside the clock tower when the competition was launched I thought was extraordinary, because you know psychologically that space must exist, but what is it actually like to be in that space?

TB – There’s a beautiful book called Capital which tells the story of Melbourne from 1901 to 1927 when Melbourne was the capital of Australia, before Canberra was put together and Burley Griffin’s vision emerged. Melbourne was the centre of all the action and the photo on the front cover is that view from that tower down Elizabeth St and it’s just beautiful.

Part 2

Part 3

Michael Smith is a principal at Ateiler Red+Black. This article originally appeared on the Red and Black architect blog. Michael also operates the Rate My Building website.

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