Pattern is king: Melbourne Central Arcade

Melbourne architecture practice Kennedy Nolan has revitalized the public arcades of Melbourne Central, strengthening the centre’s character and heightening the user experience.

How do you draw complexity from a twenty-millimetre thickness of skin, with little recourse to three dimensions? This is the question that Rachel Nolan, principal at Kennedy Nolan, posed on our visit to Melbourne Central. It was one of the challenges faced by the practice in its design response to the vibrant shopping hub’s arcades, the lower levels of which it had previously worked on.

The site itself supports enormous streams of pedestrians, and the masses of people walking through it bring vibrancy and life. The flow is constant; the centre is anchored at one end by a busy railway station deep in the basement, and at the other by the elevated and ground-level links to another shopping hub, Emporium Melbourne. From that point, pedestrians can continue south down the retail “golden mile,” via department stores Myer or David Jones, to Bourke Street Mall and beyond.

Following on from the earlier work by ARM Architecture, Kennedy Nolan was to redesign and revitalize the public arcades of Melbourne Central, an important link in a chain of retail density and shopper movement. It also needed to achieve this with little physical intervention or change, hence the quip about the twenty-millimetre skin, which refers to all surfaces – on floors, columns, walls and ceilings. Kennedy Nolan has succeeded in “activating,” to use a tired phrase, or perhaps more correctly “visually animating,” the interior spaces of the mall’s southern extension and the links to Emporium Melbourne. This has been achieved primarily through the clever application of a new skin, one that employs repeated pattern, mirrored reflections of horizontal and vertical surfaces, and the judicious application of the calming colour green.

Kennedy Nolan has created a visual environment that eschews the architectural language of the conventional shopping centre.

Kennedy Nolan has created a visual environment that eschews the architectural language of the conventional shopping centre.

Image: Derek Swalwell

In the Kennedy Nolan scheme, pattern is king. For Melbourne Central, the repetition of geometric shapes is a key technique that has been used on the flooring to mark the high-traffic thoroughfares on each level, without introducing unnecessary physical barriers. A different pattern in the natural stone flooring occurs on each level, giving each an individual character; the result is almost Byzantine in appearance. Pattern has been applied so that its appearance varies depending on the viewpoint: the view across the zigzag stripes of the upper level is distinctly different to the view from the balconies, where the geometry coalesces into a more seamless whole.

Pattern, and the aforementioned reflection, occurs in the ceiling plane as well. Fixed to the ceiling of one promenade, a sequence of triangular mirrors alternates with a series of convex, round mirrors. The tableau reflects the movement of shoppers from multiple levels below and brings a visually ephemeral dynamic to the ceiling plane.

The bridge link that connects Melbourne Central and Emporium Melbourne has been converted into an informal working hub on one level.

The bridge link that connects Melbourne Central and Emporium Melbourne has been converted into an informal working hub on one level.

Image: Derek Swalwell

The two-level bridge link that connects Melbourne Central and Emporium Melbourne has been converted into an informal working hub on one level and a green space on the other. In addition to the use of pattern and reflection, the decision to convert the lower level of the bridge link into a relaxed co-working and study space brings animation to the volume. Previously a sterile, empty passageway, with a shiny tile floor, the co-working hub now provides low tables, desks and robust task chairs arranged around columns, with power points for charging laptops and mobile phones. Indeed, at least two casual meetings were being held in the hub when I visited on a Wednesday morning, complete with laptops and open briefcases. It’s a scene not typically encouraged in shopping centres, where any opportunity for profit and trading space is sought.

The upper level of the bridge offers a different kind of respite. It has been converted into green space, with a snaking bank of plants. The beds of palms and greenery seem at home in the warm, sun-drenched space. In winter and the mid-seasons, it will be an appealing place to rest from the shopping grind. Year round, it will be a great vantage point from which to look out onto Melbourne’s busy Lonsdale Street. To this end, fixed binoculars on steel posts, as one might find at a viewing platform, have been positioned on the bridge for a bit of harmless voyeurism.

Pattern, colour and reflection help to bring a dynamic and ephemeral quality to Melbourne Central Arcade.

Pattern, colour and reflection help to bring a dynamic and ephemeral quality to Melbourne Central Arcade.

Image: Derek Swalwell

Shopping centres are changing. Their role as de facto public spaces and piazzas is emphasized when they are populated by masses of commuters, using connecting railway or subway stations, as is the case with Melbourne Central. As retail centres undergo their regular and cyclical renewal, the skin of the space – if not the physical components – has many powerful possibilities, and the interplay of pattern and reflection is a rich vein to explore. Kennedy Nolan has breathed new life into these spaces through the agency of its twenty millimetres of skin. But beyond this we see, as with the inclusion of the co-working hub, the ongoing blurring between consumer and non-consumer, between private and public activity. We’ll have to wait to see what’s next in the transformation of retail space and the public realm.

Products and materials

White and green granite, and bluestone tiles in sawn finish. Figura Epoca Classic carpet from RC+D.
Aluminium battens used on arcade ceiling. Stainless steel mirror panels used on bridge level one ceiling. Cedar battens used on bridge level two ceiling.
Custom fixed timber tables by Kithe. Cabin Booth and Lounge seating by Design by Them (in arcade). Pallissade Lounge Chair and Sofa by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Hay and About a Chair AAC 26 by Hee Welling for Hay, all from Cult (in bridge).
Emerald Lady art collaboration by Sally Smart & Openwork. Balustrades and steelwork painted in Dulux ‘Norfolk Green.’


Design practice
Kennedy Nolan Architects
Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Project Team
Patrick Kennedy, Rachel Nolan, Michael Macleod, Jack Lawrence, Alex Christos, Hugh Goad
Builder ProBuild, Otto Construction Group
Construction documentation I2C
Fire engineer Norman Disney Young
Lighting Point of View, ADP Consulting
Project manager Blank Role :: Melbourne Central Arcade
Public art consultants Openwork and Sally Smart
Services engineer ADP Consulting
Structural engineer Irwinconsult
Site Details
Location Melbourne,  Vic,  Australia
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 9 months
Construction 9 months
Category Interiors, Public / cultural
Type Retail



Published online: 10 Dec 2019
Words: Marcus Baumgart
Images: Derek Swalwell


Artichoke, September 2019

Related topics

More projects

See all
The windows are double-framed, making the glazing blast-proof in the unlikely event of an explosion at the nearby port. A deceptively simple cafe in industrial Footscray: Gathered

Designed by Ewert Leaf, this pared-back and striking cafe in Melbourne’s Footscray belies a host of logistical and functional solutions to manage its portside setting.

The vast plaster ceiling features copiously repeated prismatic forms, housing lights that can be varied in colour and intensity. A good Melbourne citizen returns: The Capitol

After a major 1960s downscaling and a series of ad hoc renovations, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s Capitol Theatre has been re-engineered to …

Darling Point Apartment by Chenchow Little. Talking Houses with Chenchow Little:
Darling Point Apartment

In this video, Tony Chenchow and Stephanie Little return to the Darling Point Apartment to literally unfold the elements of this tranquil apartment.

From the street, Mermaid Multihouse appears as grandly singular, with layered allusions to local architectural styles. Living side-by-side: Mermaid Multihouse

Twin dwellings artfully coalesce in this flexible Gold Coast home, designed by Partners Hill with Hogg and Lamb.

Most read

Latest on site