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A green exterior with pink accents, bright neon lights and trapezoidal windows? On an enviable inner-city site in Fitzroy, Melbourne, an apartment complex can’t help but draw attention for its distinctive shape and colour. Where uniformity and trends-based style has characterised many of the new multi-residential units populating our cities and towns, the boutique Whitlam Place development splits away from its contemporaries with a quirky design and focus on materials that will age and endure well into the future.
This was certainly the intent of architecture firm Freadman White, a practice that sets out to ‘create visually intriguing and emotionally resonant spaces’. The client, Anon Studio, which was also the project’s developer (and future resident), had a strong hand in the interior design of the building. The result of their creative partnership struck the Australian design fraternity with force, and Whitlam Place has now become an increasingly recognisable landmark in Melbourne.
‘It is quite unusual from a design perspective,’ explains James Gooley, a director at Visioneer Builders, the construction group and HIA member chosen to materialise the plans. ‘From the exterior it’s like a Brutalist building, and above the ground floor it looks as though it’s floating on this light structure, which creates a real sense of wonder. Being adjacent to Whitlam Park, it also has a beautiful outlook over the trees onto the historic Fitzroy Town Hall.’
The four-level plus basement complex is distinguishable by its copper oxide facade – applied in a brassy green that will patina over time – and fluted concrete formwork inspired by the classical proportions and Corinthian columns of its notable neighbour. Other prominent aspects make up its long list of unique features including: inverted window arches that undulate along the base on the south side, pop-out brass-framed windows irregularly placed to the west side, and neon lighting displays on every level.
Each of the 11 apartments are further imbued with personality, dependent on the tastes and needs of the owners, with floor plans often modified to suit favourite furniture pieces, including a baby grand piano. Although off-the-plan sales allow for a degree of customisation, this project offered a bit more flexibility since the developer knew most of the buyers personally.
‘The developer lives in one of the penthouses and a family member lives in the other,’ James reveals. ‘The other nine apartments were mostly purchased by family and friends known to the developer, so they have created a nice little community there.’
While the site may be desirable for its location, it came with its own set of difficulties when construction got underway after demolishing an old factory warehouse. ‘We unfortunately had some latent conditions found onsite very early in the project which caused significant delays,’ James says. ‘This meant it went for an additional six months due to the services authority delay.’
The building incorporated precast concrete panels for the exterior but due to site restrictions Visioneer wasn’t able to use a tower crane to hoist them in. ‘So everything was built by mobile cranes,’ he says. ‘We had access to the rear lane and the main street, but it was a challenge to operate mobile cranes and keep the peace with the neighbours, particularly in the early stages of the job.’
However, these are the types of builds where the Visioneer team shine, bringing their project management expertise to deal with the demanding, the intricate and the bespoke. The building firm prides itself on its collaborative approach, providing value for money for clients and keeping within critical time and cost parameters.
Where suitable, alternative construction processes and techniques are presented as options for buildability efficiencies. One example included the fluted decorative panels to the entry lobby and kitchen island benches, originally specified as precast concrete (like the exterior) but amended to GRC moulded panels. ‘GRC is glass reinforced concrete,’ James explains. ‘It’s a lightweight form that is easier to install which we used instead of concrete – it creates the look without the weight and the cost.’
For the penthouse apartment known as ‘the glass jewel’ on top of the ‘Brutalist base’, curved glazing dramatically frames a private rooftop courtyard, its semi-circle shape a balancing act to the inverted arches below. Here pink concrete with insitu Terrazzo flows underfoot, laid via ‘an old-fashioned methodology where broken pieces of marble are inserted before the concrete is poured around it’. This artistic detail is echoed underneath the suspended fireplace in the living room, as well as the lobby and the entrance to the building. Timber floorboards add warmth to the concrete, stone and brass details, while a pink skylight and a three-level light shaft within the building provides natural light and ventilation.
‘Most of the trades involved on the project were given the challenge of thinking “outside of the square” to achieve the architect’s design intent and meticulous attention to detail,’ James says. ‘This was made possible with the support of Visioneer’s dedicated management team. Everyone involved was truly invested in bringing the design team’s creative endeavour to fruition with the overall quality of construction.’
Since its completion in 2018, Whitlam Place has swept up architecture, design and construction awards, including the 2019 HIA–CSR Victorian Apartment of the Year award for the penthouse. It was the first time Visioneer had worked with the architect and the developer, but James says the complex was an undeniable success.
‘We learnt a lot from this project, we hadn’t done anything like this on such a tight site, where literally every square inch is taken up by building,’ he says. ‘It certainly created challenges and headaches, but when we stand back and look at it, it’s something we’re proud of.
‘The client was passionately involved so it was a real labour of love for him but it was a real partnership between us all. We wanted to work together to deliver a unique and innovative residential development – which we managed to do and all within a very strict budget.’