February 5, 2023

The Great Vault Sculpture Controversy

In 1980, a public artwork in Melbourne’s new city square provoked public outrage. This is the great Vault sculpture controversy.

Queen Victoria Building, Melbourne
Queen Victoria Building, Melbourne

At the start of the 1960s, the Melbourne City Council decided to build a public square in the city.

The absence of one had long been a criticism of Melbourne; there was no equivalent of a Times Square or a Trafalgar Square, or even Sydney’s Hyde Park. The city had expanded rapidly during the 19th century gold rush, and commercial interests had trumped public utility.

The City Council now planned to build a square near Town Hall, on the block between Collins Street and Flinders Lane.

The proposed location was occupied by the Queen Victoria Building, which housed the stylish Queen’s Walk Arcade. Previously one of the city’s most prominent buildings, by the 1960s the property was seen as old fashioned.

In 1966, the building was demolished and the land sold to the council. Grass was laid out, to provide an ad hoc public space, while a design was settled on.

Melbourne's City Square in its temporary configuration
City Square in its temporary configuration

In 1976, the Council launched a competition for the final version of the square. This was won by local architecture firm Denton, Corker & Marshall.

Their winning entry was elaborate.

To one side would be a water feature, with artificial cascades, at the bottom of a sunken amphitheatre. There would be a ‘graffiti wall’, to showcase street artists, and a large video screen would display news and public announcements.

Surrounding the main area would be retail shops and restaurants, connected by an ornate glass and metal covered walkway. At the front, in the main open space, would be a large scale public artwork.

Robertson-Swann's design for 'Vault'
Robertson-Swann’s design for ‘Vault’

A separate contest was held to choose the square’s art. The winner was Ron Robertson-Swann, a 37 year old sculptor based in Sydney.

Robertson-Swann had studied art in London, working with the famed Henry Moore, and was considered a rising local star; he had participated in the much discussed ‘Field Show’, which caused a splash when it opened the NGV in 1968 (read more about this landmark exhibition here).

His winning submission was to be a large, geometric abstract, roughly pyramidal, to be constructed of different shaped planes of metal. The piece was to be coloured bright yellow, to contrast with the surroundings.

‘The City Square that Denton Corker Marshall designed was mostly bluestone and I just thought it needed a lift.

 

It needed the sunshine let in, in some ways. You need a colour for a sculpture that kind of fits its mood; I thought yellow fitted its mood.’

 

– Ron Robertson-Swann

The work was untitled when submitted; the sculptor playfully referred to it as ‘The Thing’. He would later settle on ‘Vault’.

The sculpture would sit in a prominent central location and looked, a little, like something you could store things in. A metaphoric Vault for the surrounding city.

Vault sculpture in Melbourne's City Square, 1980
Vault in City Square, 1980

Vault proved polarising, right from its inception.

Patrick McCaughey, Professor of Fine Arts at Monash University and Melbourne’s foremost art critic, favoured the bold and colourful design. Vault was also praised by Eric Rowlison, then director of the NGV.

The public response was less enthusiastic. Many people called it an eyesore, or just found it baffling. Its $70 000 price tag was also much discussed.

At the time, Melbourne was a more subdued place than today; ‘Vault’ stood out dramatically from its surroundings.

‘People didn’t just dislike Vault, they became passionate in their dislike. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on it.’

 

– David Hurlstone, NGV Curator of Australian Art

Abstract art is often controversial, people took issue with Vault’s colour as well. Critics dubbed it ‘The Yellow Peril’, an insensitive epithet that harked back to the White Australia policy, and added an alarming tone to the debate.

Even Queen Elizabeth II weighed in. When she opened the completed City Square in May 1980, she reportedly said of ‘Vault’: it could have been ‘a more agreeable colour.’

Vault sculpture; water feature and video screen behind
Vault; water feature and video screen behind

Discussion of ‘Vault’ carried over to the City Council.

Opposition to the artwork was headed by Councillor Don Osbourne, the deputy mayor, who suggested the piece may have been ‘a trick by Sydneysiders, to make a joke on Melbourne’. After the Square opened, Osbourne commissioned a survey of passers-by; he claimed the result showed 80% of people wanted Vault removed.

