The National Hotel

August 21, 2012

In giving new life to Melbourne’s The National Hotel, Breathe Architecture displays its considerable skills in environmentally sustainable design.

This article appeared in Inside #72: Homegrown

Looming over a quiet pocket of busy Victoria Street, The National Hotel sits on the fringe of Richmond and Abbotsford in Melbourne’s inner east. Bookended by the city-side throng of restaurants of ‘Little Vietnam’ and the unashamedly brash blue and yellow landmark of the IKEA warehouse further east, the pub’s austere pale grey facade is a welcome respite from the visual cacophony of its neighbours.

The National Hotel on Melbourne's Victoria Street


The new fitout of The National Hotel by Melbourne-based Breathe Architecture marks a turning point in the history of the Victorian-era pub. In its former incarnation as The Nash, the venue had become tired – weighed down by layers of past renovations and an incoherent design. Now under new ownership – the same team behind The Corner Hotel and the Northcote Social Club – The National has been overhauled by Breathe Architecture to reveal a brave and robust interior that celebrates its locale.

As Breathe Architecture director Jeremy McLeod explains, the concept for the interior began with an examination of the site’s surrounds. With ‘Little Vietnam’ to the west and IKEA’s ‘Little Sweden’ to the east, the design team looked to the geographical middle point between the two for inspiration: China. Shunning the ornate and the deep, rich palette of reds and golds commonly associated with an oriental aesthetic, Breathe has instead drawn on the strength and development of modern China. “Now China represents an enigmatic but powerful country, so post-industrial China was our inspiration,” says McLeod.

High ceilings and exposed brick walls in the cafe space to the front of the fitout


Inside, the fitout has been broken down into a number of zones, each conceived as a different Chinese province with its own distinct character. At the heart of this playful approach to spatial organisation is the central bar: a concrete monolith, poured in-situ, runs through the centre of the interior and juts out into the courtyard. This central object ties together the surrounding spaces, an immovable sentinel that presides over the entire venue. “The central bar is like the ruling force; the idea is that from behind the bar, you can keep your eyes on all of the different provinces,” McLeod explains.

Booth seating to the left, with makeshift furniture made from milk crates in the 'opium den' beyond


Entering from Victoria Street, the first space that reveals itself is the cafe – an open space with high ceilings, exposed brick walls and a mottled green floor, which bears the grooves and marks inflicted by years of use. At the centre of this space is a vast communal table, custom designed by Breathe. The surface of this 4.5-metre-long timber table has been crafted from salvaged ceiling joists arranged in a herringbone pattern. It is a piece that is both solid and rugged, perfectly suited to the scale and gritty interior of the cafe. Representing municipal Shanghai, this area is designed to foster a sense of community among strangers; a central hub with a transient crowd popping in for coffees, ebbing and flowing like Shanghai’s thriving import and export trade.

The National's concrete bar runs the length of the interior


Beyond the cafe, the main bar is revealed: a long, moodily lit interior with a series of three steel and concrete booths affixed to the far wall, separated from the bar by a timber partition. Constructed from recycled fence palings, this partition’s rough, textured and seemingly unordered array of timber battens is a provincial counterpoint to the dense mass and slick surface of the concrete bar. Sandwiched between the bar and the booths, this screen also functions as an important acoustic buffer in an interior that is notably free from soft furnishings. At night, this screen is transformed into a delicate structure, revealing fragments of light from the bar and the street outside. Behind the screen, the utilitarian booths are given a sense of enclosure and intimacy within a bustling area recalling the thriving cities of Guangdong or Shenzhen.

Moving to the rear of the site, a heavy steel and glass door opens onto an expansive courtyard and attached dining room. Like the provinces that have inspired them, both are functional spaces, considered but free of unnecessary embellishment. Inspired by Beijing, the courtyard features a low wall constructed from breeze blocks, while above, lights inside amber glass jars zigzag over the courtyard like lanterns. The adjacent dining room features sliding glass and polycarbonate doors. Like the awnings above Hong Kong’s street hawkers, these doors are a pragmatic approach to indoor/outdoor dining, ensuring the space can be used year round.

A timber partition, constructed from recycled fence palings, separates the bar from the booth seating


Breathe’s work has always been synonymous with environmentally sustainable design and The National is no exception. Two 9000L water tanks in the courtyard harvest water, while solar panels ensure that 90 per cent of hot water used is solar heated. Almost no aluminium or chrome has been used, with brass and copper fittings used in their place.

The raw material palette similarly mirrors Breathe’s resourceful approach to design. Materials have been salvaged and repurposed, both from within The National and from elsewhere. The timber from a removed staircase is born again as a series of fixed benches that circuit the perimeter of the courtyard, while inside, the booth seating has been constructed from timber leftover from Breathe’s recent fitout for Lulamae in Melbourne Central. The green khaki upholstery that appears throughout the project – including the fabric on seats, the shelter in the courtyard and the awning above the main street frontage – is made from old military fabric, sourced on eBay. Like the building itself, this fabric is tough and weathered: beneath the street awning, dozens of patches reveal the fabric’s former use as a truck skirt in the Australian military.

The rear courtyard, with breeze-block walls and lantern-like lights in amber jars above


In the absence of any significant furniture budget, much of the furniture has been custom designed by Breathe and constructed on-site by the builders. Additional pieces include makeshift stools in the opium den, a seating nook to the side of the main bar, assembled using milk crates wrapped in military fabric. Outside, the one concession to designer furniture is a handful of Tolix stools – brought in from one of the owners’ other venues.

Sliding doors with glass and polycarbonate panels allow the dining room to be connected or separated from the external courtyard


‘Industrial chic’ hospitality fitouts may not be new to Melbourne’s bar scene. In Breathe’s adept hands, however, The National’s practical and at times modest approach – in keeping with their common sense attitude to environmentally considerate design without the green bling – is fast becoming the city’s newest hip destination.

  • Tamara August 21st, 2012 3:17 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this article, very well written, thanks.

  • Patrick August 21st, 2012 5:15 pm

    Good article, love the fitout, its a great refurbishment!!

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