Architecture

The designers of the Victorian Pride Centre in St Kilda took on a number of almost insurmountable challenges – and triumphed. By Naomi Stead.

Victorian Pride Centre

The facade of the Victorian Pride Centre from Fitzroy Street.
The atrium of the Victorian Pride Centre, St Kilda.
Credit: Max Hayward

Recently, wandering around inner-northern Melbourne, I came across some paste-up graffiti: Let Queens Read. It’s both a curiosity and a sorrow that these words now have a place in the long story of LGBTQIA+ struggles in Australia. It also captures a whiplash moment of cognitive dissonance: one minute it’s marriage equality and the prime minister crossing the Harbour Bridge in a flurry of rainbows for WorldPride; the next it’s local governments cancelling drag events, mobs chasing queer protesters, and neo-Nazis on the steps of the Victorian parliament inciting all to “Destroy Paedo Freaks”.

In 2016, when the Victorian government announced seed funding for a dedicated, purpose-built Pride Centre, there were plenty who thought the idea was redundant, anachronistic, or both. Full equality had already been reached, the logic went: we LGBTQIA+ folk should stop banging on about pride. Of course in this context, pride has never been about overweening self-regard. It’s a corrective – an active repudiation of shame. Anyone naive or idealistic enough to see the progression of LGBTQIA+ rights as a one-way trip from shame to pride, from repression to equality, is clearly mistaken.

Even since its opening in July 2021, the Victorian Pride Centre now feels less like an exuberant place of celebration and more like a beachhead: a secured area on a hostile shore.

I was meant to review the building when it first opened but – well – pandemic. Returning to the project some 20 months later seems fitting in light of current political developments: it’s the nature of a bastion to also be a target. There are videos online showing a hundred-odd community members gathered around the Pride Centre entry, singing as they stare down a gaggle of neo-Nazis on the other side of the road. The threat is real. It’s not surprising there is discussion of “hardening” the building – more physical defences at the entry, more alarm systems within.

So has the architecture of the centre realised the high hopes of its founders? Has the building overcome the potentially crushing challenges it faced in planning, design and the start of its operation? Is it tough enough to face the backlash?

The winning architectural design was selected through an open, two-stage competition, won in January 2018 by two longstanding St Kilda practices working in collaboration – Brearley Architects + Urbanists (BAU) and Grant Amon Architects.

The building’s purpose was always complex. It’s common for a project to be defined as “mixed use”, but this one is hyper-mixed. It encompasses public space, a cafe, a bookshop, exhibition space, an archive, commercial rental and subsidised community offices as well as co-working space, a radio station, a theatrette for films and live performance with associated bar, several specialist health clinics, a market floor, bookable shared meeting rooms, a prayer room, car parking and a series of function spaces including a large roof terrace. Some have likened the Pride Centre to a “gay town hall”. Architect James Brearley notes an interesting link with Trades Hall – another mixed-use type, also a symbolic marker of civil rights won through political organisation, of small organisations gathering in solidarity – a place for demonstrations to start and finish. The Pride Centre is a place of celebration and community but also collectivisation and consolidation.

The architectural challenge was less the functional design – complex as that was – and more finding a coherent expression to hold it all together. The LGBTQIA+ community itself is far from homogenous; the needs of its constituents are wildly diverse and sometimes contradictory. The need for discretion, for example, can stand at odds with the desire to be out and proud. Negotiating these politics as the first such purpose-built institution in Australia made the stakes agonisingly high.

Three local governments bid to host the centre but only the City of Port Phillip offered to donate a site with freehold tenure – an L-shaped block on a decidedly down-at-heel stretch of Fitzroy Street in St Kilda, a locale with its own queer history. With its reputation for the lively, the louche and the loose of morals, St Kilda’s mood is reflected in a highly eclectic historic building stock. From the cavernous pubs, coffee palaces and performance venues of a seaside holiday town, to crumbling “boom style” mansions later subdivided into rooming houses, and the roster of Art Deco, Spanish Mission and Arts and Crafts-style flats, St Kilda is a cornucopia of architectural expression.

The Pride Centre building makes a fitting addition, in part by adapting elements from this architectural context. It does so through a process of “artificial” form-generation: taking the maximum allowable volume as determined by planning controls, notionally filling it with a series of stacked “tubes” running the depth of the site, then slicing and reworking them to create the building’s features and serve its spatial and functional needs. The architects say these tube shapes – circular and ovoid in section – derive from a particular St Kilda tradition of arches, domes and vaults, once present in demolished buildings such as the Palais de Danse, or altered ones such as the once-magnificent St Kilda Sea Baths, as well as enduring in icons such as the entry to Luna Park, built in 1912, with its flanked pair of “Moorish” domed turrets.

The Pride Centre may be the latest manifestation of this lineage but here it takes a dramatic new register – the arches put to work shaping the entry portico and windows on the front and back facades, sculpting the long barrel-vaulted double-height ceiling of the “forum” on the ground floor and extruding into arched canopies on the roof terraces. Concrete blade walls at intervals along the ground floor give the arresting appearance of a long barrel of space, drawing the visitor into the most dramatic element of the design: the atrium.

An elliptical, angled ovoid, skylit from above and with raked timber amphitheatre below, this atrium is the crux of the building – joining all the levels and tenancies and forming the hinge between the building’s perpendicular wings. With its sculptural fibreglass shell lining, the atrium is genuinely spectacular. The amphitheatre beneath works flexibly as either stairs, seating or stage, with a mezzanine-level platform offering space for performance or display. The overlooking floors are used for circulation, bringing tenants and visitors back to this volume as a place of communality.

Of course one could quibble about elements of the design – the location of the bookshop, largely hidden beneath the stairs, seems to me unfortunate. Likewise the rooftop terrace – with its amazing view from city to bay – doesn’t yet reach its potential, being both spatially ill-defined and rather weather-beaten. This is largely due to budget constraints: a future community garden is planned and a rooftop pavilion is being crowdfunded. Anyway, these are small beefs compared with the deeply impressive resourcefulness in the building’s commissioning, funding and design. Against all odds it has a sense of expansiveness and generosity, albeit within a tough concrete shell.

Today most of the anticipated LGBTQIA+ tenant groups have moved in, while others use the centre as a satellite. As a workplace it still feels a little empty – evidently not all of the offices are heavily used. But Pride Month in June saw a full program of performances, and the community organisations are in full swing – JOY Media is a hive of activity, the health organisations are doing their life-saving and gender-affirming work, the archives host a steady stream of visitors, the ground-floor cafe is open and the public spaces scattered with people. There has been an unexpected windfall in the centre’s popularity as a venue – including for weddings and memorial services.

Jude Munro, the inaugural chair of the Pride Centre board, speaks affectingly of the reaction from the community, especially its elders. On seeing the competition-winning architectural scheme, some reportedly wept, while others wondered aloud whether they deserved such a beautiful building. One spoke of how much it would have helped him, as a young man, to know such an institution, such a building, even existed. Reflecting on the central atrium space, and its opening to the light of the sky, Munro muses on its symbolic power. “It’s about the power of coming out. When we’re known to be who we are,” she says, “when we can be our authentic selves, the light floods in.”

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE 2023 Darwin Fringe Festival

Venues in and around Gulumoerrgin | Darwin, July 14-23

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WA Museum Boola Bardip, Boorloo | Perth, until October 8

LAST CHANCE

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Overseas Passenger Terminal, Naarm | Melbourne, until July 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Loud and proud".

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