Architects throw out the rule book to create a vision for the future that reflects the past

The Australian

21st September 2017.

When Fremantle’s Myer department store closed five years ago, ending four decades at the epicentre of the port town, the response was surprisingly raw. The towering concrete pile was a symbol of Fremantle’s viability, and the community reacted like a country town losing its only bank.

“People thought Fremantle was going to be OK, but there was a dawning sense of ‘we have to do something differently’ if we don’t want to see more decline,” says Brad Pettitt, Fremantle’s 45-yearold mayor. “It was a big wake up call.”

The council used the vacancy to assemble several central parcels of land into a critical mass ripe for redevelopment. The $270m Kings Square renewal project absorbs Fremantle’s circa 1833 town square into a new space containing an unconventional commercial retail, food and beverage precinct driven by funds manager Sirona Capital, as well as a new council administration building and public library designed by Kerry Hill Architects.

Billed as revitalising Fremantle from the inside out, it turned its first sod at the end of August after six years in the making.

“When Myer left it was clear the fundamentals weren’t right for retail and that’s at the heart of this project,” says Pettitt.

Architect Susanne Pini of HDR’s Sydney arm is overseeing the project’s commercial side. She says the development, daringly named FOMO — Fremantle On My Own — has taken a fresh approach to retail design, dispensing with shopfronts and restrictive, sanitised spaces.

“A great piece of work is traditionally about keeping everybody inside,” she says. “But in our minds, a great building is about a great precinct, because that’s how people want to experience places. So we really threw the rule book out.”

Research into understanding what makes Fremantle and its residents tick revealed that a traditional shopping centre offering would not work in the West Australian community.

Instead, HDR was tasked with creating a free-flowing, constantly evolving space that defined Fremantle’s restless spirit.

“It’s an unusual thing for an architect to receive as a brief. Building buildings is normally about permanence,” she says. “Architecture likes to control visual outcomes and put all these rules in place. We said the opposite: what we need to do is create an evocative container so people can express in it.”

Pini believes the approach is the way of the future for the commercial sector.

“It’s where we think retail is going. It’s that elusiveness of trying to catch something that always wants to be changing, but has been set in buildings and leases that can’t change,” she says.

The firm’s interpretation sees a number of different zones bleeding into one another in an almost imperceptible way. The design includes a hawker-style market, laneways, craft-led maker spaces, an amphitheatre and a pocket park.

“This project doesn’t have clear sight lines. It has a state of being in perpetual movement,” says Pini. “It’s a boundless container that provides a framework for retail to meander around.”

Material use sticks to the unconventional theme. There will be perforated concrete, visible metal rods, glass bottles, circular tubes and galvanised pipes wrapped in the mesh used to surround tennis courts. “There’s no pristine glass, no aluminium sections,” says Pini. “It won’t feel like it’s just opened today. We’ve chosen seasoned, rough and worn materials that have the hand of the maker within them.”

In another quirk, the letters of the building’s pop culture name, FOMO, will be part of the architecture. “The FOMO letters are super scaled,” says Pini. “When you walk past, you can’t easily read the letters together, they’re more abstract forms that the retail fits within. You can sit on parts of it. It’s our nod to contemporary Freo.”

The iconic Myer building will not be bulldozed. Instead, it will be visible throughout the multi-precinct design, in keeping with Fremantle’s historic, weathered and textured DNA. Pini says colourful, moving, audible chandeliers will draw the eye to its concrete shell. “We’ve formed laneways where you can look up to the existing structure,” she says. “We’ve tried to strip it back to show the history of the building.”

Mayor Pettitt, who was Dean of the School of Sustainability at Murdoch University and is on WA’s Heritage Council, is pleased the Myer building will stay. “I’m a big fan of adaptive re-use,” he says. “Great cities are cities that keep remnants of their past.”

Yet he’s looking forward to demolition getting under way in the construction site where FOMO should stand by the end of 2019, as he navigates the city’s feelings of excitement and anxiety.

“There’s a bit of nervousness around next two years, how we get through it as a city,” he says. “It’s been a long journey. We can’t wait to see the cranes in the sky.”