UN Studio's Ben van Berkel discusses the Green Spine

UN Studio's Ben van Berkel discusses the Green Spine
UN Studio's Ben van Berkel discusses the Green Spine

While the Southbank by Beulah competition has been run and won, with the pairing of COX Architecture and UN Studio claiming the spoils via their 'Green Spine' submission, the hard work of realising the vision for the 118 City Road site has only really just begun.

With that in mind Urban.com.au asked UN Studio Founder and Principal, Ben van Berkel, to provide some valuable insight into the office's collaboration with Cox Architecture in conceiving The Green Spine as well as the design merits of the scheme.

UN Studio's Ben van Berkel discusses the Green Spine
The Green Spine in-situ on the Southbank skyline. Image: UN Studio

Urban.com.au: How early in the design process was the idea of the Green Spine conceived? And how much did the design evolve from the mid-term review?

Ben van Berkel: We decided to develop the two tower proposal after the mid-term review. It was essential to create a scheme that fulfilled the requirements for both programmatic diversity and a high level of pedestrian connectivity, especially in relationship to Southbank Boulevard. But we also wanted to create something novel for the skyline of Melbourne.

So we experimented for a while with dualities of facade expression that would support the different functionalities of the building. The studies that we did for this gradually turned into a unified strategy that supported the landing of the tower onto the City Road, as well as the composition of the two towers that twist toward the Botanical Gardens and the CBD.

We then solidified the facade language into a series of stepped ‘drawers’ that housed the greenery, amenity spaces and sustainable features of the towers and added public terraces in the podium. After these stages, it wasn’t long before we began referring to the design as the Green Spine - an architectural element that incorporates a multitude of functions in one fluid gesture.

U: The design team took a different approach to some of the other entrants in opting for a dual tower scheme which allows for greater solar permeability to City Road and would also allow for the possibility for a staged construction programme. How much do you think this was factored into why your scheme was chosen as the winning design?

BvB: As soon as we began studying the two volumes emerging from a podium, we could see that there were many advantages from the standpoint of urban integration, daylight penetration and creating an elevated ground area on top of the podium.

The singular volume scheme always appeared very heavy and somewhat out of place in relation to the neighbouring towers. For this reason, we felt the split tower scheme also offered a better overall balance in the city skyline and created a strong identity for both the towers and the podium.

Whilst you always strive to highlight all the different aspects of your reasoning during the competition process, you can only hope (and perhaps trust) that the clarity, consistency, strength and advantages of your proposal will resonate both with the client and the jury, and lead toward your design being selected.

U: And why do you believe Green Spine was chosen over some of the other schemes?

BvB: After the publication of all the competition schemes, we were somewhat surprised to see that we were the only ones to have proposed a two tower scheme. But in a way, this also set us apart from the other competitors.

As for why I think Green Spine was selected, I would have to say this must have been based on the strengths of the scheme and how it responded to the client’s and the city’s requirements.

The Green Spine design gives a lot back to the city. It incorporates 1.5 times the plot area of public amenities, including an extension of the Southbank Boulevard into and on top of the building - in the form of a marketplace and terraces, as well as a set of gardens and observatories on top of the two towers.

The podium design is terraced toward the street and connects the retail and entertainment programmes across multiple levels, which continue all the way up to the new elevated public area that tops the podium. This way, the facades along City Road and Southbank Boulevard are fully activated. Green Spine is a unifying concept.

It is a straightforward, yet robust idea that brought together the entire development into a cohesive whole. It is all of these design solutions that we hope played a part in the jury’s decision.

U: What was the process like collaborating with Cox Architecture and how did you end up pairing up with them?

BvB: COX has an impressive track record of work in Melbourne and we had, in fact, partnered with them previously for a project in Canberra. Based on that experience, we asked them if they would like to partner with us again for the Southbank project.

The process was defined as a partnership from the very beginning, with both sides having equal input with their respective expertise. At all times it was a true team effort and we trust this collaborative spirit was evident to the client and the jury also.

UN Studio's Ben van Berkel discusses the Green Spine
The Green Spine at street level. Image: UN Studio

U: What are your ambitions for the Green Spine and the impact it can have on Southbank, not just within the skyline but also at the street interface?

BvB: Our hope for Green Spine is that it becomes the epicenter of retail, entertainment, lifestyle and cultural events in Southbank, providing world-class and future-proof public and private amenities. Having an open and lively interface to the street draws the public character deep into the development, throughout the podium and up into the towers too.

Working with Futurecity, our cultural placemaking consultants, our ambition was to ensure from the early design phases that Green Spine has a strong connection to cultural and art institutions around the city, acting as a partner in providing a lively venue for exhibitions and events.

We imagine an active and programmed podium that engages the local community of artists and provides public terraces for the display of art, installations and performances. Beyond this, the mix of programmes and the way in which they are distributed around the building provides an unprecedented amount of retail space, leisure and entertainment facilities, relevant not only to the immediate Southbank neighbourhood, but also to Melbourne as a whole.

U:  UNStudio has also been involved in the 80 Collins Street project in Melbourne with Woods Bagot. Do you expect to have a greater presence in Melbourne moving forward?

BvB: We were somewhat overwhelmed by the degree of positive reception and support Green Spine has received from the local and international architectural community. We are also proud of the strong resonance the project has gathered with the general public in Melbourne.

Both projects are, so far, the result of the great partnerships we have with Cox and Woods Bagot, as well as our own sensibility and deep appreciation of Melbourne that only grows stronger with time. We would very much like to expand our presence further and will certainly continue to seek out the right opportunities to do so in the future.

Laurence Dragomir

Laurence Dragomir

Laurence Dragomir is one of the co-founders of Urban Melbourne. Laurence has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience working in both the private and public sector specialising in architecture, urban design and planning. He also has a keen interest in the built environment, cities and Star Wars.

UN Studio Green Spine Southbank by Beulah Cox Architecture Ben van Berkel

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