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An Essay by Principal Stefan Mee, published in The Material City: Density and Design in Contemporary Australian Architecture edited & curated by Ron Ringer.

In a country like Australia where cities are still relatively young, low density suburban sprawl continues unrestrained, so it might seem rather odd for an architect to think about the history of a place – its back story. It might be perceived there’s no pressing need, especially when our focus is on creating something new, and yet as density increases it is not easily ignored.

Within the confines of an urban street grid or the university campus, we are constantly working over and around history. Rather than expressing nostalgia for the past, we use it to help us find a way into the design process, a starting point to depart from, or a fixed position to push against.

Within our practice, we share a fascination with the history of a site, and its place in the city. Mine was sparked when arriving in Rome for the first time after an architectural education that was strong on the historical antecedents of Europe. A world away from my own upbringing in a country town, Rome brought the many layers of a city (of ideas, styles, materials, and politics) into sharp focus. My hazy understanding, formed when sitting in a lecture theatre, suddenly came to life.

In conversation, my fellow Principal, John Wardle can recall many childhood visits to a wrecking yard in Geelong. It belonged to Ken Burns, his father’s friend. The endless collection of carefully catalogued building elements reclaimed from the town’s demolished buildings made a lasting impression. They were redolent of a city’s history, and there to be interpreted. It was here that a strong desire to assemble disparate elements into a coherent whole may have been forged.

Our practice’s early interest in working with history in this way emerged in a winning proposal for the Hanover Design Competition, about twenty years ago. We used the grand Victorian era Fish Market that previously occupied the site as a template for a similarly proportioned presence on Flinders Street, Melbourne. 

In its heyday before demolition in the late 1950s, “between four-thirty and eight in the morning, the place was raucous with haggling fishmongers and hawkers – a byword for lusty lungs” (Robyn Annear, A City Lost & Found – Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, p.158). For us, the market acted as a metaphor to bring a large variety of interests together under the one roof, prompting us to create an ant farm of extreme mixed-use complexity. Although unrealised, it mapped out areas of interest – being playful rather than reverential with history, sampling and exaggerating.

Later, at 500 Bourke Street, Melbourne, we oriented a new piazza toward the adjacent historic Supreme Court façade and dome beyond. This borrowed campanile of sorts provides orientation within an intimate urban pocket space.

The ceiling of the adjacent foyer nods to the history of inventive public ceilings in Melbourne – by Leonard French at the NGV, and Mahoney and Griffin at the Capitol Cinema, for example. In our case, a tessellated field of light coffers, cast in plaster, creates an overhead field.

Along Ann Street, Brisbane, examples of brick experimentation are prevalent. Directly adjacent to our recently completed Spire apartment tower is the St John’s Cathedral precinct. The red brickwork of Webber House, and its patterned shingle roofscape of hips and gables caught our eye. The podium of Spire acknowledges and extends upon the roof forms of Webber House in its own patterned brickwork. The patterning of the tower sun shading, offset and repetitive, is not so far removed from the brick patterns at ground level.

The Holme Apartments in Wellington Street, Collingwood, have been designed around another observation of place. This area was once the home of many breweries and distilleries. Concrete silos for storing hops and grain were commonplace, highly visible local landmarks.

We started by considering the old circular silos, but then we inverted the form to give the apartment building a scalloped perimeter edge, as if it had used the silos as a mold or formwork. Local history is like a buttress for the new.

Our design, with NADAAA, for the Melbourne School of Design (MSD) incorporated an important historical fragment, the old Bank of New South Wales stone façade. We treated it like a found object, akin to the classical notion of ‘spolia’ when stone elements from old buildings were repurposed in new ones. Its neoclassical language, ornament and detail offered an example for students of the built environment to consider. Behind this restored façade we framed its windows as skewed portals, as departure points to generate new perspectival forms and as a place for students to occupy.

A winding street runs through the MSD at ground level. Along its edges are long seats bent to follow the street’s course. We knew that very close to our site a picturesque ornamental lake had existed for some time before being replaced by the Union Lawn. And so, we imagined our street to be like the dry creek bed of a former stream - students occupy its edges like a riverbank and flow easily along its length.

Within the increasingly dense cities we inhabit, each of these examples make an argument for meaningful connections between architecture and its context, for revealing momentarily the invisible cities that surround us. For our practice, the context of history is a productive constraint – another layer in the story and a departure point for new ideas. In this way, we search for continuities as well as disjunctures, aiming to achieve both complexity and coherence. Through design we make observations about our memories of the city and what its future might be.

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