We must stop the ill-conceived Apple store in Melbourne’s cultural heart

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Apple’s planned incursion of Melbourne’s Federation Square mirrors the insidious creep of commerce into pseudo-public spaces all over the world

After almost two years of speculation and rumour, the Victorian government this week released official plans and images of a new Apple“flagship store” to be built right in the middle of Melbourne’s Federation square.

The timing of the release, just days before Christmas, is an obvious clue to the nervousness on the part of the government for the impending public backlash – and follows a well worn trend of governments using the cloak of Christmas madness to put out their trash.

While it’s true that Federation Square has always divided public opinion between those that love and others that hate its iconic design, most Melburnians have come to appreciate its place as a diverse and open public meeting point playing a vital role in the city’s cultural life.

For those of us who regularly visit Federation Square – to see international films, for free exhibitions at the NGV, to gather at protests, or to visit the Koorie Heritage Trust – this decision is staggering in that it will turn one of Melbourne’s most significant and loved public cultural spaces into something more akin to a generic shopping mall.

Obviously Apple are over the moon about it. The company’s retail senior vice-president Angela Ahrendts immediately issued a gushing public statement saying how thrilled the company were to move forward with the plans, and how honoured to “call the world-class galleries and museums of Melbourne our neighbours.”

This is just the point. For Apple it’s a win-win because they get to mix their corporate brand with that of other publicly known and trusted brands like the NGV, ACMI and Federation Square itself – a site that has attracted over 100 million visitors since opening and is now listed among the world’s top tourist attractions.

Of course there are already some private businesses such as bars and cafes, but allowing a mega-corporation like Apple to take over a large chunk of the square is a whole different proposition.

Despite the massive public outcry that has greeted this announcement, the fact is that neither the public nor the Melbourne city council have been afforded a proper opportunity to have their say on this radical transformation of Melbourne’s most significant civic square. In fact, this has come about after almost two years of secretive negotiations between Apple, Federation Square and the Victorian state government.

The public is only now being made privy to the glossy images of the building’s design. The flashy, gold-rimmed store looks like something out of a Nasa space-age calendar. The proposed design is radically different to the existing buildings in Federation Square and will no doubt give the effect Apple are after – to stick out like an alien spacecraft in the centre of Melbourne’s cultural life.

The plans for Apple’s incursion into Melbourne’s cultural heart mirrors the insidious creep of commerce into pseudo-public spaces all over the world. What this debacle most aptly illustrates is why the operation of Federation Square as a privatised public space was always going to lead to conflict between public and commercial interests.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider how this will impact of things like political demonstrations that have often found a home in Federation Square – will they now be banned or controlled by security guards to protect the commercial property of Apple?

Make no mistake – this development will dramatically alter the purpose and ambience of one of Melbourne’s most important cultural meeting places. It will raze the existing Yarra Building, which is home to the Koorie Heritage Trust. Although they have been offered and accepted a new site in Federation Square, the symbolism of displacing an important Indigenous heritage organisation to make way for a US mega-corporation is simply breathtaking.

Already many Melburnians have pledged to oppose this ill-conceived, non-consultative and pernicious plan. Many have taken to social media to voice their opposition – but unfortunately this won’t be enough.

With development already this far advanced, the only course of action to stop this project in its tracks will be for a display of massive grassroots opposition that will let the Andrews government know that the public won’t accept being silent bystanders to the corporatisation of our own cities cultural heartland.

First published in The Guardian

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