Lobby given streamlined facelift

Purple walls and timber panelling have had their day, writes Stephen Crafti.

Purple walls and timber panelling have had their day, writes Stephen Crafti.

Apartment lobbies are like a front door. But instead of being used by a few, the space is experienced by many, sometimes hundreds of people daily. The lobby of the Hero building, in Russell Street, Melbourne (corner Little Collins Street), is shared by 142 apartments and was designed in 2001 by Fender Katsalidis Architects.

Originally commissioned in the early 1940s by the Commonwealth Department of Works, but not built until 1954, the cream brick tower has a distinctive art deco feel. A stone relief on the facade, from the studio of George Allen and Stanley Hammond, beautifully captures the flat stylised relief of an earlier time.

"Styles from the 1930s were often delayed from appearing in Australia. The Second World War had a part in this," says architect Jan van Schaik, co-director of Minifie van Schaik (MVS) Architects. MVS has regularly collaborated with art practices, including transforming the Hero lobby. Artist Fiona Abicare first collaborated with van Schaik on a show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA).

Unlike the impressive facade, the previous lobby of the Hero apartments was underwhelming: Purple plastered walls competed with timber wall panelling. And mirrors seemed to add to the claustrophobia rather than reflecting light and enhancing the space.

The owners corporation decided to engage an artist and architect to bring life to this area. One of the main problems was the position of the letterboxes, tucked behind a faux concrete wall.

"It made the corridor feel cramped and people felt a little anxious picking up mail behind a wall," says Abicare, design director for "Scandinavian Freestyle", the title of this project.

As well as removing many of the 2001 additions to the foyer, Abicare looked carefully at the space, with its coffered ceiling and ribbon-like balustrades.

"With my practice, I'm always interested in context, with work specifically made for a space," Abicare says. MVS Architects' role was also clearly outlined from the start, co-ordinating with artist and residents, as well as ensuring changes adhered to building code regulations.

While the original terrazzo floors and marble walls remain, there are now new letterboxes outside the lift well. These "pods", mounted on tiled columns and thoughtfully angled, allow residents to get their mail easily and safely.

And those waiting for friends, or simply taking a moment before turning their front door keys, can relax on the new lounge. Made of tiled column-like legs, with a pale timber bench, the lounge includes a rhomboid-shaped screen to one side, offering some privacy.

Abicare also fashioned a rhomboid-shaped wall mirror, with an embedded photo of the facade's sculpture, originally taken in Allen and Stanley's studio, obtained from Australia's National Archives.

"We looked at the influences of the original architecture, the Scandinavian modern style and interpreted this for today," says Abicare, who sees the lobby not only as an art installation, but as a place where residents enjoy walking through daily.

"The residents could have easily voted for a new couch and maybe a painting on the wall. But this art has both an aesthetic feature as well as being highly functional," she adds.

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