The original city in Melbourne is organised in a compact grid. The railway line was laid out along the edge of the dense centre and used to terminate in a loose straggle of unprepossessing platform canopies and shacks. The railway lines, that used to mark the natural edge to the city, now form a barrier between the solid old town and the shiny, happy new one.
The station is simply a big roof over a complex piece of transport infrastructure. It is open at the sides. It keeps some of the weather out, but really its vocation is as a civic structure. It is a point of entry to the city and, critically, it makes a space connecting the new and the old parts of the town. This is not easy to do because the new dockland district is diffuse, incomplete, girded by motorway approach-roads and opaque to pedestrian circulation. Grimshaw made a strong façade to the existing city and pushed high level access fingers out into the new zone. He worked around the existing tracks to make a big, rangy urban space.
The railway is a significant part of the suburban commuter system and it had to be kept open throughout the construction process. The building was designed as a waveform roof that slowly inundated the tracks like the incoming tide. Each night, columns would be lowered onto the platforms and preformed sections of roof held up above the tracks. Each morning, commuters could witness the nocturnal progress of the encroaching shelter. The whole system of overhead power lines and signals has been kept intact and simply incorporated into the new enclosure. This gives a strong sense of the project’s life in time. Even when it was a construction site it was a powerful piece of architecture.
The roof itself makes much of building physics. It is possible to describe the project in terms of structural forces, prevailing winds and the ventilation of diesel fumes. These environmental and structural issues are solved with great skill and they provide a fairly convincing narrative to justify the cheerful, wavy roof form. Its real significance lies in the fact that it makes a good space beneath and an extraordinary undulating landscape above. These roof elevations are often private fantasies for the architect, but here, surrounded by high-rise buildings, the upper surface becomes a topography that is visible to everyone. The view down on to it is lovely.
The edge of the building that faces the old town is perhaps the most important façade. The architects have made an open loggia framed by the edge of the rising and dipping roof. This long elevation is only ever partly seen as you approach it along the deep cavernous streets of the city. You always understand it as a fragment of a much bigger thing. This lends a particular drama to the approach. You see the great overarching structures intertwined with wavy tresses of light, you see the movement of trains through the structure, people meandering through and, all the time, the reflection of the old town thrown back by the glass.
This was an undistinguished station which forced passengers to tunnel their way under the tracks. The new station not only makes people feel safer by elevating them above the trains, it also engenders pride in their city and its rail system. And it might do much to encourage Australians back on to the train - making this the greenest of its many green credentials. This powerful conflation of old and new, people and trains, structure and light make the Southern Cross station a worthy winner of this year’s Lubetkin Prize.