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Soemtimes Grout is Forever

A completed Federation Square

‘We’re in the hardest part of the game,’ Stan Liacos the Manager of Marketing at Federation Square had said to me earlier. ‘We’re in the last quarter, the socks are down, people are tired. We can see the end, but this is when you need reassuring yells from the sideline.’

I walked onto Melbourne’s most controversial city block just in time to see the diminutive Liacos mouth a hello and goodbye through an oxygen mask as he was wheeled into a waiting ambulance. Jeez, when he had said that it was a last quarter slog, he hadn’t mentioned that Rotten Ronnie Andrews was in there giving his thoughts on practical completion, and Big Carl had been subcontracted to do some grouting.

‘Emma will take you around,’ Liacos said, lifting his oxygen mask and pointing to his marketing deputy. Then he looked down at my green runners. ‘And you’ll have to change those shoes.’

So I wore steel caps for my tour – enough to save me if plasterboard fell on my foot, not enough if I fell 35 metres from the mechanical boom that Alex Pereira was allowing me to operate. ‘Do you know that I’m a rating three driver,’ I said as we jerked through the top of the web of steel beams that are woven into the atrium’s roof.

Both Pereira and his boss, Emmanuel Silva are from Portugal, and they have come to Melbourne specifically for this job.

‘For me, it’s like freedom,’ Pereira said, taking back the controls. ‘You feel great because not many people can do it. I feel like I am a bird’. Like a bird, Alex can move the boom in any direction, but unlike a bird he is burdened with the responsibilities that come from having a pogee (a spanner type tool with a thin end for finding the hole) and an opposable thumb.

‘Emannuel sends up the steel beams on the crane, I attach them with my pogee. Then I sit here, I see the womans, have a smoke and wait for the next piece. ‘

We gazed down, not at ‘womans’ this time but at Flinders Street Station, loved for the way it has made yellow with a thin layer of dirt work. Like Federation Square, it was built following a design competition, and in 1889 two railway employees JW Fawcett and HPC Ashworth won first prize. Work started in 1901 and was completed in 1910 for a cost of £514,000 – overdue and far in excess of the original estimate. It’s a story must give some hope to the Federation Square management, although never underestimate the goodwill that’s out there for railway employees dabbling in architecture.

We purred our way down from the heights while the roofers roofed and the glaziers attached triangular glass panels to create the atrium’s transparent ‘skin’. Upon completion, it will be lit so pedestrians can wander from the river to Flinders Street on a walkway cast with criss-crossing beam shadows. And at the Flinders Street end, the steel will overhang the footpath, seemingly unsupported. It’s beautiful, a miracle of engineering, and on every day it doesn’t collapse, I’ve vowed to thank Pereira, his pogee and his commitment to tightening a bolt.

On touchdown, Emmanuel Silva walked over to assist me out of my harness. He looked at the steel works approvingly. ‘In the beginning it was looking ugly, but yeah, things are coming together. I think it’s going to look alright.’

‘Is it the best project you’ve ever worked on?’ I asked.

‘Put it this way, back home we done a lot of things a lot better looking than this, but you know, that’s Europe.’
Zinc, opaque glass and sandstone. Triangular superpanels, rotated around a point in a pinwheel effect. The odd gash carved across the façade like a symbol on the front of a superhero’s jumpsuit.

‘Is that finished?’ I ask Tony Callipari, the Technical Site Supervisor in charge of the external façades.

‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘The gaps are there to let in some natural light.’

We both look up at the architectural equivalent of Schubert’s unfinished symphony. At least Schubert had death as an excuse.

‘Do you think they work? I ask.

Callipari pauses. ‘I think they look ridiculous,’

But for the parts of the facades that do exist, the ones that have Federation Square knockers using words like ‘drab’ and ‘blockish’ (or in the incomparably subtle Stan Zemanek’s case, ‘abortion’) Callipari has nothing but praise. ‘It’s something totally different that will bring us into the 21st century of building. We can’t just keep building rectangular buildings. The rest of the world has moved on and we have to move on also.’

Up close the facades are indeed pleasingly non-rectangular. They slant down at angles. They bulge. They shine. We get talking patinas, and Callipari and I settle on grey, greeny-blue, yellow and stone, with a caveat from me that I want to check with Derwents on whether stone is a patina.

Because the facades don’t just run in a vertical line like a standard wall, Callipari has calculated what are called ‘P-points’ or the X,Y and Z coordinates around which the superpanels rotate. The P-points are taken off a 3-D modeling computer program, and with the assistance of surveyors, translated into the real world. If he calculates the points incorrectly, there will come a spot where the panels don’t meet. A gap. No wonder he doesn’t like the superhero slashes.

