New St Kilda buildings ….

I tell this tale, which is strictly true,
Just by way of convincing you
How very little, since things were made,
Things have altered in the building trade.     Rudyard Kipling

 Four new buildings within the Acland Street shopping area illustrate various points about architectural and urban design opportunities lost and gained, and the desirability of considering the inevitable redevelopment of Acland Street as a whole rather than simply letting it happen piecemeal.

72 Acland Street (ground floor retail +3 floors of residential flats) is on the corner where Acland Street crosses Carlisle Street and the shopping strip starts in earnest, and is an important 'gateway' location; see below.

 01 72 Acland Street

 This building of 38 - one and two bedroom apartments was designed by ARM, the acronym stands for Ashton Raggatt MacDougall, hot architects who designed the now abandoned shopping centre originally proposed on the Triangle site. They also designed the new Recital Centre (with its elegant Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Hall) located opposite Roy Grounds' bluestone NGV.  They are good architects and have been shortlisted for the Flinders Street Station competition.  Their taste for sticking unnecessary decorative bits onto their buildings often offends my more puritan tastes, and the treatment of this building is a good example.

The entrance lobby, complete with tricksy mirrors and red curtains,  is around the corner in Carlisle Street, as is the entrance to the underground parking floor. Two-3 storey townhouses are tucked against the main bulk of the building further around the corner of the site fronting Havelock Street.

This building generally has a high standard of finish and attention to detail.  The blank concrete walls facing future development on the two neighbouring sides, are patterned and finished in a way that is superior to the way blank walls like this are usually left.  It's an important point because they are often exposed for quite a long time before the adjacent development happens.  The west side facing MacDonalds across Acland Street has conventional balconies to the apartments, but the south side to Carlisle Street is covered with a large scale free form folded copper screen with considerable depth (see below).

 02 72 Acland Street

It's a misnomer to call this a screen, it's like a gigantic drooping sculpture hung on the side of the building with fortuitous openings where the balconies occur.  This applied copper sculpture certainly makes the building stand out and be noticed, and to this extent it 'marks' this important corner. I've studied it from all angles and the 'best' view in my opinion is from further up Carlisle Street towards the National Theatre, but I don't like it close up.  Dave Fernandez tells me it's supposed to be based on a Dali painting!

Without betraying my own feelings, I did a quick poll of the ordinary citizenry walking past and a few people said they didn't like the copper number because 'it looked stuck on'.  Others, sitting on the fence, thought that it was 'different'!  This can hardly be called a poll, and this public indifference will no doubt confirm the architects in their avant-garde superiority.  Some architects only start to worry that they are losing their touch when their buildings meet with popular approval!

The footpaths, which had been widened at some previous time, have been paved in the Acland Street style of black and white concrete tiles in a draughtsboard pattern.  Acland Street is a major pedestrian route to Fitzroy Street so this is a real public improvement.  The side facing Carlisle Street has also been paved but it is interrupted by a number of poles supporting the tram wires, two telephone booths, a row of those stainless steel rings for bike parking, the traffic lights and three of those metal boxes that control them, all in all it's one of the most cluttered pieces of footpath I've seen outside a new building since the Outrage book was published. Pedestrians are obliged to make a circuit around the back of this obstacle course before rejoining Carlisle Street.  It's a monument to the poor urban design skills and lack of co-ordination of the different authorities by the Council; surely they could have done better than this!

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173 Barkly Street  (ground floor retail plus four upper residential floors with a total of 72 -one and two bed apartments) is called LUNA and was designed by Ellenberg Fraser Architects, also a well regarded firm. The building is on the corner where Barkly Street and Bedford Street join at an acute angle of about 45 degrees, so one end of the building is triangular in shape.   The exterior glazed walls are covered with a continuous bronze screen set around 450 mm in front of the window wall; the screens are a bit more open than normal fly screen mesh, they give privacy but can also be opened when appropriate.  As the long sides of the building more or less face east and west, this screen also doubles as important sun protection. 

These apartments are very economical in size and most of the bed-rooms are internal, without windows or direct natural light, and are separated from the living space by pivoting mirrored glass doors.  The developer claims that the apartments are aimed at a market of short term business refugees from Sydney who would be out at work all day and that the small size and internal room are therefore acceptable for short term stays.  I would hope that internal rooms like this do not become the norm.  With no windows or cross ventilation, I fear the occupants will install air conditioners to make sleeping conditions tolerable on hot nights.

The balconies are not balconies of a normal depth that you can sit out on.  They are like those in older Parisian apartments where the balcony is only wide enough to stand on to look down into the street or to fill with pot plants, but where the glazed doors hinge or slide right back, the screen can also be folded open so the whole room is opened to the sky and becomes a de facto balcony; a good solution considering the orientation.

The bronze screen gives the building a sleek bronze coloured look which suits busy Barkly Street.  Further along the street is the complex of parking and apartments over the Coles Arcade, a more sculptural design consisting of ground floor plus five upper floors that was the subject of some opposition when it was first proposed.  A few years later this building now looks quite modest and acceptable in its visual impact both from Barkly Street as well from inside Acland Street and one wonders what the fuss was about. 

