PHOTOGRAPHY John Gollings / Trevor Mein
REVIEW Paul Walker
We all know that architecture is for the rich. But in Melbourne’s inner south-east, a programme initiated by the city of St Kilda in 1985 has for over twenty years delivered well-designed housing for those at the other end of the economic spectrum. Woodstock Community Housing in Balaclava, designed by McGauran Giannini Soon, and Excelsior Hall in Port Melbourne, designed by Michael McKenna, are its latest outcomes.
St Kilda started in community housing to help maintain the mix of population in the municipality in the face of the loss of private rooming houses, one of the consequences of rapid gentrification in Melbourne’s inner bayside suburbs. Rather than trying to use its authority to regulate for diversity, the council’s strategy was to become itself a developer of suitable housing stock that would then be administered by a community organization established to do so, the St Kilda Housing Association. The St Kilda programme was continued by the new City of Port Phillip after the council amalgamations of the Kennett era (the other areas of the expanded municipality in Port Melbourne and South Melbourne had adequate state-administered public housing stock), but in 2000 expanded to encompass projects across the whole of the city. Reflecting this development, the housing association changed its name to the Port Phillip Housing Association. Since its inception, the programme has developed 17 properties, with some 389 housing units, to become the largest local government housing programme in Australia. While some provision for family housing has been included, the focus of the programme has been on units for the elderly and for singles previously accommodated in private rooming houses and bed-sits.
Most projects have been undertaken in partnership with Victoria’s Office for Housing – the major funder – but one has occurred in partnership with a private developer and another as a joint venture. The council has provided land, sometimes purchased on the open market, and the services of a dedicated council officer to orchestrate the developments: putting these resources in place has made implementation of its policy on maintaining diversity possible. Moreover, councillors have been prepared to weather nimby-ish reactions from gentrifiers, and none appear to have paid at the ballot box for their ongoing support of the scheme. The quality of design that has been a hallmark of the scheme as a whole has certainly been key in this success: community housing in the hands of capable architects working to well-considered briefs for thoughtful clients turns out to look like well-designed housing per se. (Although they are architecturally quite different from each other, both Woodstock and Excelsior Hall are exemplary in this respect.) And gentrification has made design a big deal in Port Phillip, a district these days with a reputation for bijou shops, expensive terrace house makeovers and slick restaurants.
From 1998, the Housing Association had sufficient operating surplus to directly initiate developments itself: it has subsequently been responsible for construction of 78 of the housing units to date. After a review in 2004, the Association’s responsibilities were further expanded. Ownership of the programme’s housing portfolio (worth some $89 million) was invested in the Association through a trust, allowing it to borrow funds for new projects itself. The Port Phillip council has subsequently discontinued its direct role in development – Woodstock is the last project in which it has taken a lead role. It nevertheless continues to support the programme, having committed $4 million in funds to the Port Phillip Housing Association for the decade to 2015, and $2 million in land. The distancing of the municipal authority from the operations of the programme is a measure of its success in becoming self-sustaining: community housing in a very real sense. It has also curtailed W possible perceptions of conflict of interest in the council being both developer and responsible for compliance and planning permission. This may have been a concern for local residents in regard to Woodstock. More than previous projects in the scheme, Woodstock attracted criticisms at the planning stage, also apparently motivated by concerns about intensity of development and the nature of the prospective residents. The usual stuff.
These misgivings should have dispersed with the realization of the MGS design. While the scale of the Woodstock building is larger than that of the narrow, single-fronted houses that are its neighbours on one of its two street frontages, it partially conforms to the language of its neighbours on the other – this block of Woodstock Street has a fabric of warehouse vernacular, brick, built hard against the street boundary. MGS’s architectural approach has been to address the project’s two strikingly different contexts, and to make of them a strange hybrid. It’s a rather extraordinary looking building as a result. A half gable rises from the party wall of the house adjoining the site on Marlborough Street. But it rises up an extra floor, and – covered in brown clay tiles – it is reminiscent both of the detailing found in Federation-ish single-fronteds in the neighbourhood, and of the bricks of Woodstock Street.
This building mass is answered by another half gable form from which it is separated by a glassy void; the walls of this one are brick. The whole arrangement is a rather distorted, monumental half-afterimage of the Vanna Venturi house (Eli Giannini alerted me to this point). At the corner, this composition jostles with a three-storey volume whose Woodstock Street elevation is a scaled-up version of the party wall that used to be exposed on the eastern boundary of the site when it was a vacant lot. The domestic look of this element – it appears to be made of pale green weatherboards – is at odds with its expanded scale. A shopfront window wraps round the corner, accommodating a communal laundry behind. The rest of the Woodstock Street wing is a brick-clad box suspended on piloti over public car parks. The bricks here, like those on the other street front, are disposed in a way derived from work by Benjamin McKeown, one of two artists who were involved in the project. Entry to the complex is from this side, architecturally signalled by a two-storey recess in the weatherboard volume. Here, in the form of a bronze plaque identifying Woodstock as part of a community housing programme, is the only explicit clue that this building is not premises for something like a funky graphic design firm with warehouse studio apartments thrown in. This is what it looks like. Not like public housing.
