Clever collaboration has paved the way for a bold new player on the Melbourne apartment landscape. By Andrew Mackenzie.

Carlton’s Upper House sets new apartment standard

An apartment interior at Upper House, Carlton.
An apartment interior at Upper House, Carlton.

You would have to have spent the past few years under a rock, or perhaps at Parliament House, to be unaware of Australia’s housing woes. Affordability has plummeted while mortgage stress has soared, with young buyers hit the hardest. Commentators cite various reasons for this state of affairs: tax steroids, cashed-up foreigners, supply shortages due to a population undergoing rapid growth. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: by all available metrics it is now harder than ever for buyers to get a first foothold on the property ladder.

This reality has led to an unprecedented rise in multi-residential approvals across Australia, nowhere more so than in Melbourne. Considering European cities such as Paris, Barcelona or Berlin, that in itself should be no hardship. However, the Australian explosion in apartment demand has not been matched by building regulation, resulting in endless stories of cramped, dark boxes and raising the spectre of future slums. 

Almost exactly a year ago, this fear led the Office of the Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) to call for minimum standards for apartment buildings, aligned with similar standards currently enforced in New South Wales. Such standards include mandating levels of natural light and ventilation, ceiling heights, adequate storage provision and minimum apartment sizes. Smoke signals from the new Victorian Labor government appear positive, while inevitably the development industry is in a lather, predicting that larger built-in wardrobes and more fresh air will lead inexorably to the collapse of prosperity and the end of days.

That the OVGA was right to flag woefully inadequate apartment regulation was anecdotally borne out this week at the Australian Institute of Architects’ Victorian awards. For despite a bumper year of freshly completed multi-residential developments across the state, the awards actually saw a decrease in projects submitted and shortlisted into its multi-residential category, compared with previous years. To put it bluntly, the quality just ain’t up to it. 

There were, however, a handful of exceptions to the prevailing mediocrity. Chief among them was Upper House by Jackson Clements Burrows, a shimmering beacon on Swanston Street, Carlton, and well-deserved winner of the Best Overend Award for multi-residential housing. Interestingly, Best Overend was a celebrated architect known for his 1936 complex of studios and one-bedders called Cairo Flats, boasting “A minimum flat with maximum comfort”. Here JCB has updated the compact apartment model with a hard-working plan that finely balances views, privacy and shared amenity on this high-profile corner site. The building is divided horizontally in two, composed of a podium level of precast concrete that rises to the datum of surrounding buildings, and a partially translucent second volume on top, composed of white and clear glass and, not surprisingly, called the Cloud. 

While the award went to JCB, both Piccolo Developments and the City of Melbourne deserve recognition for making this exceptional building possible. Michael Piccolo had been keen to work with JCB since the firm completed the Cullen Hotel in Prahran, an early exploration of the steel-box balcony that later became a signature design element of Upper House. Piccolo wanted to invest in good-quality architecture and interiors, eschewing the cheap and bulky student housing that typifies the northern end of Swanston Street. But with higher costs and a limited capacity to increase yield, Piccolo needed more floor area, which meant more height. A less enlightened city council – almost a tautology – would have dug in its heels. Belts would have been tightened and quality would have returned to minimum, the lazy logic of contextual height unflinchingly applied. But the City of Melbourne saw an opportunity and worked with Piccolo and the architects to cut a deal on some extra height in return for retaining the building’s design quality and enriching the streetscape with two smartly detailed commercial tenancies that help energise what should be a boulevard of student activity linking RMIT to Melbourne University. 

Arbitration was also required when it came to the distinctive steel balconies. For the developer, this feature provided an additional 3.5 to 4.5 square metres of net usable space. For residents, the balconies provide sheltered access to fresh air and frame views. For pedestrians they add to the city, transforming a flat façade into a dynamic topography of forms. Prefabricated and trucked to the site, these crisp white boxes were bolted onto the concrete exterior in a matter of days. Simple innovation where everybody wins. Only problem is they also project 90 to 140 centimetres out over Crown land. Thankfully, the City of Melbourne exercised tolerance and granted the air rights.

It should be noted at this point that local councils routinely reject planning applications for high-rise developments, which are then taken straight to arbitration at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where expensive silks are paid well to drive them through. This is a hopeless state of affairs that perpetuates opposition to necessary new housing, while disabling anything like a democratic process. Piccolo’s Upper House, on the other hand, was a rare exception – embraced by a council that knows good design is not always served by rigid planning controls.

Internally, floor plans are laid out to squeeze the maximum into each floor plate. On the downside, this means that about half of the bedrooms on levels 1-10 have only “borrowed” natural light from the main living area, which is never ideal. On the upside, however, amenity has been otherwise maximised, with many modest but important innovations.

The corridors from the lifts, for instance, feature louvred windows north and south. These louvres are linked to the Bureau of Meteorology and open and close automatically to control temperatures and flush fresh air through the heart of the building. Apartments at either end of the T-bar corridor have a metal gate set back a couple of metres into the corridor, allowing borrowed circulation to become a “vestibule”, creating an informal space for neighbourly interaction.

Apartment interiors feature a mix of wide American oak floorboards and limestone floor tiles, composite stone benches and powder-coated black tapware. Unlike JCB’s use of zesty yellow and lime greens in other projects, here the interiors match the exteriors in their restrained and neutral palate of colours and materials. Everything is calmed right down. Which may be why, even with their seriously constrained scale, interior volumes feel surprising spacious. 

While the apartment dimensions undoubtedly conform to those of a micro apartment, this is traded against an entire floor open to residents on level 11, called the Observatory, containing a large rooftop garden and facilities for group dining, a lounge and a gym. At 500 square metres in total, the Observatory is the equivalent of about a dozen one-bedroom apartments, surrendered to shared amenity. Given Upper House was sold out within 90 days of hitting the market, it appears Piccolo’s gamble on a largely kid-free community of singles and couples, who are more interested in hanging out with friends than on the sofa watching TV, has paid off. 

Taken together, Upper House stands as an exemplary case study in what contemporary apartment architecture can be today, combining a dynamic street presence with a strategic use of internal space and an entrepreneurial approach to shared amenity. In many ways it is a world apart from Robin Boyd’s Domain Park Apartments, in South Yarra, which was also awarded this year, with the Enduring Architecture Award. When completed in 1962, Boyd’s 20-storey tower was the tallest multi-residential building in Melbourne, and remained so for a decade. It represents the apotheosis of Boyd’s commitment to rational modernism and unadorned construction, with the influence of Walter Gropius particularly clear. 

Despite the many changes to the apartment market in the intervening half a century, some things remain unchanged. The brief Boyd received from Lend Lease could have been written yesterday: maximise the number of allowable apartments on the site under the existing building code. Boyd responded with a vertical stack of long, thin floor plates within which a variety of apartments could be arranged side by side. Circulation included two rear lift stacks and outdoor connecting walkways, which would later become synonymous with the stigmata of social housing. This external circulation allows each apartment to occupy the entire depth of the building floor plate, however, creating both passive ventilation and giving views to both north and south.

But where there are similarities, there are also changes produced by time. It says something of those 1960s building codes that one of Upper House’s smaller apartments could fit inside the living room of a standard Domain Park apartment. As land prices have increased, there is no doubt the size and scale of apartments have suffered. All the more reason why smart alliances need to be forged, such as those on 520 Swanston Street, between an ambitious developer, a smart architect and an enlightened planning authority. Because sometimes size matters less than what you do with it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 27, 2015 as "Upper cut above".

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Andrew Mackenzie is an architectural writer, publisher and consultant.

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