When QIC GRE focused their attention on reinvigorating several of their commercial properties around Australia, they turned to some of the most dynamic architects and designers in the world to interpret their vision.
Located in Ringwood, a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne, Eastland has been a mainstay of the area since the 1960s, when Myer opened a large department store that was quickly enveloped by other buildings and expansions. The property was bought by QIC GRE in 1996, and they started the latest redevelopment in 2011. This recent incarnation saw them call on designers including London-based architects Softroom and Universal Design Studio to reimagine the mall’s roof light and revamp much of the interior décor and shop frontage. For the Town Square, the rooftop plaza that is flanked by a new library and a plethora of restaurants offering alfresco dining, QIC GRE enlisted the help of ACME, an architectural practice with a global clientele. Friedrich Ludewig, founder and director of ACME, spoke to us about the project.
Rebecca Guinness: How did you get involved with the redevelopment?
Friedrich Ludewig: It began when QIC GRE sought to challenge a couple of designers to do something that would move the goalposts a bit in terms of how retail can be done, and to reinvent how a shopping mall can look. They interviewed quite a lot of architects and designers and when we came on board, they had already worked with Softroom, Universal Design Studio and GROSS. MAX. who were the original landscaping architects. Eventually we took over the central space, the Town Square, the library and the outer façades.
RG: How did you approach it?
FL: What we found interesting was that so far, this building had evolved with no real master plan, it just happened to become what it was; it hadn’t had any previous ambition as an urban space. Our aim was to try to actually make it into a piece of architecture, to give Ringwood a town centre and to put another anchor into the scheme. But the first challenge was how to turn the inside out. We had long discussions with QIC GRE about how to carve a public space out of a place that had none. One of the big questions for us was: how do you make it small enough so that it doesn't feel empty on a Wednesday morning, but big enough that you can have ice skating and a Christmas market? There were also discussions about how soft or hard it should be, because when you make it softer it feels less empty, but it's also less flexible – once you've planted you can't really put stalls in it anymore. It ended up being 45 metres by 70 metres, a good size, comparable to a smaller city square, and it's surrounded by walls on three sides and there’s a library. The impression is supposed to be of an urban space you would find in a city centre.
RG: Tell me more about the library.
FL: The library is a replacement for the one that was demolished, but it now has an art gallery, too, and a citizens advice centre. We were worried as to whether people still read enough books, so we wanted the library to float above the square, and for the floor to continue inside so the sense of going into the building isn't a massive psychological decision you have to make. The ground floor with the art gallery and café were intended to be as open as possible, with the stone finish from the outside coming in, so you feel it’s a glass-enclosed space without any clear boundaries. It has an atrium as big as we could make it, cut through the middle, so that you're invited up into the volume that sits above. Our plan was that the top floor should be the main one for books, with roof lights coming in from all sides. You can just hang out there and not feel constrained. At the very top is an outdoor terrace – we wan ted to make sure that you could take a book outside and read it without having to check it out of the library.
RG: How did you address the façades around the square?
FL: We wanted to do a proper catalogue of shopfronts within which the variations would be quite small. As an architect you always dream of this, but you rarely get the chance to do it because normally the tenant is king. We advised that there should be a stone pilaster and brass-coloured aluminium infills that sit within that, and always with planned signage. So for two and a half years we actually thought we were going to get this right, but in the end we had some pink shopfronts after all.
RG: What’s the concept behind the structure at the centre of the square?
FL: The Shard is so called because the name stuck from an early design before ACME and I got involved. It’s a device that tries to work as a reverse vacuum snout, sucking visitors up out of an underground shopping mall, and delivering them into public space and daylight. It's a simple device, a steel structure that is stuck to the ground on two sides with enough perforations in it that light can filter through, and more perforations in the back to enable more light ‘underground’. We wanted it to be like Chicago’s Bean, the public sculpture by Anish Kapoor, done as a stainless steel structure – seamlessly welded and flush with the ground.
RG: How did you approach the landscaping of the Town Square?
FL: This is the first time we've done our own landscaping and we're quite happy with the result. The Australians are really good with stone and what we've tried to do is two long sides of restaurants raised up by three steps to give us a bit more space to plant trees, and also because it’s nice to sit and look down into the centre. So it's not one totally flat surface – there is always height that you can sit on. Amazingly, everybody got it at the opening and they all started lying on the grass. Near it there's a lamppost, and we planted trees on either side, so when the trees grow a little bit the lampposts will totally disappear.
RG: How has it been received?
FL: The Minister of State attended the opening of the library, and it wasn't because he would normally go to the opening of a shopping mall extension. It was because there was a proper commitment from the developer to work with the council and give them something that will become the new heart of Ringwood.