It may seem that here architecture veils the social stigma that we may think the inhabitants of a rooming house must bear. But the quality of the Woodstock design is more than skin-deep. The 31 rooms – a mix of traditional rooming house accommodation with shared facilities and some small, self-contained studio apartments – may be modest but they are not mean. A few privileged units on the upper floor looking over Woodstock St even have private balconies. Opportunities afforded by stairs and the building volumes are fully exploited to produce a sense of spatial generosity in the circulation areas. They have a stylish material and colour palette – exposed blockwork, sometimes cut back to a polished finish, perforated timber veneer panels, tiles with a terrazzo look. Only the grey carpet on some floor areas has an inkling of the institutional. Shared communal areas are also expansive. The larger of two such spaces on level 1, with a kitchen and a living room, has balconies both to the south over Marlborough Street and to the north, tucked under a hip roof rising from the eastern party wall. On level 2, a third communal area has another generous north-oriented balcony. In general, then, there is at Woodstock an investment of care and design in making decent places to live.
›› Excelsior Hall is another architectural success story. But there the design issues were different ones. The main part of Excelsior is accommodated in a building that dates from 1886, when it was built as the premises of a boys’ club. It had a series of subsequent occupants, the last and longest being the Returned Service League. For many decades it was the only such space in the district and, in effect, was the local community hall. Though this is old history, it has given the building resonance in the memory of the local community. It therefore has significant social heritage value. Port Phillip required that this be acknowledged in the conversion of the building for use as community housing. This conversion entailed major work, not only to fit the building out for its new life, but also to remove damaged framing timbers, stabilize the structure and remove contaminated fill under the building. After all this, five self-contained units, each with its own street address and front and back yards, have been installed at the ground level, this arrangement reflecting the pattern of structural bays. These lower units are suitable for disabled tenants, with two having extra accommodation for live-in help or visiting family. Above are ten single-occupancy units arrayed off a central corridor, the upper a bedroom with a balcony cut into the roof. The only communal facility is a laundry for the tenants of these units. This is contained in a new building at the eastern end of the Hall, which also contains letterboxes and stairs to the upper-level corridor. More importantly, this new bit is the front door for the upper units; for this reason its scale and abstract shape are quite pronounced. A small garden adjacent is another shared space, but more of a gesture to the collective than a real place for gathering.
The architectural decisions at Excelsior have been mindful of the building’s place in Port Melbourne’s collective memory. They allude to this rather than restoring the building precisely to some previous state. Demolishing lean-tos along the length of the building and a brick building that obscured the “front” on its eastern end has made the overall form of the building more apparent; uncovering the eastern end also allowed reinstatement of the timber ashlar surmised to have been its original appearance. Corrugated steel cladding on the rest of the building further assisted in re-establishing the material look of the original. But this is not mindless deference. Openings in the building envelope have been made as necessary (the entirely new suitably distinguished from the reinstated), the RSL’s honorific iron gates and surrounds have been redeployed, and a low stone boundary wall of a mid-century Port Melbourne municipal type has been maintained. If Woodstock gets its richness by mixing cues from its physical context, Excelsior gets its from a complex weave of community memories and architectural presentness.
Architecture of the quality found in Woodstock and in Excelsior Hall is not often deployed for the dignified housing of those with few resources and few opportunities. These buildings are a reminder that architectural skill can in the right circumstances make a difference to modest situations, an old Modernist idea that architects only occasionally dust off. Those circumstances have been created in the community housing programme in Port Phillip. There is a great deal for other community housing programmes to learn here, and a lot for architecture to remember.
›› Dr Paul Walker is associate professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne.
WOODSTOCK ROOMING HOUSE, BALACLAVA
McGauran Giannini Soon.
City of Port Phillip —Gary Spivak, Port Phillip Housing.
Civil and structural engineer
J. Jinadasa and Associates.
Integrated Eco Villages.
William Kelly and Associates, Benjamin McKeown.
William McGauran Landscape.
Max Braid Surveyors.
Fire performance assessment
Lake Young and Associates.
Senior statutory planner
EXCELSIOR HALL, PORT MELBOURNE
Michael McKenna Architecture and Interiors/Morgan McKenna—project team Michael McKenna, Albert Hsieh, Andrew Child.
City of Port Phillip —Gary Spivak, Port Phillip Housing.
Bassett Kuttner Collins.
Prowse Quantity Surveyors.