Last time I was in Melbourne, my hotel room looked out on a sea of churning metallic waves. Forty years ago they would have been called psychedelic.
The waves are the roof of Southern Cross Station. It’s one of five stations on Melbourne’s City Loop, the hub of the city’s extensive electrified urban rail network. It’s also the Melbourne terminal for the remarkably extensive V-Line system, a network of intercity trains linking Melbourne to the smaller cities all over the surrounding State of Victoria. I usually arrive here on a bus from the airport, which comes into an adjacent bus terminal. Southern Cross thus serves as part of the arrival experience at all scales, from daily commutes to flights from overseas.
Designed by Grimshaw Architects, and completed in 2006, Southern Cross Station was created out of the old Spencer Street Station by replacing the building but not the tracks. Remarkably, the station kept functioning, more or less, throughout the construction.
The new station is all about the roof. The vast undulating structure has a pattern of transparent stripes running the same direction as the tracks, as though gesturing energetically toward your direction of travel. It can capture the energy of arrival, too, as the waves can easily suggest something in the early stages of crumpling on impact. It’s an effect that you might call muscular whimsy — a fundamentally lighthearted idea rendered with overwhelming force. Such contradictions are often the key to creating a building of lasting interest in this deconstructed age.
The roof floats above the huge space without enclosing it; the station is open to the adjacent streets so that it feels even more outdoors than a classic rail station would, and provides a feeling of continuity with the busy streets on two sides. Some station functions are in freestanding structures under the roof but not connected to it, such as this large orange box that houses two levels of station offices.
The integration with surrounding urban fabric is impressive. A major sports venue is a short walk away on a pedestrian bridge, which leads on into the highrise Docklands area. Trams (streetcars) stop on two sides. The major bus terminal is adjacent, with a large factory outlet shopping centre on top — the sort of discount shopping that Americans can only get to by car.
The most striking effect of the station, for me, is that it’s extremely hard to loiter in, and nobody does. V-Line trains wait at the platforms to depart, so passengers generally wait on the train rather than the platform. The platforms deliver the arriving passenger onto a huge featureless expanse of black floor, where the flowing roof seems to help hurry you along. Stopping to take photos in these spaces, I felt I was pushing back against the energy of the building.
Fortunately, the vast floor leads you out into thick urban fabric on all sides. The effect is opposite that of the grand cathedral-like space of a classic 19th century rail station, which seems to celebrate the rituals of travel such as greeting and parting. Southern Cross would not be a good place to jump up and down waving your handkerchief as your lover’s train rolls in or out; if you did that, the roof would seem to be laughing at you. But it’s a great place to move through quickly, a postmodern solo traveler with a small rolling suitcase, ready to greet Melbourne, or the world.