London-based architecture firm Universal Design Studio with Mather Architecture has restored and redeveloped the historic Canberra Centre into a sophisticated urban retail precinct.
A four-year project to restore and redevelop the historic Canberra Centre in Australia’s national capital has resulted in a dynamically revitalized urban retail precinct. Engaged by the centre’s retail-developer owner QIC Global Real Estate (QICGRE), the London-based architecture and interior design practice Universal Design Studio, along with local and executive architecture firm Mather Architecture, undertook the renovation and transformation of the centre. The work included development of a new masterplan and restored, renovated and newly designed facades and interior and exterior spaces.
The multi-million-dollar redevelopment enhances an important section of the original modernist plans of the capital’s central business district. The centre’s location is strategic, with the three-level Ainslie Mall positioned on one of the axial markers of the designed capital. It is intersected by the two-storey Monaro Mall, which retains the original name for the centre. At the time of its opening in 1963, it was Australia’s first fully enclosed shopping mall. In subsequent decades, retail and parking expansions and interior interventions of varying degrees of sympathy occurred. By the early 2000s, the centre, though continually functional, seemed old fashioned and worn out. It was clearly in need of revitalization and a more vibrant vision as an inviting and contemporary civic precinct. Universal Design Studio has done just that, bringing a much-needed level of well-designed vitality to Canberra Centre.
Universal Design Studio was first commissioned in 2013 to work on the Ainslie Mall section of the centre, including 5,300 square metres of commercial and public space. Across two floors, the project included new entrances, vertical circulation, walls, balustrades, bulkheads, lighting, seating, signage, shopfronts, planting and flooring, all handled with the firm’s core attention to carefully composed details and finely crafted materiality. Directionality along the Ainslie Avenue axis has been emphasized in the chevron pattern of the flooring. Composed of bespoke tiles in four varieties of marble with occasional brass strip accents, the flooring gestures along the axis towards both Mount Ainslie and Parliament House. It is optically curious, as from some views, the chevron pattern creates an illusion of the floor being articulated or folded.
Following the success of its initial work, Universal Design Studio was awarded the most recently completed Monaro Mall interior and centre exterior commissions. When asked about the key challenges of the project, Universal Design Studio co-director Hannah Carter Owers noted the demands of maintaining rigorous attention to the overarching concept over a period of several years, of keeping momentum with teams and of being creatively responsive to the client’s mission and the inevitable modifications that emerge in a long-term commercial project.
The recently completed Monaro Mall significantly enhances the centre, with each of its two refurbished levels bringing an invigorating level of sophistication to a previously tired part of the complex. There is a much clearer identity, with the Beauty Arcade on the ground floor in the beauty and wellness precinct and a lifestyle, homewares and design precinct on the first floor. A change in retail offerings brought new-to-Canberra shops to mix with established stores, creating a more diverse and inviting shopping experience, with the promise of more to come.
Universal Design Studio’s commitment to referencing Canberra’s architectural context and to a fine expression of materiality in design and finishes is clearly evident. Honed marble is used to establish overall visual unity while creating a focal point at each storefront. A geometric cast concrete coffered ceiling makes reference to the form and material language of the nearby National Gallery of Australia. Triangular marble and terrazzo floors continue the recollection, animated by a continually changing play of light. On the first floor, a dated skylight ceiling has been transformed with sloping concrete panels, open at the top to allow soft light to wash down the surfaces. Other strategically designed concrete elements recall examples of Canberra’s fine brutalist concrete buildings. There is a refined tactility to the detailing, making even the simple act of touching a railing a pleasant experience.
Externally, the centre has much greater street appeal. Running outdoors parallel to the Monaro Mall, Bunda Street has in recent years been transformed into a lively pedestrian-friendly precinct lined with numerous cafes and restaurants. The newly designed Bunda Street entrance and landscaping has turned what had seemed like the back side of the centre into an inviting entry. The centre’s marble facades were restored, one retaining original Monaro Mall initials. One- hundred-metre-long arched canopies were reintroduced – graphic gestures that provide both shade and a sense of promenade for pedestrians. The centre’s long, original “front” on the City Walk pedestrian mall, anchored on one side by retailer David Jones, has been pared back, with fast food kiosks removed to refine the building envelope and better showcase the large display windows.
Canberra Centre now offers sophisticated retail spaces, a welcoming public realm and an elegant level of refined urbanity appropriate for a national capital.