Finalist 2023

The Roundtable

Common / Enlocus / RMIT Architecture / Commissioned by City of Melbourne

The Roundtable is a public installation in Melbourne that celebrates coming together, seeing each other, and sharing food.

The Roundtable is a public installation in Melbourne formed of a communal ‘table’ filled with edible plants. The table is the original common space, an object that celebrates coming together, seeing each other, and sharing food. The project was conceived during Melbourne’s extended lockdowns, and a deep longing for the social. This table represents a hub for diverse lives, where deals are made, and communities engage in discussion. The garden features plants chosen for their visual appeal, scent, and taste. Visitors are encouraged to pick, smell, and taste the plants, and use the table as a hub for social exchange.

Design Brief:

The Roundtable was developed in response to an open call for public activation projects in 2021 by the City of Melbourne. The call was established during the later stages of the covid-19 pandemic seeking ways to reactivate the city and draw out public engagement in the wake of the lockdowns, and the general pivot towards remote working and learning.

The project could be situated anywhere within the City of Melbourne, with a fixed budget of $50,000 to cover aspects of the project. The project was expected to be a short term activation, with no requirement for it to exists beyond a few weeks provided it achieved the aim of drawing people into the public spaces of the city, and engaging the community through the project.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The Roundtable project has undergone an extended period of development and evolution. The original idea for the project came from an earlier scheme submitted to the National Gallery of Victoria Architecture Commission 2020. The project titled “At the Table” was one of five shortlisted projects out of more than 100 entries.

This project, conceived during Melbourne’s lockdowns, was aimed at celebrating the social at a time when it was largely impossible. The proposal was not built, and so was adapted for a proposal for the Tin Sheds Gallery in Sydney entitled “Encounter.” This proposal for was for a table situated within the gallery garden, with the final form of the scheme very similar to the Roundtable design. Again, this submission was shortlisted but not successful. In late 2021 the design was further adapted for a public call by the City of Melbourne for City Activation projects.

The design was originally proposed for the Errol Street median strip, in the commercial centre of North Melbourne, reflecting observations of the manner in which this space had been used during the pandemic. The proposal was selected for implementation and underwent a period of development. Common & Enlocus engaged traffic engineers to assess the potential impact of the proposal on vehicle movements, and were advised that there was a risk that pedestrians accessing the installation might be struck by cars.

In response the proposal was shifted north to Errol Street reserve. The design was developed to ensure it could be built with an extremely small budget, while remaining of a level of quality and robustness appropriate for the public domain.

Design Excellence

The Roundtable demonstrates design excellence primarily through its outsized impact relative to budget and project scope. The project was funded from a small public activation fund, which was primarily geared towards events and performances.

The outcome of the project is a public civic infrastructure that has hosted numerous events and interactions over a half year period. The project has been described as beautiful by several critics and contributes to the streetscape in an area of the city that was effectively swale full of infrastructural connections. However, its design excellence lies not in its resolution as an object but in the ingenuity of making something of enduring public benefit within minimal means. The achievement of this can be broken into two parts:

  • Firstly, the original idea to adapt the table typology, increase its scale so it has a presence in the city, and to integrate landscaping in such a way as it serves a public need and draws regular use by the community.
  • Secondly, the use of digital design and fabrication technologies to allow a complex form to be constructed within an extremely tight budget, as well as the application of readily available off the shelf components in an original arrangement. The physical outcome of this process demonstrates how excellent can be of social benefit to the community.

The Roundtable is an unsolicited project that provides a space for people to gather, share food, and connect with one another, the project promotes social interaction and a sense of belonging that is essential for building strong, healthy communities, while raising awareness about food plants in urban environments and their potential uses, promoting sustainable and environmentally conscious practices.

Design Innovation

The project utilises digital fabrication methodologies not as a tool of material or tectonic experimentation, but as a method of delivering maximum value with minimum means. The main body of the table foundation is made from 18mm marine ply, cut using a 5 axis CNC router. The assembly process took only a few hours, which significantly reduced the labour costs of the project.

The surface of the table is made from CNC cut mild steel with a clear penetrol sealant. This choice creates a dynamic aesthetic element, as the sealant allows the steel to gradually rust over time. This intentional aging process not only adds visual interest but also serves as a symbolic representation of the installation's temporal nature, marking the passage of time and inviting reflection on the ever-changing urban landscape.

The 'Roundtable' incorporates versatile and sustainable elements in its design. The planter beds surrounding the table utilize easily reusable, off-the-shelf pots, reducing waste and promoting eco-conscious practices. The seating, ingeniously crafted from terracotta pots filled with sand for stability, combines functionality with an aesthetic charm that complements the overall design.

Beyond its technical achievements, the 'Roundtable' project holds significant social and community value. By activating an underutilized section of public parkland, it revitalizes the urban space and fosters a sense of community engagement. The project serves as a prototype for future landscape interventions, demonstrating how innovative design and construction techniques can be harnessed to generate substantial benefits with minimal financial and environmental impact.

Design Impact

The Roundtable project was a low budget small scale and temporary project. The called for an event or installation that could last a few weeks. There was no expectation that it could support a significant piece of public architecture. The Roundtable has had disproportionately large impact relative to its scale and the requirements of its brief. The project was installed in late January 2023.

The project has been installed for more than 6 months. It has hosted numerous public events, including multiple events organised by the North West Precinct Association. It has played host to public discussions organised by RMIT University School of Architecture and Urban Design. It has been included in the public program for Open House Melbourne 2023, was featured at the Open House launch event and will be discussed at the keynote opening event for Open House entitled “This is Public” at the Capitol Theatre.

The Roundtable has featured in local newspapers on several occasions, it was reviewed in ArchitectureAU and has been shortlisted in the installation category for the Dezeen Awards. More importantly, the project has become a much loved community asset for the North Melbourne and Parkville community. Throughout summer and autumn 2023 it was always full of people – picking the herbs, sitting at the table, working at the table, eating lunch, reading the planting information, or climbing and running on the table. The table has featured in Tik Tok stories – for better or worse. On weekday afternoons, children leaving North Melbourne Primary School play on it, while parents sit and talk to each other at the seats.

The table has remained far beyond its planned life of 3 months and is so popular a community petition has been formed to make it permanent.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

The Roundtable has been designed to minimise the usage of material and energy in its construction and is designed with an end-of-life strategy for recycling and reuse of its components.

The design was optimised using digital modelling tools to use the minimum possible material. The folded geometry of the table’s walls braces the structure, allowing for a reduction in supporting timber framework. To enable this to be constructed in an inexpensive manner the structural elements of the table work cut using a 5-axis robotic router. This produced approximately 100 parts that slot together like a puzzle, with very few fixings. The entire structure of the table was assembled by a 2 people in half a day.

The design considered the inherent properties of its materials and was configured to minimise the environmental impact of the construction, both through embodied carbon and potential impact on the landscape. FSC plywood was used for the majority of the structure. The design makes use of formply, which provided a pre-finished surface that required no further painting or chemical treatment.

The table includes a mild steel top provide resilience against weather and high impact public usage, however in consideration of the substantial embodied energy associated with steel the minimum possible material is provided. The table top is a 5mm steel plate laminated onto plywood backing, providing a solid surface and the appearance of steel with a fraction of the carbon emissions of solid steel.

Lastly the project is designed with an end-of-life strategy. All materials are able to be recycled or upcycled, with plywood being upcycled for furniture and the steel being recycled. The landscape component will be donated to North Melbourne Primary School following the de-installation with plants being sold at the annual school fete to fund the school community.

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