Books add life and shadow to office fitout

Architects have recycled rejected timber, blemishes and all, writes Stephen Crafti.

Architects have recycled rejected timber, blemishes and all, writes Stephen Crafti.

Lovell Chen Architects & Heritage Consultants had been operating from an office in Little Bourke Street for nearly 20 years. But apartments were closing in, reducing the views and light. This office space, occupying half a floor (400 square metres), was also cramped for their 30 staff. "The space was starting to affect how we work, even though the location was convenient," says architect Kai Chen, a director of the practice.

Chen and his co-director architect Peter Lovell spent considerable time looking for new premises nearby. They started in the CBD, slowly shifting their gaze to pockets on the edge of town. They eventually found an entire floor (600 square metres) in a 1980s office building in East Melbourne.

As well as greater floor space, there are views of the Melbourne Cricket Ground and over parkland. There are also views to the north, of East Melbourne and beyond. Lovell Chen was keen to retain as much of the previous fitout as possible. The carpets, for example, were retained, as were the humble ceiling panels from the '80s. Even some of the doors were recycled.

"We saw this as a soft refurbishment, rather than a total makeover," Chen says.

As books, old and new, form the backbone of Lovell Chen's practice, it seemed appropriate to design extensive bookshelves. These shelves start outside the lift and wind their way through reception and into a board/meeting room. Made from timber veneer, the back of these shelves is translucent acrylic. "All the timber had been rejected by people over the years, unloved, sitting in the back of a joiner's workshop," says Chen, who is proud to point out the imperfections, from small marks to what was considered the wrong grain by the client. "There's a lot of unnecessary wastage out there."

From the reception area, adjacent to the boardroom, there's a wall of books in profile. "These shadows are like Melbourne's skyline," Chen says.

Sue-Anne Williams, the full-time librarian, numbers the collection, including magazines, at 20,598 items. "There's also the computer files backing up this material," Williams says. "The books are extremely comforting. There's a sense of being in your own home library."

These shelves are complemented by a chequerboard ceiling of black and white acrylic panels. While the East Melbourne office fitout has been softly handled, a couple of enclosed offices were required. There's the directors' office, concealed behind a black acrylic wall. And adjacent to the open-plan office area is a meeting space. A new kitchen and informal dining and lounge area was included at the rear of the floor plate, benefiting from the full northern sunlight.

Wherever you look there are bookshelves. Those lining the wall in the open-plan area are of particle board, not dissimilar to the original ceiling. "Someone must have ordered this board and realised that it was a bad choice when it arrived," says Chen, who has transformed what was once a mistake into an extremely fine office fitout.

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