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Research by design

A dusty corner of the Melbourne Arts Precinct has become a temporary space to explore new creative ideas.

The empty lot at 1 City Road is Crown Land, under the management of Creative Victoria and slated for redevelopment at some unknown point in the future. Rather than left dormant, it has been transformed into an urban design experiment - a low-cost arts incubator and a make-shift public park called Testing Grounds.

The idea for Testing Grounds came from a public consultation around the Melbourne Arts Precinct - the area just south of the city centre that is home to a remarkable concentration of galleries, performance spaces and elite training institutions. When asked what was missing from the area, people consistently identified a need for more public spaces, more cheap places to eat and drink, and places for more informal and exploratory work.

'When you come into the arts precinct as a performer, it generally means you're at the peak of your career,' says Bree Trevena, Senior Project Officer at Creative Victoria. 'Testing Grounds is about providing access to people who are perhaps at the start of their career, and audiences who might want bit of that grittier Melbourne flavour represented down there.'

Snuff Puppets

Snuff Puppets at Testing Grounds

Testing Grounds was established at very low cost – Creative Victoria allocated the same budget that had previously been set aside for weed killing and rubbish removal to the launch and operation of the site. Designed and operated by partners Millie Cattlin and Joe Norster of These Are The Projects We Do Together, the Grounds are open to the public seven days a week, with reclaimed pallets and above ground garden planters forming a makeshift park. A roster of events, performances, workshops and masterclasses takes place on the site, managed through an open 'expressions of interest' process, while a bar and food trucks keep the public fed and watered.

Testing Grounds has effectively become a living research model, testing in real time whether public use of the site reflects what the public said they wanted. The engagement has been truly exceptional.

In its first twelve months of operations, Testing Grounds hosted over 200 projects and events, all free to the public. Photography exhibitions have been mounted on site in between networking events for arts festivals, film screenings and performance art pieces. Students from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) have staged fundraising concerts while digital artist have held 3D printing workshops.

Organisations including Multicultural Arts Victoria, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and the Australian Institute of Architects have used Testing Grounds for events, while independent artists, and members of the public, have hosted everything from picnics to improvised dance classes, even a wedding.

'There was a moment when one of the VCA's students was playing Bartok and it was hailing, like a tremendous summer storm. He was playing on this beaten up, honky tonk piano we keep on the stage,' says Joe Norster. 'It was an unusual and tremendous thing to watch.'

A man playing guitar amid crates

Tilde New Music Festival at Testing Grounds

Living Architecture

Joe and Millie relocated their design and architecture studio to Testing Grounds when the site launched. They built the environment out of sustainable and recyclable materials and stayed on as guardians, observing and responding to the changing uses of the space.

'Having time to be with and in an environment you've designed is really instructive,' Joe says. 'It's given us a great deal of patience and stamina, and we're not afraid of being exposed. It diminishes the nonsense factor in design quite quickly, when you're exposed to the world of your design every day. It makes you quite honest.'

Joe and Millie quickly observed that people felt intimidated about entering Testing Grounds because its purpose wasn't always clear. Tucked away behind  Arts Centre Melbourne, located beside a busy city underpass, fenced in and dressed with impermanent, movable features, it doesn't immediately have the usual hallmarks of public space.

'People walk in and they're not really sure where to go. They literally don't know where to stand. There's a desire for entertainment – 'what is there to do?', in a consumerist mode. The idea of meeting and talking to strangers is challenging; having any conversation that doesn't begin, 'Where do I find…' or 'How much is…' is very challenging for people,' Joe says.

He noted that music plays an interesting role – classical or low-key 'musak' keeps people away while James Brown or Talking Heads piped through a decent sound system draws them in. 'They understand, through that ambient cue, that it's a place for gathering and celebration.'

For Joe, Testing Grounds has been a lesson in meeting people halfway. In the initial design, the environment was very challenging. The space did not have any obvious seating areas, which was disorientating for people who walked in. Traditional tables and seats were introduced as a result. Keeping the schedule of events active at Testing Grounds was also a key to its success.

'When people have nothing to do, they feel observed,' says Joe. 'We need to accommodate the fact that people want things to do, with amenities that are useful to them. There's no use being academic about the way people use space. People need an activity of sorts to feel comfortable in public space, even if it's something to look at or browse through.'

People watching a performance

Q44 Theatre at Testing Grounds

Exporting Ideas

Testing Grounds has adapted around Joe and Millie's observations, and continues to provide a space for alternative creative activities in the Melbourne Arts Precinct. The longer it operates, the more Creative Victoria learns about the needs of the area and ways the Precinct could develop  in future.

The project was presented at  the 2014 Architectural Design Research Symposium at the Venice Biennale, where Bree Trevena discussed the strengths and challenges of Testing Grounds, from an urban design point of view. For an international audience with an interest in public spaces and the research-by-design model, Testing Grounds is a thought-provoking subject.

'The most interesting discussions at the symposium were those around what might be lost or gained in the transition from theory to practice. Moving from a concept to reality often throws up unexpected, sometimes messy and sometimes wonderful problems and outcomes,' Bree says. 'But there was broad agreement that developing low cost space for creative practitioners in the inner city is an ongoing problem – and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for increased collaboration between government, creative practitioners and academia to find better solutions.' Naturally, when looking for solutions, Testing Grounds is a good place to start.