 01 173 Barkly Street

02 173 Barkly Street

In view of the almost standard public reaction against any new building over two storeys, dare I say that all these buildings could be even a few floors higher if the top floors were set back; a maximum of eight storeys would be a good height limit for all of inner Melbourne.  St Kilda is already fairly dense but the middle and outer suburbs need to be denser and more economical rather than allowing the city to sprawl half way to Albury.  The suggestion of City Planner Rob Adams that eight storey buildings should be permitted along all the major tram routes and the bits in between should be maintained at their traditional not-more-than-3-storey height, would permit us have the best of both worlds.

 

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7 Shakespeare Grove on the corner of Chaucer Street is an existing building that was altered and another floor added to end up with ground floor retail (a set back arcade and another coffee shop of course) plus one upper floor of the same size plus two additional floors set back; see below.  

 7 Shakespeare Grove

It is rumoured that Veg Out suggested that it might be a good idea to set the upper floors of the building back on the Chaucer Street side so Veg Out wouldn't be overshadowed. Otherwise they were thinking of locating all their smelly compost heaps onto the corner closest to this building.  It's probably only a story, they like to take the piss down there at Veg Out!   

This would be an unobjectionable 'background' building except they felt the need to 'art it up' a bit by adding an open shiny steel tower on the corner.  This tower doesn't seem to have any clear function, except perhaps for the office Xmas party, and lately a row of black plastic half spheres of different sizes has been added along the top edge of the outer wall along with some of those dark blue airport lights at night.  I can never fathom the mind of developers or designers who do this sort of thing.  All this nonsense not only adds to the cost, it certainly doesn't improve the appearance of the building or the streetscape, and even from the developer's point of view I'm also sure it also doesn't increase the rent levels either.

 

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83 Acland Street is a new apartment building next to the Commonwealth Bank in the middle of the Acland Street shopping strip.  There are shops on the ground floor (restaurants of course) with two storeys of apartments above.  When this building was first proposed, Councillor 'Skate' Thomann sought my opinion. I thought it was of such poor design quality relying on light cum air shafts for some of the internal rooms that it should be rejected. It wasn't, it was approved after a few cosmetic changes but it isn't a good building!  The façade (below) facing the street consists of vertical fins at odd angles over apartment balconies.

83 Acland Street

Both these last two buildings pose the perennial problem of how to improve design standards. Architects like Sid Ancher and Harry Seidler fought long and hard to establish the freedom to design modern buildings.  Alas that freedom unfortunately necessarily includes the freedom to design bad modern buildings as it's hard to legislate for good design. All new buildings have to get planning approval from the local council and they dictate maximum height and the uses of the building.  But councils rarely knock back applications on the grounds of aesthetics and design; it's all too hard and they are all too usually lost on appeal to VCAT!  

Very few of the (usually single) floors above the shops in Acland Street are gainfully occupied or used and this episode is a warning bell that if we aren't careful, all of Acland Street would end up being redeveloped piecemeal in an uncoordinated way that would over shadow the street, spoil the atmosphere and be hated by all.

I'm not objecting to redevelopment; flats over the shops would make the area denser and provide an immediate local shopper base.  This is important, because although the shops do well from summer visitors, a number of them fail every winter; we have to create a retail economy that is a more year round one.

The inevitability of change and the potential opportunity for something better suggests that planning controls along the lines of those used by the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) in Canberra would be a desirable approach. Something is needed to control the redevelopment of ALL of Acland Street as it's pretty inevitable that all the shops will eventually be redeveloped with flats above like this one.  Having a Development Control Plan that set down the most desirable way in which this should be done would be a way of achieving better designed buildings.  The design controls should be based on an architectural design for the whole street taking the property subdivision and the ownership pattern into account.   Such a Design Control Plan could for instance, ensure that these residential buildings would be sited only on the back part of these deep sites with a stepped cross-section and roof gardens so that Acland Street would not be overshadowed or adversely affected visually.  As you can see, this building is built right up to the property line but fortunately it's on the side of Acland Street where it won't overshadow the street. 

In my opinion parking should not be provided for this eventual residential development, residents should be encouraged to use public transport, and if they do have cars, they could leave them in the Bedford Street car park. .  I'm not sure at this stage of the best way to incorporate all this into the Statutory Planning Scheme in a legal and technical sense but the council planners are good at this.

 Although it may be some years before the total redevelopment of Acland Street happens, these recently completed buildings are straws in the wind.  All the more reason to work out guidelines now setting down the most desirable way for change to happen ahead of time!   

There are those who think that all such design decisions should be left to the free market, but JK Galbraith, the American economist and writer (The Affluent Society) has put the opposite view very well:

'We do not have development in order to make our surroundings more hideous, our culture more meretricious, or our lives less complete.  Nor as scholars and scientists should we be detained for a moment by the protest that this is a highbrow view and that people want what they want.  This is the standard defence of economic priority.  Those that insist that this is what people really want are those who fear that, given the opportunity, people would make a different choice- one that involves a greater measure of social control of environment.'

 

Don Gazzard LFAIA
mid April 2013