Paying Homage to History - Alexandra by Ola Studio & Wulff Projects
Clifton Hill, VIC, Australia
Inspired by the traditional red brick warehouse that occupies the site in the tightly-held Melbourne enclave of Clifton Hill, Alexandra by Ola Studio celebrates the past while looking to the future.
When the Wulff Projects team, who have been involved in over ten Melbourne projects successfully completed or underway, first discovered the site three years ago, Development Manager Nick von Bibra recalls “from the moment we laid eyes on it, our conversations were focused around preserving the original brick warehouse. It really represented the industrial heritage of the area that drew us to Clifton Hill in the first place.” While, unfortunately, engineers determined the building could not be retained, this appreciation for the site’s history remained at the heart of the project. Paying homage to the original structure was key to the development team’s commitment that Alexandra should make a positive contribution to the community and the local built environment. Ultimately, it was at the core of Ola Studio’s response to the brief.
Recognition of Clifton Hill’s past as a semi-industrial area, which sees a distinctive coexistence of residential buildings in parallel with warehouses and factories, informed how Ola Studio approached the project. “The red brick semi-industrial buildings side-by-side with smaller grain residential buildings are core to the neighbourhood character,” says Ola Studio Director Phil Snowdon. “Alexandra is designed to sit in Clifton Hill as though it belongs. It is unashamedly a new and significant building that will become one of the many cherished larger-grain buildings in the area. The existing red brick building on the site was inspirational for us, and the design of Alexandra recalls many of the original building’s attributes.” Nick explains that this response enhanced Wulff Projects’ vision for Alexandra. “We felt strongly that we had to be cognisant of the surrounding streetscape and create a design that was respectful of the urban landscape and the history of the site on which we are building,” he says.
“Alexandra is designed to sit in Clifton Hill as though it belongs. It is unashamedly a new and significant building that will become one of the many cherished larger-grain buildings in the area.”
The materiality of the red bricks and scale of the architecture continue the design language of the warehouse. Windows and planter boxes that punctuate the façade, positioned to capture views of the city skyline, are a contemporary interpretation on the steel-framed windows prevalent in the industrial buildings that historically occupied Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs. Yet, set within this warehouse-inspired architecture, are 29 apartments and four maisonettes that were deliberately conceived of by the design and development team as individual homes, designed to consciously break the impersonal, standardised mould of typical apartment developments. In this way, the project exemplifies the characteristic urban fabric of Clifton Hill by encapsulating both the area’s industrial past and its present as highly sought-after and tightly-held residential suburb in close proximity to the Melbourne city centre.
This is felt in the project’s focus on sustainability, which reflects the significance of passive sustainable principles in Ola Studio’s design practice. Alexandra includes a solar system, electric vehicle charging stations, recycled brick, rainwater harvesting, and an emphasis on natural light, shading devices and cross-flow ventilation in each home. It is also especially evident in the design approach taken by the architects and the exceptionally personalised interiors of each apartment. Ola Studio’s experience in both high-end single residential architecture and boutique multi-residential design, Phil explains, led to a highly considered and keenly-executed approach not generally applied to apartment design. “In working on multi-res, there are no future residents pushing the design team to produce spaces that feel like homes, and this can sometimes lead to cold, bland and undesirable living spaces,” Phil reflects.
The project exemplifies the characteristic urban fabric of Clifton Hill.
To overcome this, Ola Studio, Wulff Projects and their development partner Carta Group set up a workshop group that invited critique from people who were neither architects nor developers. Every apartment was meticulously analysed and reworked accordingly, resulting in an exceptional level of design finesse, which parallels that achieved during a single-residential design process. “We’ve lost count of the amount of iterations of each apartment we’ve done, but we feel it was all worth it as we would proudly live in any one of these homes,” says Phil. “If anything can be learned from single-res design, it’s that each apartment can be thought of as a single home and a similar level of detailed design and thoughtfulness in spatial layouts can successfully be applied to larger-scale projects.”
This approach led to key collaborations with local Melbourne designers, suppliers and makers, including United Products and Plant Society. “There is great value in working with local designers and product makers,” says Phil. “We are working with people who truly understand the local character of Clifton Hill. It’s so important when striving to craft a building that belongs within its local context. We aim to achieve this on a macro level through carefully considered, site-sensitive architectural intervention, all the way through to a micro level with locally-sourced materials and products.” Nick agrees – “Working with a local supplier or designer, meeting and talking about the aims of the project, is something we at Wulff really appreciate,” he says. “There’s a remarkable element of ownership and personalisation in working with like-minded individuals, it’s a true collaboration and creates a unique outcome.”
Ola Studio, Wulff Projects and their development partner Carta Group set up a workshop group that invited critique from people who were neither architects nor developers.
As a result of personalising each element through collaborations with local designers and makers, the interiors are imbued with a sense of place and rest in harmonious continuity with the exterior architecture. The emphasis is on raw, natural materials that convey a timelessness in keeping with Alexandra’s combination of respect for the past and sensitive contemporary design. Indoor plants, creating a sense of life and verdant greenery so important in an urban context, will be provided by Plant Society should future residents desire. Meanwhile, the level of attention to detail is emphasised by elements such as the custom-design bathroom vanity by United Products. “Apartment bathrooms can be treated with very little thought,” explains Nick. “We wanted to convey a sense of care and detail in all aspects of the design and bring elements of local Melbourne design into every space!”
Alexandra’s emphasis on connection with the local context and design community reflects Wulff Projects’ strong association with the area. A previous development, 122 Roseneath, has become something of a focal point within Clifton Hill. A direct by-product of a dozen community consultation sessions that Wulff and the other project partners undertook of their own accord, Roseneath is now home to a cross-section of the entire Clifton Hill community, and the site of a thriving and vibrant neighbourhood.
“We wanted to convey a sense of care and detail in all aspects of the design and bring elements of local Melbourne design into every space!”
Nick, a local of neighbouring Abbotsford, relates, “every time I’m at Roseneath, it’s so rewarding to see something going on, there’s always something different happening. Whether it’s kids rolling in from school on their bikes, someone doing their laundry in the workroom, or families playing hide-and-seek in the elevated linear gardens, there’s such great energy and activity.” The experience of developing Roseneath and experiencing its growth into the vibrant place it is today informed Wulff Projects’ approach to Alexandra. “Our hope is that Alexandra will be a further evolution of 122 Roseneath,” reflects Nick, “giving residents an otherwise-unattainable path into the much loved yet somewhat inaccessible Clifton Hill community.”
Over the past century, Clifton Hill has changed from an area dominated by industry to one of Melbourne’s “hidden gems” renowned for its village atmosphere and abundance of cafes and, restaurant, parks, boutiques and community hubs. As a result of this reputation, it has become one of the city’s most tightly-held inner-city enclaves. Alexandra’s apartments and maisonettes represent a meticulously-designed opportunity to make a home within Clifton Hill, and a landmark in the future of life within the neighbourhood.