'Vault' – Southbank, Australia - Atlas Obscura

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Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
Southbank, Australia

This abstract sculpture was initially so disliked that it got moved to the outskirts of town a few months after installation. 


When Queen Elizabeth II, officially opened the square where this sculpture originally stood as a centerpiece, she reportedly inquired as to whether the bright yellow sculpture could be painted “a more agreeable color.” While the truth of this anecdote is up for debate, it accurately represents many people’s reaction to Vault, a sculpture made by Australian artist Ron Robertson-Swann.

The large steel structure was installed in Melbourne City Square in May 1980. It lasted less than eight months in its intended position before a public outcry saw it relocated to an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. Initially, the sculpture had no official name, but earned nicknames including “The Thing,” “Steelhenge,” and the derogatory nickname “The Yellow Peril.” In September 1980, Robertson-Swann officially gave it the name that it carries today.

Robertson-Swann said he believed the public would have come to accept the sculpture if it were allowed to stay. He said Vault was meant to be explored and walked through, which the public could not do while it was at City Square. It was never finished in it original location and had barricades around it.

The sculpture was “dismantled and dumped” in the dead of night at a reclaimed shunting yard by the Yarra River, which was eventually redeveloped as Batman Park. Vault remained at Batman Park until 2002, when it was relocated to its current location outside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Southbank.

While the sculpture was not initially loved, today a number of high-profile public designs across Melbourne pay homage to Vault. One of those is the mid-1990s refurbishment of RMIT University’s Storey Hall, which has a scale section of Vault embedded in its architectural fabric. There’s also Eastlink freeway’s Melbourne International Gateway (colloquially known as “the cheese sticks”), which salutes Robertson-Swann’s controversial piece. The yellow beam of the gateway is officially a tribute to Victoria’s gold rush, while the red poles represent the state’s wheat industry. Small tributes to Vault were even built into Swanston Street’s tram stops when they were revamped in 2012. 

Know Before You Go

Located outside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Southbank at the corner of Grant and Dodds St.

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