AT 102 METRES TALL, the Atomium captured the imagination of the world and became the symbol of the 1958 World Expo in Brussels: stainless steel clad spheres arranged and connected to form the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified one billion times. Opened with a call for world peace and social and economic progress (issued by King Baudoin I), the Brussels Expo highlights the peculiar realm in which the expo is positioned: an oscillation between utopic future and present reality. Fifty five years later and half a world away in Geelong, the need for envisioning a future alongside the present realities of an imploding manufacturing sector form the basis for this speculative investigation: a possible Geelong Expo for 2038.
The Port of Geelong, three kilometres north of Geelong’s CBD, has been home to some of the country’s largest industries: metal plants, granaries, petro-chemical, fertilizer and glass manufacturing facilities, to name a few. As these interests slowly pull out of the region (a situation replicated around much of the nation, but acutely felt in Geelong), a conglomeration of industrial infrastructure and land is too often relegated to the ‘too hard basket’. Often seen as problematic in spatial organisation, repair and sheer scale, it would be tempting to consider erasure, to wipe the slate clean. What if, however, these locations were to be examined for their opportunistic possibilities? What are the potentials of decay?
Wedged between Princes Highway and Corio Bay, two monumental derelict warehouses dominate the Port precinct. Stretching out to 370m by 90m, the larger northern shell’s clear span could house either six Melbourne Exhibition buildings, 35 of Sean Godsell’s Design Hub or take in both sides of Swanston Street between Flinders and Little Collins streets.
THE PROPOSED EXPO IS applied to this condition as a means for speculating about the future of Australia’s industries, an event simultaneously looking forward while housed in the heroic shells of our industrial past. Intervention via expo – a catalytic urban regeneration – links in to a history of predictive events beginning with the Crystal Palace (1854), through to Australia’s early agriculture and mining industries, to nation building projects in the rail development and Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme and finally our rebranding during the mid-twentieth century (captured in Wolfgang Siever’s photographic documentation) as a country of industrial makers. The large spatial requirements of an expo highlight the occupational possibilities of the colossal sheds, a fantastical urbanism incompatible with conventional models of development.
The structure of this expo is split between the north and south sheds, augmented by connective services. The northern shed is transformed by the penetration of a street running end to end. Region transforming infrastructure is required for the street’s backbone, beginning with an underground train station linking the larger metropolitan area, delivering passengers up into the expanse of the northern warehouse where a new tram line links local movement between Avalon Airport, the Expo site (and the Corio foreshore) and the Geelong CBD. Above this tramway runs a suspended pedestrian walkway running from the entry through the chamber void of the shed and punching through the opposite end with a raised perspective to the foreshore and horizon of the Geelong CBD and the extending coastline. Jetties off the foreshore previously performing duties for import and export are refitted with passenger ferry terminals, completing the region’s connectivity with water transit that could eventually join Melbourne’s extended coastal regions.
The odd mix of known street elements combined with the ever-present ribbed hall sets up a condition ripe for spatial exploitation through insertion of programs along the strip. This assemblage of buildings amplify (and are amplified by) the repeating structural ribs above; the juxtaposition of over-scaled industrial hall with the finer grain of street and building producing a quasi-dreamlike state, the familiar and unfamiliar in a negotiated co-existence.
While the northern warehouse aspires to a civic strip mimicry, the southern (and shorter) shed engages with the opposite end of city scale – that of the public stadium, the collective event space, the arena spectacular. In this space, the individual gives way to the totality of volume available through the insertion of a working arena, a terrain of scaffolded seating holding work spaces below in a hybrid workshop-event model; the productions of industry giving way to the production of ideas.
The back-to-back accommodation of wildly divergent scales and potential occupancies on this test site begin to suggest a way of working into and thinking about our industrial legacy as sites of opportunity rather than sites of inconvenience. As in the case of Geelong, these areas are often located close to a major township where patterns of manufacturing boom and decline are forming a common narrative. With a little bit of inventive thinking, these sites could be a chance for urban renewal and national examination as we project into the future and think of alternate methods of occupancy and adaptive re-use.
The proposed expo could provide the first seeds for new significant development in the region. As a concentrated urban form, the northern shed would offer an initial state of activation sufficient to sustain new development once the expo leaves town. A potential new town centre could emerge from this re-beginning with additional layers of housing, recreation, commercial and education programs further stitching the area back into the immediate suburbs. Embedded in the plan are provisions for future connection and growth. New penetrations in the shells are located at points of convergence and intersection with the existing street network. The foreshore tram stop predicts a rejuvenated recreation precinct with continuous coastal connection back to the Geelong CBD.
As an alternative to common brownfield developments, the investigation here engages with its problematic current state. The decline in Geelong as a manifestation of ongoing national economic transitions is tackled through a scale of intervention that affects the local site, the city and the nation. The day-to-day future on Corio Bay is marked by a utopian legacy.
Lance van Maanen is a Graduate of Architecture at ARM Architecture.