‘You probably shouldn’t sit there,’ Callipari said as I took a seat on some glass plates. ‘Those are double glazed units from Brussels. They took 3 months to get here.’
The good news was that Stan Liacos, the man who would have had a metaphoric heart attack if he saw me sitting on that glass, hadn’t had a literal heart attack earlier in the morning. His trip to hospital had been merely precautionary, the result of some shortness of breath and lightheadedness. His assistant Emma informed us of this, before going on to say that my contribution to Federation Square was and would always be, one crooked cobblestone.

The man who gave me the freedom to express myself on the 4th stone from the left on the 3rd step from the top was José Paredes, a Diego Maradona look alike known universally as ‘Chico’, because in his own words, ‘I am about one metre tall.’ In the 1970s, Chico was involved in student politics in his native Chile. He emigrated to Australia in 1976 to escape persecution by the Pinochet regime, which he says tried to kill him 3 times.

‘The problem there was rich and poor. Ten percent of the population rich, ninety percent poor. The rich decided to hurt the poor. I was poor.’

Nowadays, Chico is no longer poor. After arriving in Australia, he became a cabinetmaker, then a concereter for Bruno Grollo and then the founder of ‘Chico Pebbles’, a swimming pool paving company.

‘I was born on an island off Chile, I worked for years with swimming pools, and you know what,’ Chico laughed, ‘I can’t swim.’

He can, however, lay a stone, and in the last 15 years, his current company, Sharp Paving has paved Crown Casino, St Patrick’s Cathedral, 101 Collins street and Swanston Walk. Now, Chico is contracted to lay 700,000 cobblestones to form the gigantic, sloping, square part of Federation Square. He is destined to spend most of 2002 lining up stones cut from a quarry in the far away Kimberleys. Yet Chico still has his enthusiasm.

‘I like that stone there,’ he said, pointing to a thickish red cobble splashed with white. ‘I like all the stones in the drainage. I love my job. Every day a different shape, a different colour – you never do the same thing you did the day before.’

Then Chico confided the secret to his success and also his ultimate sadness. ‘The reason I can do my job so well, do so many hours, is that nobody is waiting at home for me. My wife, she brought my two girls and me to Australia. She passed away in a car accident 14 years ago. Very sad.’

Chico lined up a cobblestone next to mine and pressed it into a grey cement. ‘That is grout,’ he said with a smile. ‘That is never coming off. Grout is forever.’
It’s estimated that of the 6 million people expected each year, 1 million will be there for the National Gallery of Victoria display. Compare this to, say, the 7 kilometres of underground concrete cooling tunnels that are expected to attract about 50 air conditioning aficionados and you can appreciate how important Brendan Bishop’s gallery plastering job has been.

‘I’ll make sure I point out all my work to all the art critics,’ Bishop said, arms crossed in front of more than 400 square metres of pure, unblemished wall. I mention to him that Yves Kline became world famous for an exhibition in which there was nothing on the walls.

‘Apparently everyone thought deeply about what wasn’t there,’ I said meaningfully.

‘In that case I might whack my signature on a few of the breakout windows. Might make a fortune.’

Bishop’s boss, Mick Doolan of WH Cochrane, explained that the main thing in plastering is to make the joins invisible. On close inspection his workers seemed to have done a good job. Mick then walked me out of the gallery and into the foyer below the escalators. The light poured in from the skylight and above us, the plaster pitched dramatically upwards. Diagonally, it zigged and zagged its way to the ceiling.

‘You won’t ever see much better than this,’ he said gazing upwards. ‘There’s nothing flat, nothing straight, nothing easy. This is the pièce de resistance of plastering.’ There was love in his eyes, which is why when other tradesmen knock into Mick’s walls with a scissor lift, they expect fireworks.
When the hoardings come down (there will parts of the Square opened in July), for the first time in a century, we will have a new city block. Apart from the NGV’s Museum of Australian Art, there will be 2 arthouse cinemas, a centre for the moving image, a triple story pub, a wine bar, SBS head office, a square with a giant public screen, an amphitheatre and an underground information centre, which will run subterraneously from the shard that shuns the limelight, to the one that will never grow up. Further, it’s been reported in the The Age (6/12/01) that the AFL Hall of Fame may locate at Federation Square. You’d have to assume that Chicken Smallhorn’s 1937 away shorts will pull in at least as many people as the air conditioning system.

And when the hoardings do drop, the more than 2000 people who have worked on the project will step back and observe what we as a public think of their work. At least I assume they will – I didn’t get to check that with the bloke who was asleep in the lunchroom, his arm protectively wrapped around a KFC snack pack. And from what I saw, they’ll be pleasantly surprised.