Out of the box

ASPECT insights
Out of the box
Yagan Square in Perth, WA rewrites the rules

Perth has a new civic square, unlike any other in Australia. Four years in the making, Yagan Square in downtown Perth ushers in what many hope is a new era of urban design. It’s a unique collaboration between Lyons, the Principal Architect in collaboration with Iredale Pedersen Hook architects and ASPECT Studios, and in partnership with Perth’s Metropolitan redevelopment Authority (MRA) and the Whadjuk people, traditional custodians of the land.

Much has already been written about this landmark project since its opening in March 2018. Kirsten Bauer, ASPECT Studios Melbourne project director, looks beyond the hero images of Yagan Square, to its heroic spirit.

“The goal for Yagan Square was incredibly ambitious — trying to connect to the multiple cultures and histories of Perth through a new public square, based on (and balancing) a very complex set of urban design issues. These included pre-existing infrastructure, commercial viability into the future, and opening up new corridors between the CBD and northern precincts. Underlying all of that was the very strong desire by the client, the MRA, to meaningfully address Indigenous reconciliation. That’s really what shaped the outcome.

Firstly, the site was critically constrained. One hectare sitting on top of two railway tunnels, in between the colonial heritage Horseshoe Bridge. The tunnels meant you could only construct buildings in certain places, so in planning terms it’s a small footprint to pack in something as culturally dense and spatially dense as what we’ve ended up with. Quite remarkable really.

The complexity of urban conditions meant that differences between the architecture and landscape responses were dissolved to a large extent. And the commitment to a relationship with Indigenous owners through the Whadjuk Working Party brought us all together in a process of creative collaboration, not just consultation.

Place was very important. As designers we researched both the Indigenous and post-colonial history of the area, so the Square emerges around layered notions of place – not fully one story or another, but representing a convergence. A convergence of geologies, tracks, narratives and cultures.

A couple of small examples. We worked closely with the artist Jon Tarry in designing the Square’s “Water-line” – the play / sculpture / water element that permeates the site. In Indigenous culture, the black swan’s egg is an important figure and Jon developed a sculptural idea around the egg, that appears in different guises through the water gardens and play spaces.

Plant stories are here too. For instance, grass trees (Xanthoria) which we used in the planting scheme are also represented in an artwork by Sharyn Egan, which is embedded in a building facade in the Square. It's another example of bringing together the three elements of architecture, landscape and art. Sometimes these stories in the Square are explicit, sometimes not.

It was one of the most rewarding collaborations to be involved with because everybody’s thinking changed through the process. For us to have the significant level of integration with the architects that we did, collaborating site elements together, we had to work alongside them in Revitt, which we’d never done before. But we had to be ‘at the table’ with them, both conceptually and technically. So this was the first ever ASPECT project to be documented in Revitt.

Time is very important to this place also. As the trees and plants develop they’ll have more influence as a thriving landscape and backdrop for the cultural programming, which is already quite active. But more im-portantly, the integrated collaboration process begins a genuine cultural shift, so I think this place will have a long evolution.”