East Melbourne Terrace

May 19, 2011

Atelier Wagner’s sympathetic yet resolutely contemporary intervention returns a nineteenth century terrace by Joseph Reed to its former glory.

The three-storey terrace at 182–186 George Street, East Melbourne, was built in 1857 as a speculative investment by a parliamentarian-cum-pastoralist from a design by the then recently arrived English architect, Joseph Reed. The minister of the Collins Street Baptist Church soon occupied number 182; an East Melbourne address was desirable for state politicians, church leaders and gentlemen of commerce alike, being a stroll between chambers and abode through the verdant Fitzroy Gardens.

The suburban terrace house was a new phenomenon then, an alternative type to the urban houses at the Paris end of Collins Street. Reed’s George Street terrace was conceived as a discrete object, a three-storey tower element anticipating future streetscape connections that never happened. In fact, the genteel enclave of East Melbourne initially developed as an assembly of distinct church and residential building blocks, unified by a grid of garden-lined broad streets. So it is with the redevelopment of number 184 by Atelier Wagner. Within the house, an articulated and directed passageway unifies an assembly of separately expressed parts.

Along the lofty street facade of the terrace, Reed inserted two-storey lean-to timber pavilion verandas between the party wing walls. Columns, brackets and balustrades were elegantly carved with reference to Regency architecture and to Middle Eastern kiosk details. Atelier Wagner has successfully restored the veranda to number 84, advised by a Nigel Lewis Conservation Management Plan. The veranda design shows that Reed was adept and comfortable with a broad range of sources. Indeed, this is evident in the whole range of his stylistic interpretations across a host of 19th century Melbourne buildings. Atelier Wagner too demonstrates an engagement with inspiring ideas found in precedents, albeit in modern 20th century buildings, brought together in their own way to create a vital and active interior.

Behind the street facade remains the shell of Reed’s original three-storey block, now renovated as a stack of formal front rooms with lustrous bathrooms to the two upper-floor bedrooms. Internally, Atelier Wagner has emphasised the thickness of this front wall, keeping the deep window surrounds and inserting folding shutters. In addition, the architects have heightened awareness of the mass and depth of the internal wall by winding the three-storey staircase around and through it. Alternating flights of stairs are enclosed between the front rooms and the wall or hover over the adjacent atrium space.

The new centre to the house is the top-lit atrium, which serves as a dining room. Here, the family dining table stands on a sunken stone surface while soaring above is a skylight, three storeys up. The great hall of yore is alluded to, but instead of heraldic banners, elements of the passageway through the house are suspended overhead. The stairs in here are formed from folded steel plate, the ship’s gangway allusion reinforced by yacht crosswiring to the balustrades and timber duckboards spanning the landings and bridging access ways. In contrast to the enclosed front rooms, the rear spaces are on platforms open to the atrium and contiguous with a glazed outdoor courtyard. The galley kitchen and rear sitting room are elevated above the dining table. The rear rooms have window walls north and west, protected from sun and glare by blinds slatted horizontally with rounded terracotta louvres. Exposed flat roofs here have a layer of smooth river stones.

Variety characterises the experience of moving through the interior of number 84. A short passage from the front door leads into the main circulation way to the rear car garage, passing the atrium, kitchen platform, sitting room and glazed courtyard. Timber floors, white plaster walls and ceilings along its length are punctuated with a variety of material events. For example, four large marble panels alternate with radiant-heat metal panels along the west boundary wall of the house. Highly figured plywood panels to cupboards and other fittings that come into view accord with the rich earth colours and pronounced figure of these marble panels. The elegant bathrooms too have rich contrasts with dark polished stone, white porcelain, chromed tapware, coloured tiles, framed timber sliding screen doors with taut Japanese paper. Two overhead fixed windows to the rear passage of the house have been fitted with translucent laser-cut stone panels. The clients have augmented the display of well-crafted and expressed natural materials with a collection of canvases painted by indigenous Australian artists, many consisting of brush-stroke patterns recalling nature’s stories.

An analogy with the interior of number 84 George Street is provided by the journey garden at Katsura Palace, where movement along surfaces of different natural materials positions the user to view plants manicured to exaggerate their natural characteristics. Vistas are framed by the changing direction of the path. Stops at adjoining spaces for recreation and refreshment can be made along the way. But the journey in the Atelier Wagner interior occurs at multiple levels within a compact rectilinear volume, with vistas of machine cut and polished stone panels in series.

Modern analogies also come to mind. Le Corbusier made much of the promenade through a multi-level house with stairs, landings and galleries winding around an inner volume at Maison La Roche. Further, Mies van de Rohe’s reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion has richly figured stone screens and chromed columns placed on an open travertine platform beneath an extended flat white plaster ceiling. The display of exquisite materials seems the major purpose. However, the path of movement is not designated; the path is infinitely random and ambivalent, promoting alienation. In spatial terms, this interior by Atelier Wagner does not in any way resemble the Mies pavilion. Instead, as the late 20th century American architect Charles W Moore proposed, knowing where you are here induces self-knowledge and awareness.

The new design at number 84 George Street lies in the tradition of elemental composition, where ordinary functional elements are mapped along a path of movement. The sum of the parts along a directed path makes the whole. The experiential path of movement creates the unity in this plurality.

Dr Jeffrey Turnbull, FAIA, is a senior fellow in architecture at the University of Melbourne. He teaches history of architecture courses part-time at Oceania Polytechnic Institute of Education.

  • Jeanne Lee May 21st, 2011 7:48 am

    Beautifully done. The light, the movement and the transformative staircase inspired. Nice work J and D.

  • Dean July 27th, 2011 10:07 am

    “Atelier Wagner’s sympathetic yet resolutely contemporary intervention returns a nineteenth century terrace by Joseph Reed to its former glory”

    You’ve got to be kidding? Apart from the facade there is nothing left of the orignal house designed by Australia’s greatest 19th century architect. JR would be turing in his grave.

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