500 Bourke Street

March 16, 2012

John Wardle Architects’ redevelopment of this corporate site in Melbourne’s CBD has produced an urban space that is profoundly human and dynamic.

The dominance of corporate space in the contemporary city poses a challenge for the cause of civic place-making. The ubiquitous office tower and bland corporate plaza have come to represent the antithesis of a place designed for lingering, gathering and unplanned encounters. What is communicated by these structures, closed off from the street with its traffic and noise, is efficiency and forward-focus at the expense of community. They exist for their inhabitants only and make no attempt to welcome others to the site.

The building canopy on Bourke Street


John Wardle’s 500 Bourke Street project in Melbourne’s CBD breaks from this history, and joins a new wave of urban architecture and civic realm design that indicates the evolution of corporate space and culture. The project required a building envelope, new ground plane and revitalised retail area, as well as a redesigned external plaza for a 1970s tower block and its original subterranean retail space. Straddling a block between Bourke Street and Little Bourke Street, the site’s prominence, in close proximity to the legal district and in view of the domed Supreme Court, offered an opportunity to make a statement design. John Wardle has realised this in a thoughtful and poetic way.

His ambition for the project was to produce a generous and inviting space through a ground plane that acknowledges the temporal and physical dynamics of the city, while providing the necessary demarcations between private and public environments. The design is full of visual and kinetic interest, resisting hard edges as it unfolds outwards to its front and back streetscapes.

The canpoy's pixelated foliage motif


A signature canopy along the Bourke Street frontage is a particular highlight. Diffusing the sharp boundary of the tower, this canopy extends like a piece of origami across the building’s main entrance, transforming a barely inhabited external space into a transitional zone or anteroom to the foyer that brings the outside in. The canopy’s structure is light and transparent in contrast to the original building’s heavy concrete facade. Supported by a spidery metal skeleton, its sheets of glass imprinted with pixelated foliage glimmer in sunlight and reveal a complex pattern of real street trees beyond.

The tesselated ceiling and floor play with pattern and texture


The motif dappling the canopy’s surface is echoed in a thin band that wraps around the building’s front, indicative of the use of tropes across the project. The original bluestone paving along Bourke Street is referenced in the tessellated pattern and colour of the foyer’s basalt floor, while the white ceiling and internal wall cladding also play with tessellation, creating layers of texture, shadow and form within the space.

A casual, open café contributes to the foyer's village atmosphere


A café and open eating area along the right-hand foyer wall extend the theme of transitional space, with large patterned glass panes above throwing playful shadows across the foyer, which shift throughout the day. The admission of natural light into the south-facing foyer contributes to its sense of openness and fluidity. Workers and visitors are encouraged to linger, as well as to pass through by comfortable public seating (comprising large tessellated felt blocks) and a village-like atmosphere.

Views and visual through-lines are crucial to the design, and there is a variance of space through layers and levels as the foyer opens to the north up a large flight of stairs. Even before the stairs are ascended, the 19th century Supreme Court dome appears, a visual connection drawing its public out into the tower’s rear plaza, which replaces the previous dowdy underground retail space and underutilised pocket park. The plaza successfully combines its retail and civic functions, providing plenty of cantilevered seating, repeating the theme of tessellated form. Several stylised metal trees, covered in living foliage, add aesthetic interest.

The rear plaza, with the Supreme Court beyond


Above the plaza is a further landscaped area, with additional seating and rows of olive trees. This space is also home to two eateries from the fashionable MoVida stable: MoVida Terrazza, a small kiosk-style café, and the tapas restaurant MoVida Aqui, which occupies a large enclosed veranda space within the building envelope. Views are again prominent here, with the dome reappearing among a variegated roofscape. On the western edge of the restaurant, a curvilinear staircase winds back down to the plaza and to a little lane running through to Bourke Street. This is a deliberate evocation of Melbourne city’s colonial imprint and the network of laneways that still unsettles the formal urban grid.

Informal seating contributes to the civic space


This kind of remembering infuses Wardle’s design, as the past is integrated into the making of new spaces. The future-oriented ethos of corporate culture is challenged by the recognition of layers of inhabitation and passage. This recognition is crucial to a sustainable renewal of the urban fabric that refuses to seal communities off from their environments and the dynamics of everyday life that occur within.

The scale of this project is profoundly human. Place-making, according to Wardle, is certainly about the building, but its real success lies in drawing people to it. Here, this goal is definitely realised.

Emily Potter is a research fellow in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her research concerns place-making and issues of social and environmental sustainability.

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