Richards and Spence has made a significant contribution to a whole fragment of Brisbane, using a rich and distinctive design language across a range of works for the James Street precinct.
Not many architects have been given the opportunity to design a fragment of a city over time, constructing an urban narrative and refining strategies in response to their earlier work. Brisbane’s James Street is long and narrow and largely flanked by timber houses. At its northern beginning, it splits the fashionable neighbourhood of Fortitude Valley just before heading into New Farm. Here, through numerous interventions, Richards and Spence has contributed to a precinct that has become the city’s premier address for leisure shopping.
Its making has been anything but conventional in the context of Australian contemporary retail. Plans were well advanced to develop this large city block as a singular shopping centre but the collapse of funding triggered by the global financial crisis in 2008 meant that the project needed to be reconceptualized. Here the enlightened client – a Brisbane-based consortium – began working more closely with its inventive architects, generating a creative response to what at first seemed a less than ideal situation. Incremental changes were undertaken, revitalizing the showrooms and warehouses already occupying various sites in the precinct. Avoiding the more established masterplan strategy, the overall idea developed progressively and the commercial area was reconfigured piece by piece over a range of sites. If this tactic guaranteed financial security for the client, it also gave Richards and Spence the extraordinary chance to work “by additions” of urban fragments.
The seed of the idea for the James Street precinct was James Street Market, completed by Cox Rayner Architects in 2003 – a project that Ingrid Richards (now principal of Richards and Spence, along with Adrian Spence) worked on as design and project architect. The building is a cluster of shops held together by an overarching roof, generating a comfortable, semi-private outdoor room. According to Cox Rayner Architects, “the concept [of the James Street Market] aims to blur the boundaries between ‘public’ and ‘retail’ space by coalescing the idioms of the traditional market ‘shed’ and the ‘shopping street.’”
In developing the James Street precinct, Richards and Spence acknowledges the ambiguity of declaring “public” a space that in reality is mainly part of a private development. The architects consider this tension to be a productive challenge rather than a limitation. The structuring of urban space as a frame for leisure shopping gives both retailer and customer an “experience” beyond the straight commercial one of transaction and consumption, in a nation where online retail continues to grow and over 60 percent of all Australians with internet access purchase goods electronically. However, the general failure of high street shopping in some Australian cities is not strictly tied to the rise of online purchasing. According to Richards and Spence, this is also a function of their poor pedestrian connections, particularly where major roads divide shopping streets into inaccessible halves and there is no possibility of creating deeper walkable links inside blocks.
The 19 James Street project, completed in 2011, is based on the reconfiguration and brick refacing of an original tilt-up warehouse and showroom complex just across from the James Street Market. In response to this neighbouring project, the architects have maintained the same degree of public accessibility, although using a different design strategy and a varied architectural language. They have created a set of small tenancies by exploiting the existing main street front and then threading outdoor covered laneways into the depth of the block – spaces that function as passageways and include pockets of outdoor dining. The clever use of public passageways across the whole block allows for urban tactics uncommon to the conventions of retail, such as the giving away of lettable areas on the street front as garden space for luxuriant palms and ferns, complementing the existing shade trees – a signature aspect of the James Street precinct. The passages of the new complex have not only given life to the renovated block itself, they have also led to better access to retail spaces behind in an adjacent block and boosted their visibility as well as their business.
While we walk with the architects through the recently completed Living Edge showroom and office (2016) on Robertson Street, a cross-street of James Street, they point to a side laneway that terminates in a wall with a mural, suggesting that this can easily be broken through to the next block as an extended laneway – multiplying retail opportunities as well as increasing the urban feel of the precinct. The Living Edge project is again a refurbishment of an existing warehouse building. The architects have replaced the conventional front with a steel post colonnade, its top half featuring an elegant white concrete breezeblock screen. Behind the colonnade is a large, double-height volume with a raked floor leading to the showroom. At the entrance a broad ramp leads to the back of the space, while on the edge a set of giant steps rising through the two levels acts as display shelving for furniture. A timber-clad balcony on the mezzanine above creates a lookout – used, for example, to house a DJ for the showroom’s opening night.
Deploying architectural elements traditionally used in public spaces inside the private interior – the ramp, the giant staircase and the balcony – guarantees a continuity between the street’s pedestrian walkway and the showroom, questioning the conventionally strict division between public and retail space. In this respect, the transitory space of the portico is an effective strategy to mark the architects’ intention from the street. This is also the space where public events can be created. A detail that cannot go unnoticed is that on leaving the showroom, you bump into a refined pop-out window used by Richards and Spence for the refurbishment of a little shop next door. The combination of the portico, the pop-out window and the lane has turned this mundane corner into a complex, textured space.
Richards and Spence is interested in designing institutional buildings, generating civic spaces for the city, and the architects recognize that retail is a strategic opportunity to test design ideas and urban approaches. The James Street interventions developed from a rich repertoire of urban elements – colonnades, canopied edges and pop-out windows, with concrete and brick as recurrent materials for the fabrication of walls (both solid and perforated) – forming a continuous infrastructure of civic-ness not usually associated with commercial spaces, and one designed to outlive the culture of the “makeover.”
This repertoire is boldly evident in a project for an international homewares chain, reinvented out of an existing shed adjacent to the James Street Market. The heft of the colonnade, topped with pop-up brick lanterns and a gardened tropical roofscape, holds no memory of the corrugated cladding and gable roof that originally sat upon the building’s frame, boosting the idea of a tropical promenade instead. Down the street, the yet-to-be-completed James Street Hotel – with its colonnade, lanes, terrace and arches – will add to the complexity of an area designed, incrementally, by architects who believe that the quality of the urban environment is crucial to the success of retail spaces.