Urban Melbourne recently talked with ARM Architecture's Neil Masterton. As Design Director of the prolific architecture firm, Neil was the premier candidate to explore the design rationale behind the pending St. Collins Lane development, formerly Australia on Collins.
LD: What were the key drivers behind your offices' design strategy for St. Collins Lane? Improved sight lines? Light? Greater permeability?
NM: The fundamental driver behind the St Collins Lane project was the desire of the client and design team to create a particular boutique retail experience in an urban core that is specifically related to Melbourne. This is not a shopping experience but an urban retail experience.
NM: It is a re-structure of the existing centre with a flattening out of the floor plates and rationalisation - five floors down to four but the overall area will increase by 1000 sqm to about 9,000 sqm. The centre will boast high ceilings of 3.5m and we'll also be filling in the large void in the ground floor. We wanted to create a distinction between the high end of Collins Street and the boutique laneway environment of Little Collins Street. There will be a strong visual connection between the two by way of improved site lines from Collins Street through to Little Collins Street.
NM: The entry point from Collins Street will be double height with a little canopy over the dining deck on the upper level which really opening the centre up to Collins Street. It is about creating a vertical experience but also an elegant passeggiata with a level of intimacy in the heart of the city.
LD: Were there any particular inspirations for the design team both in a local and international context?
NM: We were fascinated with the great streets of the world - 5th Avenue in New York, the Champs-Élysées in Paris - these types of places.
LD: What lessons were learnt/what were you able to take away from the offices' experience on Melbourne Central - although there is clearly a different target demographic in mind?
NM: St Collins Lane is a unique experience but we were able to draw upon some similar approaches to design and ambitions - making the experience clear and direct with good sight lines - we wanted to steer clear of the labyrinth and 'trapping people' - a subtly different identity between levels is employed but within a holistic vision for the centre.
NM: The departure point between the two is obviously in the scale. St Collins Lane is a relatively small boutique experience that offers the opportunity for intimacy - where Melbourne Central occupies an entire city block. It is not a shopping centre but it's also not quite a laneway. It is unique.
LD: Would you say it's a typology all of its own?
NM: Yes, that's perhaps one way of looking at it.
LD: Would I be correct in suggesting that St. Collins Lane is a bit more restrained formally with a much more subtle materials palette than usually employed by ARM?
NM: It's more about responding in vigorous ways to different settings. Retail itself is the most prominent or pronounced feature - the architecture has to help the retail but you don't want to necessarily see it as secondary. It's a bit of a juggling act - the generic nature of the shopping centre and the bespoke nature of the laneway or arcade. It becomes about the architecture of the public realm more than anything.
NM: To elaborate further, public spaces should be memorable. People should be encouraged to congregate in them, to be seen in them. I would say that the Royal Arcade is a memorable place and something St Collins Lane aspires to, so you could say that there is a sliding scale between the generic and the particular.
LD: The retail core is undergoing a renaissance similar to that of Melbourne's laneways in the 90's - what do you put that down to? Increased competition from an increasing number of international retailers? Increase in population and the advent of later trading hours?
NM: This is very much an architect's take on it but I would say it's a combination of a number of factors. There certainly are many more people living in the city. I think the diversity of Melbourne and Australia in general are seen as quite desirable for both international retailers and people looking to migrate, particularly the Asian middle class population. H&M moving into the GPO didn't necessarily seem like a good fit at the time but it appears to be working.
NM: The other factor the retail world has to come to terms with is on-line shopping.
LD: Funny you should mention on-line shopping. That was my next question - the evolution of shopping and the implications for architecture - online vs physical?
NM: On-line shopping can't offer a visceral urban experience. I believe there is a strong desire and need for actual visual and physical interactions and developers/retailers are looking more and more to create great places to be, interesting places to be! The experience is something that on-line can't offer and this is in part is what's leading to much more retail outcomes. Shopping is no longer shopping as it was in the 19th Century for example.
NM: It's all about being seen hanging out in interesting places, the element of 'shopping' has become secondary - it's all about the experience and creating memorable spaces.
Many thanks to Neil Masterton for setting some time aside to chat with Urban Melbourne.