401 St Kilda Road

January 13, 2011

Elenberg Fraser’s foray into the tightly constrained world of multi-residential property proves there is architectural worth in a developer-driven market.

Melbourne is experiencing a golden age in its cultural production. No other city in Australia has been able to align its artistic output across all fields of the arts. The embrace of live performance, the interest in painting and sculpture and the creation of iconic galleries, theatres and venues for music is remarkable for a city of its scale. The societal opulence and an almost gloating avoidance of the Global Financial Crisis has seen the city enter a new era. A key part of its revival has been the densification of residential development and apartment buildings within the urban core and its immediate surrounds. A focus for development has been Southbank, Port Melbourne, Docklands and more recently St Kilda Road. This grand tree-lined boulevard is unequalled in its width, amenity or infrastructure; as a city arterial it is both functional and beautiful. For the duration of the 1980s and 90s it was occupied by uninspiring pink and grey office blocks, interrupted by the odd apartment building.

In recent years, the strength of the Boomer apartment market and the overwhelming desire to be in close proximity to the city, but not quite in it, has seen St Kilda Road emerge as the primary location for luxury multi-residential architecture. Successful projects by Bates Smart, SJB and Wood Marsh have seen demand spike in this sector and appropriately raised the expectations of the performance of the architect.

Into this context, Elenberg Fraser has arrived with 401 St Kilda Road. This young Melbourne-based architectural firm has used its opportunities well and built a significant practice around the potential of commercially focused architecture to deliver buildings of extremely high design value with little compromise to quality. As a proposition this takes time to develop, and Elenberg Fraser has fought hard to understand the limits of engagement in the tough world of the developer. The ambition first identified at their Liberty Tower, then pursued through Huski Hotel and reinforced by their Docklands projects at Watergate and Site One, has transformed into an impressive collection of apartment buildings in South Yarra, South Melbourne and the cracking, and almost complete, A’Beckett Tower in the north of Melbourne’s CBD. 401 represents their first foray into the luxury market and is, as was blatantly advertised, ‘Worth every Million.’

‘Melbourne is vibrant intellectually and artistically,’ director Callum Fraser states. ‘This building reflects a confidence in a modernist agenda of growth.’ Arguably the ascension of Melbourne draws direct parallels to the development of Los Angeles in post-war America. Given this, it is appropriate that Fraser cites American architect John Lautner as a key influence on the project and the practice. Lautner’s dramatic, site responsive architecture mirrored the optimism and entrepreneurship of 1950s California and its ability to ‘construct a new identity for a place’. Of particular interest is Lautner’s incorporation of landscape into his architecture.

‘St Kilda Road and the site in particular provide a unique opportunity to locate the occupants in the landscape,’ Fraser explains, ‘and to pursue the desire to reframe the relationship where a tension is established between the presence of the landscape and the comfort of the interior. We tried to position the viewer in the canopy of the trees, the view of the dome of the adjacent synagogue and the broad vista up and across St Kilda Road; to suck the view back into the architecture.’ Indeed, the architecture itself exists as a construction of discrete built fabric that, to quote Fraser, ‘layers the act of inhabitation’.

At seven storeys of 16 apartments, 401 is targeted at a very precise occupant. Stepping back as it rises from the street, the architecture responds very deliberately to its surroundings. Fraser describes the building as a ‘collection of negotiating techniques with its context’, not trying to ‘fit’ with the quite different conditions of its dual street frontage, but engaging with them in a positive manner. The building’s side walls shift and play with the eclectic backs of adjacent heritage apartments, creating delightful spaces as Fraser explains, ‘with elastic side walls through sinuous plastic expression.’ A heavy podium supports several levels of veiled terraces that extend from apartments within, fine anodised screens and eventually vegetation provide articulation of the facade and a representation of the character inside. Finally, a timber-clad core of accommodation emerges from the centre, suggesting it could keep going to match its towering neighbours (if that wasn’t so unbecoming).

Unlike its more object driven competitors, 401 strikes the ground with a firm commitment to the urban nature of the street. The heavy vaulted geometry of its green tiled base commands presence and defines a small retail arcade (replicating a function that previously occupied the site) with the marquee tenant of Cafe Vue, where Elenberg Fraser also created the tactile interior. Entry into the apartments is discretely tucked to the side of the cafe, with an elongated entry that removes the visitor from the street into a dark theatrical space plunging into the depth of the site. A rich collection of reflective black glass, continuous gold drapery and exotic stone, it provides a stark contrast to the noise outside. There is an infinite depth to the surface that is amplified by the neon art piece, now seemingly manadatory in every Elenberg Fraser apartment building; in this particular lobby we are presented with a work by Brendan Van Hek, captured in a golden casket.

The journey to the apartment continues in the vein of a five star hotel, which would be familiar to the residents. Draped walls and low lighting allow an intimacy appropriate to the four apartments sharing a floor. Entry into the apartment itself is surprisingly dramatic. The scale is huge. A wide ‘Gallery’ opens onto what Elenberg Fraser refer to as the ‘Great Room’ – a massive open space that leads full width onto the veiled terrace that effectively grasps the panorama of the upper layer of the street. Fraser describes the dimensions of the room as necessary: ‘We are talking about a [Boomer] market here, where people have collected a lot of stuff over their lives and have to now compress a big house into an apartment. They need the space, and they need the storage.’ Certainly, there is a sense of grandeur to the volume and a level of amenity that one would expect in a house: a big staging kitchen and scullery, a substantial laundry, decent sized bedroom’s with individual ensuites and a phenomenal master bed- room that IS a hotel suite.

This is an architecture that displays the growing confidence of its authors. It could be dismissed as an indulgence for the wealthy, but that would disguise the value to be found in the sophisticated manner in which it stitches itself into a place and the skill with which it extracts architectural merit from the hardened grip of the commercial budget. Most importantly, this building contributes to marking a point in time for a city that knows its place.

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