You really need to know what this studio apartment in Carlton was like beforehand to know what Melbourne-based practice Architecture Architecture has changed. This provides a clue to the nature of the renovation – it is more to do with how the space works than what it looks like. Architecture Architecture director Michael Roper, who is also the apartment’s owner, didn’t want to change its character, but rather restore it to its former glory.
The Cairo Flats, built in 1936 and designed by Acheson Best Overend, are an icon of early Melbourne modernism. The twenty-eight studio apartments were intended to provide “maximum amenity in minimum space for minimum rent,” to quote the entry for Cairo Flats on the Victorian Heritage Register. It included a communal dining room with a meal service that delivered food via hatches in the wall. Later changes made the one-bedroom and studio apartments more autonomous, but also more cramped. Kitchens have been squeezed into the areas once reserved for dining, making the bathrooms seem oddly large.
Michael rented one of the apartments for several years, and relished the opportunity to implement his ideas as an owner. The first thing to change was the position of the door between the kitchen and the bedroom. “This one simple move had a huge impact on how you can occupy the space,” he says. Before, the bed had to be positioned in the middle of the room to avoid blocking the door, wasting valuable floor area. Michael has filled in the bottom half of the existing doorway, leaving the upper half open to the kitchen for cross-ventilation. Most of the building is made from solid brick and concrete, but surprisingly the internal wall that he put the new door in was a non-structural infill, suggesting to Michael that the door was here originally.
A tilt-up bed nestles into a new floor-to-ceiling storage wall. Overend’s ceilings are tall – a tactic for increasing the feeling of space – and a ladder has become an essential furniture item. Michael’s final move was to replace the two curtains that partly obscured the north-facing window with a single floor-to-ceiling curtain hung from a curved track. The curtain can now be fully swept away to conceal the storage wall during the day and the window at night. The space opens onto an existing courtyard garden, and Michael’s new curtain, when pulled away from the window, enhances the connection with the outdoors and sense of spaciousness created in Overend’s original design.
Michael says one day he would love to swap the kitchen with the bathroom, “but that is a much more expensive proposition.” His neighbours love what he’s done to his apartment, so much so that two of them have asked him to do the same for them. “I said, ‘Don’t you want something just a little different?’ But they wanted exactly the same as what [I’ve done],” Michael retells with a laugh. Slightly frustrating, but proof that he got it right.
Published online: 29 Sep 2014
Words: Tobias Horrocks
Images: Tom Ross of Brilliant Creek
Houses, June 2014