Hard pressed to find a better location for art

The Australian Print Workshop in Fitzroy is showing a smart new face to the world, writes Stephen Crafti.

The Australian Print Workshop in Fitzroy is showing a smart new face to the world, writes Stephen Crafti.

The Australian Print Workshop, on the corner of Gertrude and Gore streets, Fitzroy, a non-profit organisation, had occupied this prominent site since the late 1980s. Previously there was no presence to the fashionable shopping strip, with the building's heavy timber venetian blinds making the place feel more like a club.

"This makeover has changed our operation dramatically. The number of people coming into the gallery has grown exponentially," says Anne Virgo, director of the workshop. "Many locals think this is a completely new organisation in their neighbourhood."

Jackson Clements Burrows Architects (JCB) was instrumental in making this change, reworking spaces, as well as adding on a new steel wing to accommodate an artist in residence. However, it's the street frontage, with its large new steel-framed windows and steel awning (with graphics by Garry Emery) that immediately draws you into the gallery, with its pristine white walls. "We wanted a sense of transparency into the gallery, for those passing by, as well as for the printers," Virgo says.

For JCB, the success of the project was not only animating the corner site, but also reworking a building in a heritage streetscape. While the new picture windows in the ground floor sharpen the building's heritage features, the new residence, located in Gore Street, plays on the street's Victorian iron balustrades.

Instead of decorative iron, the new addition features perforated black steel shutters. "We wanted the design to engage with the street. But we also wanted to make the gallery and print workshop feel accessible," says architect Tim Jackson, a director of JCB Architects.

As well as modifying the facade, JCB reworked the spaces at ground level. One portion operates as a gallery. The other area functions as the workshop, assisting printers who are early in their careers. As well as new bench spaces, JCB created new openings between the two spaces.

"We often hold functions here or bring school groups through. Having interconnected and flexible spaces formed part of our brief," Virgo says.

As well as state-of-the-art equipment, including sophisticated ventilation systems, the workshop provides a history of printing in Melbourne.

New steel alcoves beautifully frame two presses, an Albion press, made in London in 1868, and a more decorative Columbian press, crowned with an eagle and thought to be from the same period. 'They're both still working, and used regularly," Virgo says.

Jackson says the brief wasn't simply to expand the workshop. "It was also about making it more efficient and recycling where possible."

A relatively "light" touch was also given to the administrative offices located on the first floor, as well as the other printing rooms. "We really just inserted a few new walls to create some new office space," Jackson says.

Artist Susan Baran from Sydney is staying in the residence for three weeks. In addition to a fully contained suite, which includes bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room, there's a workbench. One of the walls in the living room doubles as a pinboard.

"We have artists from all over Australia, as well as from overseas. We just had an artist from Fiji stay here," Virgo says.

And unlike many short-term stays, with mass-produced furniture, this abode includes furniture by Alvar Aalto. "A lot of this furniture has been donated by philanthropic groups," she says.

While this new fitout appears relatively simple, considerable effort is in the detail. Part of the floor in the residence, for example, can be removed to allow presses to be transported in and out of the building.

"I wasn't even aware it was there," Baran says.

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