Out of the Vault

April 11, 2016

A recent ABC News article mentions citywide tributes to one of Melbourne’s most famous and controversial sculptures, Vault, more popularly known as the ‘Yellow Peril’. The sculpture was removed from City Square following community and political opposition – Queen Elizabeth is said to have asked if it could be painted "a more agreeable colour" – and it was stored and installed at a progressive number of locations until reaching its current home at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

Vault at ACCA. (Photo source)

However architectural tributes to the sculpture have apparently arisen in a number of public artworks, including RMIT University and the Melbourne International Gateway. The Vault’s sculptor, Ron Robertson-Swann, also worked with Melbourne City Council to embed a reference to the sculpture into Swanson Street tram stops.

The tram stop tribute to Vault. (Photo source)

Of this project, Robertson-Swann said "That was one of the hardest design jobs I've ever done … Everything you did, oh my God, you couldn't do that [because of] health and safety”, with the result being "gentle and timid suggestions of fragments of Vault".

This shows a common problem arising from hazard-based risk management approaches, such as that espoused by AS31000. The issue arises from the cognitive and cultural differences between judgment and compliance, between art and function.

Hazard-based safety risk approaches look at a scenario and ask: “What could go wrong? What are we doing about this? Is it safe enough? Is the risk low enough?” This approach does identify safety issues and measures to address them. However, it also tends to push away new ideas and approaches, the result of a focus on ways in which these questions have previously been signed off – e.g. company procedures and industry technical standards.

A precaution-based safety risk approach, in contrast, looks first at the goals of the endeavor. Provided it is not considered prohibitively dangerous, it asks: “What safety measures should be in place so that we can move forward?” Precaution-based assessment is options, rather than hazard-based, and can thus effectively examine innovative suggestions as well as current practice, while maintaining a clear view of the overall goals of the process.

This is an especially powerful technique in design safety assessments. It allows artists, architects, engineers, constructors, owners, operators and maintainers to all put forward their various concerns and suggestions in a common framework. This enhances communication between stakeholders, and lets project leaderships teams make decisions that clearly address and explain their consideration of the diverse requirements of any multi-discipline project.

In the case of the Swanson Street tram stops, it may be that the use of a precaution-based design safety process which considered the safety and artistic goals as both key to the project success, rather than in opposition, may have led to a stronger artistic outcome without sacrificing safety.

For more detail on this approach read R2A’s Safety Due Diligence White Paper.

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