Architecture

The Brisbane development Fish Lane Town Square is a brilliant reclamation of disused urban space. By Naomi Stead.

Fish Lane Town Square

A view of Fish Lane Town Square, a redevelopment of the laneway between Hope Street and Grey Street, Brisbane.
A view of Fish Lane Town Square, a redevelopment of the laneway between Hope Street and Grey Street, Brisbane.
Credit: David Chatfield

The forgotten spaces of cities – the kind immortalised by novelist J. G. Ballard – hold a particular fascination for architects. These “gapscapes” – often left over between or around heavy infrastructure – are sometimes known as urban voids or counter-sites, but have been most influentially theorised under the French term terrain vague. Geographer Matthew Gandy notes that their appeal, with their “jumble of dilapidated structures and rank vegetation”, represents “a late modern reprise of the romanticist ruin aesthetic”.

Some years ago, I remember spending an evening near just such a spot: by a little food joint operating from a shipping container in a rear-lane car park in South Brisbane. The space was bounded on one edge by an elevated railway line – a hulking great thing with huge concrete pylons, its underbelly rather sinister, shadowy and fenced off with chain-link. As we sat adjacent, carousing in the warm night air, suburban trains roared over our heads, their interior capsules bright in the darkness. Today that very same weedy, vacant undercroft has been utterly transformed into Fish Lane Town Square: a nuggety urban space designed with characteristic verve by architects Richards & Spence.

With bookend buildings on both sides, the project packs in a square, a colonnade, a pavilion and a garden, all laid out beneath the parallel railway lines above. The monumental infrastructure is, of course, dominant. But the smooth concrete underside is not displeasing, its mass and scale a counterpoint to the lush filigree of the new planting (by landscape architects RPS Group) and the warmth and texture of the unifying red brickwork used throughout. Deeply shaded, but with dramatic moments of slanted sun, the space has a noticeable coolth that must be a pleasure on a summer day. Altogether it creates a sublime urban garden that does, indeed, feel something like a romantic late-Modernist ruin.

In Brisbane, stick-and-slat timber buildings are rightly celebrated as a characteristic local idiom. But it’s a curious fact that some of the most interesting local architecture is not lightweight at all: it’s built of concrete and masonry, moderated by landscape elements to form a kind of gentled, subtropical brutalism.

The most imposing example of this is Robin Gibson’s Queensland Cultural Centre – a stone’s throw from Fish Lane – whose monumental cubic concrete forms are tempered by soft fringes, beards and toupees of planting. Pre-dating Gibson, James Birrell made tough but delicate buildings out of rough burnt clinker brick and “snot mortar”, while later architecture practice Donovan Hill cast rough concrete shells with finer materials fitted within, surrounded by rampant greenery.

Today the mantle has clearly passed to Richards & Spence. Their suite of brick buildings in the James Street Precinct in Fortitude Valley are remarkable – from the plant-festooned colonnades and laneways of 19 James Street (completed 2011) to the gorgeously hip Calile Hotel (2018), their practice continues to grow in assurance and playfulness. They take up the inventiveness of Birrell, the monumentality of Gibson and the lavishness of Donovan Hill, and make something all their own.

We see all this on full display at Fish Lane. To the south-west is a retained existing building, which has been “reskinned and refreshed” in the new brick. A new three-storey building on the north-east fills the car park in which I sat years before, with a combination of retail, restaurants and bars on the ground floor, and commercial space above. It’s a delightful building, characterised by Richards & Spence’s distinctive – and much copied – curved and arched brickwork, springy geometries, projecting corbels and sophistication with pattern.

The square itself is divided into two unequal parts. The larger part is allocated to seating for a commercial cafe bar – a sweet little rondavel pavilion with a holiday air. The smaller part of the square is dedicated to unprogrammed open space that can accommodate markets, buskers, musical performance and street life.

The client for all this was Aria Property Group, a local developer specialising in high-end, high-rise, high-density residential towers. When you specialise in developing nice apartments, you know what your buyers want: a lively ambience on the ground plane including quality communal spaces, carefully targeted retail and food offerings, and public art. Aria has worked for almost a decade to develop all of these things along the length of Fish Lane, and the square is the most ambitious piece of this puzzle – laboriously negotiated as a 99-year lease, in a joint venture with Queensland Rail and Brisbane City Council. One of the rail operator’s strict conditions was, amazingly, that the whole thing – pavilion, built-in furniture, tree ferns, everything – must be demountable: able to be removed in six hours, giving access in the event of a catastrophic rail accident.

The square is demarcated with a new concrete colonnade intended to be a contemporary interpretation of the Corinthian order, architect Ingrid Richards tells me. It’s quite witty in fact – the scrolled stone acanthus of ancient Greek and Roman column capitals here replaced with living plants, endemic to Brisbane, that tumble and hang down the column shafts. Overall there is a sense of luxury – of quality design and materials, brought together into a beautifully resolved square – creating the kind of fine-grained urban space you don’t often find in Brisbane. And the plants, the plants! They’re the stars of the show.

But while I sat there, enjoying all this, I still had a slight sense of unease. It centred on the place’s name, and what it really means to call something a “town square”. This is a title that means something – about the civic realm and the public good, the ownership and agency of citizens. These things are not to be taken lightly. And like everyone, I worry about the insidious privatisation and commodification of public space, the creeping surveillance and securitisation of the urban commons, eroding a more general “right to the city”.

Others in the famously hard-left anti-capitalist enclave of West End, just up the hill, likely had similar misgivings. Beset by rampant gentrification, dismayed by the rapid transformation of low-rise commercial into high-density residential towers and with a long memory of police “move on” powers and Joh Bjelke-Petersen era constraints on the use of public space for peaceful assembly, these folk were never likely to believe that a commercial developer would have the interests of the civic domain at heart.

But the reality here is complex. The space hadn’t been fully accessible previously: Queensland Rail was primarily concerned with public safety and maintenance of the infrastructure, which meant keeping people as far away as possible. Likewise the space would almost certainly not have been developed at all by local authorities, just as the public purse would never have stretched to anything so sumptuous, nor its ongoing maintenance.

So is it really a town square? One answer might be yes – it does genuinely offer a new meeting place, a space of encounter between strangers, which is one definition of a city. Another answer might be maybe – if a town square reflects the realpolitik of how our cities are actually made today, through private/public partnerships where public amenity is traded in return for private profit. Another answer might be not really – perhaps more a pocket park largely devoted to private cafes and restaurants, accessible only to the particular public who can afford to sit there.

Claiming the title may be a piece of marketing hubris but, misnomer or not, the new town square is much more beautiful, better used and more public than what was there before. It brings exceptional spatial and landscape design and a degree of public amenity to what was previously a no-go zone. This new amenity is in some ways direct – for example in the new seating and open space, the informal outdoor performance venue, even the free wi-fi. In other ways it’s indirect – in the greater sense of public safety brought about by more ground-level activation, increased foot traffic and more passive surveillance.

There are many ways this design could, in less assured hands, have gone very wrong. Ingrid Richards of Richards & Spence muses that while the worst scenario was that it remained a car park, “the second worst is a food court”. The space could have been noisy and soulless, or deserted and scary. As it stands, it’s pumping and wildly popular. So while Fish Lane may trouble our conceptions of a town square, it remains an exquisite intervention in the city, terrain vague or not.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Filling the void".

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Naomi Stead is The Saturday Paper’s architecture critic and a professor at RMIT.

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