Verbatim comments likened it to ‘a piece of abandoned farm machinery’, and ‘an upside down Tibetan teahouse.’

Other councillors backed the artwork, and objected to Osbourne using the term ‘Yellow Peril’ in his remarks. Lord Mayor Irvin Rockman called it an ‘outstanding work’.

Contractors dismantling Vault, Melbourne, 1981
Contractors dismantling Vault, 1981

Meanwhile, City Square itself was also poorly received. Derided as bland, cold and windswept, it struggled to ingratiate itself with the city.

Vault was seen as another problematic element of a project which had proved disappointing.

As the council considered changes to City Square, Councillor Osbourne lead a successful vote to have Vault removed. This was initially thwarted by a union ban: outraged at the artist’s treatment, local unions forbade their members from carrying out the order.

Finally, contractors were found who would remove the piece. Vault was disassembled overnight in July 1981, and placed in storage. It had only stood in City Square for seven months.

Eventually a new home was found for it, in Batman Park on the banks of the Yarra.

Vault sculpture in Batman Park
Vault in Batman Park

Batman Park could hardly have been a less prestigious location, for a prominent piece of art.

While named after one of the city’s European founders, it was situated in a neglected area: wedged between the city loop train line and two busy road bridges. The park itself was uninviting: bare, muddy, and rubbish strewn, it received few visitors.

Robertson-Swann voiced his disappointment. It was not just about his reputation as an artist, he stated that ‘Vault’ had been designed for the specific City Square location; it would not work as well, elsewhere.

Although he tried to keep his sense of humour: ‘Nobody came and shot me,’ he quipped.

Vault had been sent into a kind of art-exile, out of sight and mind. It was graffitied, and used sometimes by homeless people as a shelter.

ACCA, Melbourne
ACCA, Melbourne

In 2002, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) moved to a new purpose built facility in Southbank.

The gallery has a striking look; the principal building is made of rust coloured metal, with a large red and black water tower at the rear. Alongside is an extensive forecourt, lined with cream coloured gravel.

This open space would provide a new home for Vault.

‘Vault has become part of the public fabric of the city. It has had changing fortunes and speaks of our transition from a conservative, less tolerant city to a vibrant metropolis that welcomes diverse cultures.’

 

– Max Delaney, ACCA artistic director

The controversy surrounding the work had receded over the previous 20 years. It was now viewed affectionately, its distinctiveness celebrated.

Sly tribute to Vault, at the City Square tram stop
Sly tribute to Vault, at the City Square tram stop

A book about Vault, ‘Peril in the Square’ by Geoffrey Wallis, appeared in 2017. Other tributes to the sculpture can be found around Melbourne.

The tram stops near City Square, where it used to reside, have a Vault-like geometric pattern built into them; the public artworks ‘Melbourne International Gateway’, and ‘Public Art Strategy’, both on the Eastlink, pay homage to Vault’s design.

Ron Robertson-Swann
Ron Robertson-Swann

Ron Robertson-Swann continued his successful career, and enjoyed a lengthy tenure as Head of Sculpture at the Australian National Art School.

He created several more large scale pieces for public locations, and his work is held in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery NSW, and the National Gallery in Canberra.

Of Vault’s repaired standing he was philosophical. ‘If something new comes into the world then it takes a while for taste and sensibility to adjust,’ he said.

City Square was downsized in 1996, with half of the space sold for redevelopment. A ‘Westin’ hotel was built on this area, at the rear of the square, many of its other original features have been removed.

The site is currently covered by a large shed, as part of the construction of the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel. What it will look like in future remains to be seen.

Vault sculpture in the ACCA forecourt
Vault in the ACCA forecourt

I see Vault regularly: I often walk past ACCA if I’m heading into the city. The graffiti has been cleaned away and the yellow paint redone, it is as striking as it was when constructed.

The ACCA forecourt is a quiet spot on a backstreet, but there are often people there, taking photos. Sometimes there is a wedding couple having their formal pictures done, with Vault as an atypical backdrop. The sculpture is popular with kids, who love running through it.

After a lengthy journey, it seems to have found its place.

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