Interiors

Silk Road

March 27, 2009

From Venice to the orient by of Melbourne, Rebecca Roke discovers the extravagance of the Silk Road, a grandiose adventure that indulges the gilt-hearted.

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Until lately, unless you sought a sky-high city view from the Rialto deck or a shimmy with pole dancers, there was little entertainment to be found at the south-western edge of Hoddle’’s city grid. The respectable sandstone façades of Collins Street, historical bastions of Melbourne’s trade and commerce that have stood in quiet contemplation for decades, were the mainstay of this area, which fell silent out of office hours. Now, however, the nine-bar venue of Silk Road sits smack in the middle of the upright banking chambers and is set to shake loose the merchants’ ties – and their bank rolls, too. The latest extravaganza by entrepreneur, Nick Zampelis, Silk Road is a multilevel venue that continues his enthusiasm for transporting patrons to places of luxury and excess through ostentatious surroundings. He introduced this at Lotus in Sydney and repeated the mix at the Long Room in Melbourne but Silk Road is the real test for Melbourne’’s mostly down-beat drinking scene.

Entombed in the heritage-listed AMP chamber and oozing sparkle from two billowing chandeliers, Silk Road is no fading violet, coyly waiting to be courted; she is opulent, excessive, grandiose and sexy. Her glitter and flamboyance is a world away from the scruffy but chic bars that tattoo Melbourne’’s nightlife, winnowed out of sites found off shadowy back-street alleys and marked by subtle signage and experimental interiors. Rather than the stench from industrial rubbish bins, here partygoers are greeted by a red carpet, a menacing stone lion and a high-end dress code: denim-free and slick, Silk Road discourages the surreptitiously cool drinker.

Despite its initially overbearing grandiloquence, the generous flanks of the AMP shell house nine unique bar and eating experiences, which leaves you spoilt for choice as to what sort of evening you might end up having –– if not bewildered by the numerous nooks to hide in and voyeuristic viewpoints. The Venetian bar is the thirsty traveller’’s first port of call and the most popular place to flaunt and flirt, beneath a milky way of light. Behind this main bar is the generous 20-seat Mediterranean table for tapas, while steaming dim sum hide in bamboo steamers at the Chop House to the left. Fancy Teppanyaki? Upstairs on the Shahanshah Lounge, in a cosy booth for 10, your personal chef awaits, searing cuisine under a Japanese-styled pagoda roof. If it’s a martini you’’re hankering after, simply slide along the mezzanine and order one at the stylised marble Deco Bar beneath the dancing Chiparus figures.

Not done with Asia? Why not slip downstairs into the Dynasty Room and slurp up a lychee cocktail amid the fortunes and fates of Chinese mythology, red lanterns and rosewood chairs? Whether tucked in the discreet, old-school ambience of the St George Wine Room or sprawling on an ottoman by the glossy baby grand, the variety of interiors at the Silk Road are one of Woods Bagot and Zampelis’’ key moves: these bars may well require several visits before you find a favourite.

As Marco Polo discovered, the Silk Road is also peppered with rich, unknown and exotic finds. Similarly, silks, stones and all manner of sparkling surfaces are out in force here. From the heavy black marble-topped bars that first greet the visitor, to intricate brass and lacquered screens beside the Chop House, or the backlit onyx tables that colour in synchrony with the chandeliers, the venue variously draws on Asian, Middle Eastern and European references and is not afraid to introduce them, sometimes brusquely, to each other. The numerous mirrored, gilded and lacquered finishes introduce a kaleidoscopic feel, so that old pick-up favourite, ‘’Haven’t I seen you before?’’ is highly probable here.

Strict adherence to the historically correct merchant traders’ route is discouraged and there is a general contempt for modesty. Instead, myriad mythological figures gesture to Polo’’s famed Oriental journey and convey Zampelis’’ great interest in collecting artefacts from around the globe. In the Gold Bar on the mezzanine, Persian-styled figures hold flaming torches above a carpeted lounge, while a robust statue of Alexander the Great surveys his appositely named Shahanshah ‘King of Kings’ Lounge with stony silence. High above the revellers at the Venetian Bar, Marco Polo rides on, a strident adventurer rendered in bronze, who almost floats on a lustrous black glass plinth.

Suspended over the glittering patrons and mirrored surfaces are luscious, passionate scenes from Caravaggio, sleekly conveyed in oils. Twisted in agony and ecstasy their eyes survey the excess below and heighten the mood for indulgence. Even the fate of an over-scaled Judas, his neck slit and hosing crimson blood, seems apt, if explicit, for a space on the mezzanine where people gorge themselves on dumplings and gossip. Though the Polo-Venetian-Caravaggio-Italian connection is loose, the atmosphere imparted by the scenes seems to excuse the decorative licence.

In such a carnivale, it is hard to imagine the original, stern purpose of this space where well-groomed AMP tellers exchanged ledger balances, instead of drinks, across the Venetian Bar. Its project architect, Trish Turner of Woods Bagot, recalls that turning what was a lofty banking chamber into a series of lush, ostentatious spaces, “took months!” It was time-consuming, but essential to work out a strategy that would satisfy Heritage Victoria and minimise penetrations to the delicate mosaic stone floor, while also suspending the new wall and floor surfaces away from the sandstone shell. ““We didn’’t want to destroy any of the key original features… all those beautiful engravings and the stone work is stunning,”” she says.

The Shahanshah Lounge is the main architectural element that has been introduced with the idea that it acts “like a stage for display and views, free of all the walls”. Black steel simply articulates the introduced architectural structure and frames entry points and staircases, its directness clearly speaking a different language from the classic and florid excess.

While few will experience the hidden premier private rooms overlooking Collins Street, the Silk Road offers an abundance of choice for the everyday adventurer. And, as this lair reminds us, it’s the journey that counts.

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