Yan Lane

February 17, 2011

Young architect Justin Mallia transforms a seemingly unworkable inner-city lane in Melbourne into a site for award-winning architecture.

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The story of Yan Lane reads like a fable: talented young architect with little money finds a tiny piece of land no-one else wants behind a row of inner city shops, battles with incompetent council for a year, convinces hostile objectors, finds kindly builder who helps build a pair of great little houses, then wins an architecture award…

The moral behind the fable is that the persistence of youthful enthusiasm will prevail. The real lesson to be taken from this project though is the value of engaging a young architect to find an innovative, attractive solution to the provision of medium density housing in the tightly-packed inner suburbs of the Australian city.

Justin Mallia has designed and produced two townhouses on a tight site in the eclectic suburb of Richmond, immediately east of Melbourne’s CBD. He achieved where others failed by, as he describes, ‘looking at the site with fresh eyes’ and realising that ‘there was really nothing that skills and enthusiasm couldn’t overcome’.

The Yan Lane project is essentially a three-storey linear form with a long side facing north. Program in the small development is a logically assembled garage and office (a requirement of the property’s business zoning) on the ground floor, with staircases rising to kitchen and living areas on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second floor. The section shifts to accommodate what Mallia refers to as the ‘pragmatics’ of the site; a setback on the ground floor allows cars to enter and exit the garages comfortably, and the setback of the bedroom level responds to overlooking concerns for neighbours. The floors are locked together by a clever staircase that locates and defines the nature of the interior program.

However, Yan Lane moves beyond the competent manipulation of constraint that might be expected. The project embraces a poetic reading of its context, from the tough laneway ‘streetscape’ to the aspirations of the adjacent leafy suburb of Richmond Hill. It is within the poetics of this juxtaposition that the core nature of the project lies: a play between the blunt banality of the lane (rendered block and corrugated metal) and the permeable articulation of glass and shade screen on the northern façade, gesturing over the established residential gardens from which the building borrows shade and vegetation.

The logic of the project is also in a sense provided by its structural material – a concrete block base and an exposed timber frame that creates the volume for the dwelling above. ‘The timber frame is used as an organising principle,’ says Mallia. ‘It has its own rhythm and articulates the form as an object of unity. The frame is then infilled as necessary in response to the context and the operations of the interior.’

Exposure of the frame also announces Mallia’s respect for architectural detail and his interest in ‘how things line up… demonstrating how [the architecture] was made.’ Arguably, this is a result of his experience working with Peter Elliott, a consummate Melbourne modernist focused on producing an architecture of integrity rather than show.

On ground level, the clean timber battens of the garage doors and the office windows provide stark contrast to the graffiti on the back walls of the neighbouring shops. As you ascend the stair, the muted light passing through the polycarbonate cladding to the laneway transforms into a flood of light from the glass façade of the building’s northern elevation. Landing at the first floor, the spaces are surprisingly generous, with the presence of the exposed timber frame providing continuity. As Mallia describes, ‘exposing the structure and workmanship allows the frame to be experienced on the interior and exterior and avoids fragmentation.’ The timber becomes a tactile ‘ribbon’ that runs throughout the project, intriguing in the way it extends the permeability of the line between interior and exterior, with the living space and dining space both directly linked to an elongated deck.

The quality of light is remarkable. Layers of sun screening in the form of laser cut metal panels create a dappling effect reminiscent of light filtered through a tree canopy. Mallia aligns the pattern on the screens first to Islamic motifs, but then talks about a process of abstraction that led him to look carefully at the decorative fretwork on the grand Victorian residences that line some of the surrounding streets. The resulting repeating pattern is derivative of the mathematics of the Islamic screen but uses a ‘leaf’ form extracted from these nearby houses. The screens are also operable, allowing the occupant to adjust the shade when the sun becomes more intense.

Continuing up to the bedrooms, the space becomes tighter and the need to grasp the external space becomes more important. A deck pushes the room out to the line of the ever-present timber frame and the enclosure is defined by an overlooking restriction addressed by a continuation of the patterned screen.

In partnership with a good builder, the level of care in production of this building is impressive. Fundamentally, it is efficiently planned, well detailed, responsive to its environment in orientation and character, and deals with sun-shading in an inventive manner. Ultimately, it provides a collection of spaces that are pleasant to live in. I suggest to Mallia that the project is exemplary in all of these aspects and that its real strength is the identification of opportunity within the constraints presented. The young architect replies firmly, ‘No. It’s simply about doing your job.’

  • SylviaH February 17th, 2011 4:28 am

    As a town planner I am interested in the approval process of this development? What is it long? Complicated? Easy?

  • DavidM February 17th, 2011 4:43 am

    The reference to “battles with incompetent council for a year” (the site being in Richmond means most likely the Yarra Council) says it all – When is the Planning Minister Matthew Guy going to deal seriously with reforming the planning process? Apologies to the few council planners who make an effort, but to the majority – take note of this project…. it’s rather daming such a project should be so bogged down by planners who can’t deal with development applications in a professional and timely manner

  • Frenchy February 18th, 2011 2:59 am

    I very much like the vertical batons on the front of the building. They are a simple and cost effective way of covering the cladding and create a stunning opulent effect. Perfectly spaced and great craftsmanship.

  • Slozanger December 25th, 2011 10:31 am

    Credit where credit is due – The Baton work is exquisite

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