Tower project references site's work history

A Melbourne landmark has been given a makeover, writes Stephen Crafti.

A Melbourne landmark has been given a makeover, writes Stephen Crafti.

Number 171 Collins Street in Melbourne is a premier address. And although the imposing building, designed by Nahum Barnet exactly 100 years ago, is impressive, very little behind the decorative Romanesque Revival facade remained.

Originally designed as an auditorium, later named Mayfair, this landmark building was in the late 1980s home to Figgins Diorama, one of Australia's most prestigious boutique-style department stores.

When Bates Smart inspected the building a few years ago, the front portion of the building had been crudely divided into shops.

"The interior was scrambled up. There was very little remaining of Barnet's design," says architect Kristen Whittle, a director of the practice, who consulted with heritage architects Lovell Chen.

The facade of Mayfair was restored and repainted, and what survived of Barnet's work behind the facade was transformed into offices.

However, past the threshold is a completely new glazed office tower, comprising 17 levels. Bates Smart's clients, Charter Hall & Cbus Property (Joint Venture), briefed the architects for a high-quality office fitout, one that included generous floor plates for key tenants such as BHP Billiton.

"We were conscious of not overshadowing St Paul's Cathedral," says Whittle, pointing out the fitted glass that forms a pale white finish. "There were a series of other heritage overlays we had to comply with, the Collins Street precinct as well as Flinders Lane."

Now linking Collins Street with Flinders Lane, Mayfair features an imposing glazed atrium at reception, extending 35 metres. Finished in travertine and striking woven glass screens, there's a continual play of light from the glazed roof.

"We looked at the context of the site. This area was once the centre of the clothing industry," says Whittle who used 40 tonnes of glass to create the screen. "You could say the screens reference the curtains that once existed in the auditorium. But the woven technique also alludes to tailoring, as do the seams carved into the limestone."

The beautifully leather-covered steel at reception also alludes to Flinders Lane's fashion history.

Other images in the architects' minds were that of cut glass, and the diamonds sold in the stores located in the Paris end of town. However, functionality was a driving force in the design. And rather than locating a lift core and stairwell in the middle of the floor plates, these have been shifted to one side of the building.

"We were conscious of creating seamless and continuous floor plates. But we also wanted to maximise light levels," says Whittle, who produced a six-star Green Star-rated building.

Unlike many reception areas, 171 Collins Street operates more like a prestigious hotel. "Reception can organise everything from picking up tickets to organising transport. It's quite a novel idea, aimed at business people who are often time poor," Whittle says.

Some of the most impressive features at 171 are behind closed doors. BHP Billiton, for example, has a club-style lounge. Concealed behind its own reception counter, this club is used for both client and staff meetings. And, like an airport lounge, it has its own kitchen and amenities.

One of the most alluring changes to the building has been opening up the site to both Collins Street (soon to host fashion label Dolce & Gabbana) and Flinders Lane. A wide passage, finished in limestone, brings light and activity to both addresses.

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