Opting for depth and shadow over transparency and lightness, SJB has designed an apartment building for Sydney’s Alexandria that is imbued with drama, richness and unexpected intensity.
In the six or so years that it took 41 Birmingham to assume its final form, its suburban surroundings changed dramatically. The SJB project – comprised of twenty-three apartments with a ground-floor commercial space – was conceived relatively early in Alexandria’s recent transition from an industrial hub to a vibrant mixed-use suburb in Sydney’s inner east.
Dubbed “the Birmingham of Australia” in the 1940s, Alexandria retains an urban grain broadly consistent with its industrial past, but the area is now also home to cafes offering specialty coffee and locally sourced produce, artisanal bakers, cheese merchants and small-batch breweries. A number of residential developments also looking to capitalize on Alexandria’s popular industrial aesthetic are currently being or have recently been constructed around the edges of the suburb.
As you stroll up Birmingham Street through the mature paperbark trees on its northern side, 41 Birmingham makes a striking first impression. From a distance, the complexity of the building profile is accentuated by the move from solid off-form concrete to lightweight angular balustrades on the project’s upper levels. These balustrade finishes wrap to varying degrees around the edges of the building, drawing further attention to the way the facade steps gradually out toward the street, before pulling back more decisively at the top-floor apartments and roof terraces.
These unpredictable shifts in the building form avoid the feel of a more formulaic shearing of floor plates purely for the sake of breaking down the scale of the street elevation. Instead, they signal the influence of the spaces behind, suggesting that there may be more at stake here than just the creation of an arbitrary sculptural form. It is immediately apparent from the exterior of 41 Birmingham that SJB’s second collaboration with developer Rubicon Property differs substantially from many of the stock standard multiresidential developments going up in the area. But it is also worth noting that these differences extend well beyond the form of the building to the configuration, detailing and finishes of the spaces within.
As you move through the communal spaces that make up the entry sequence of 41 Birmingham into the apartments that reach back out toward the street, the project exhibits a kind of depth – one that should be clearly distinguished from the illusion or mere appearance of depth visible in any complex facade. Instead, the depth presented in this project registers more clearly as points beyond the surface of the building – materials and details that appear and reappear throughout to accentuate the consistency of SJB’s design approach across both external and internal spaces.
The apartment entrance to 41 Birmingham curves into a small foyer space containing the lift and a stair leading to the first-floor apartments and rear garden space. Glazed dark blue tiling that reads as an interesting touch of colour from the street becomes a much more immersive experience inside this rich but intimately scaled space. The tiles extend to a datum l ine on the upper level of the stair displaying a poem by Emily Daves commissioned specifically for the project. Daves’s words separate the tiling from a dramatic mirrored ceiling that further adds to the mesmerizing and unexpected intensity of this unconventional space.
The foyer stairs and Daves’s words culminate at a communal garden space that stretches along the southern side of the block, behind the first-floor apartments. Dwellings above are accessed either via the lift or using external stairs at either end of the building. This open-air circulation strategy generates significant opportunities for cross-ventilation to individual apartments, but it also creates glimpses of activity across the building without challenging the privacy of the apartment interiors.
When viewed from the street, the concrete balustrades reveal very little about the details of the apartment spaces behind them. Nevertheless, the continuation of off-form concrete through to the soffits of the building suggests that the robustness offered by the exterior of 41 Birmingham may be more than just a visual game played between the project and its neighbours – and the interior spaces certainly deliver on this promise.
Instead of attempting to counter the raw texture of the concrete that defines the facade, the apartment interiors actively seek out this quality, most noticeably through the impeccably detailed exposed concrete ceilings that required the complete integration and rationalization of services throughout the apartments. While the bathrooms and benchtops revert to a more polished material palette (terrazzo and Carrara marble respectively), these finishes also work to highlight the ripples, seams and marks within the concrete beams overhead.
While the interiors of the 41 Birmingham apartments undoubtedly distinguish themselves through this self-assured restraint, they are by no means cold. Larger apartments each contain a bedroom that steps out into the balcony space, with glazed floor-to-ceiling doors that take full advantage of their orientation. Duckboard flooring to the balconies adds further warmth and texture, while also providing an opportunity to generate an efficient recessed track detail to the large sliding doors that give access to these external spaces.
The two-bedroom apartments at the top of 41 Birmingham each have their own private roof terrace, providing spectacular views to the centre of Sydney. These apartments use lightweight balustrades to capitalize on the outlook provided by their position above much of the industrial fabric of the suburb. It seems interesting to note, however, that SJB has managed to provide the apartments and communal spaces below with a distinct set of qualities that potentially rival the appeal of a more traditional city view.
The dramatic entry sequence to 41 Birmingham and the reassuring solidity of its lower levels are incredibly refreshing. This is not just because they embed the interior of the project with the same intensity as the exterior, but also because they refuse a more conventional approach to these spaces often created through the automatic privileging of transparency and lightness. In providing a series of deep, rich spaces that nevertheless open up to impressive cross-ventilation and northern light, the project also serves as a reminder that these aren’t mutually exclusive sets of conditions.