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Lighting up Chinatown

Lighting up Chinatown

Stainless steel lanterns now adorn the streets of Melbourne’s Chinatown, celebrating the cultural character of the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world.

Chinese lanterns are a symbol of Chinese culture worldwide, initially used to provide light and later adopted for religious worship, decoration and celebration. Traditionally made from silk or paper, the City of Melbourne recently evolved the Chinese hanging lanterns featured on Little Bourke Street from cloth to stainless steel.

In extensive consultation with the Chinatown Precinct Association, the City of Melbourne and GHD (Structural Engineers) reimagined the classic lantern with a detailed design that preserved the traditional aesthetic while examining a number of considerations. 

Durability and product life cycle were strong factors to reduce maintenance and regular replacement of the lanterns. Strength-to-weight ratio and resilience to local weather conditions was also important, with the completed design required to stay below 7kg to be viable for use on the existing catenary lighting system.

ASSDA Member Draffin Street Furniture worked closely with the City of Melbourne to bring the design to life, assisting with the materials selection and manufacturability of the lanterns. Two prototype lanterns were installed at the corner of Heffernan Lane and Little Bourke Street to test the design and seek feedback from local traders and the Chinatown Precinct Association.

Powder coated aluminium was initially selected as the design material however, stainless steel superseded the specification primarily for its strength and the ability for a thinner section of material to be used (0.6mm stainless steel sheet vs. 1.22mm aluminium sheet). In addition, stainless steel offered a more sustainable solution with a 25-year design life and little-to-no maintenance.

The final design resulted in a 700mm wide by 500mm high spherical lantern made from 316 grade stainless steel, powder coated with a luminous, metallic red colour. In Chinese culture, the colour red symbolises good fortune and joy. 

The lanterns were formed using laser cut 0.6mm sheet, with each panel formed into shape and fixed to a central aluminium frame. The custom-designed lanterns were manufactured by Draffin Street Furniture, and stainless steel material for the project was supplied by ASSDA Member Steel Color Australia.

80 new permanent lanterns were installed on the existing catenary lighting system, which was originally manufactured and supplied with the assistance of ASSDA Member Ronstan Tensile Architecture in 2009. The linear grid catenary suspended from the street’s buildings uses 316 grade stainless steel rectangular frames spaced equidistantly to hold the grid form, while permitting the suspension cables to connect to buildings at different heights depending on the availability of structural connection points. Designed to enhance the character of the precinct with Chinese lanterns and other iconography, the decorative and functional stainless steel catenary lighting system continues to perform structurally 12 years on since its installation.

Installation of the new hanging lanterns was completed at the end of July 2020. Brought to life using local design expertise and stainless steel, the lanterns maintain its symbolic heritage and will continue to provide a festive welcome to visitors for at least the next 25 years.
       

Image: @rayofmelbourne for @cityofmelbourne

This article is featured in Australian Stainless Magazine issue 72, 2021.

Tina Belesis