Layers of History – Carringbush Hotel by DesignOffice
Abbotsford, VIC, Australia
Within the walls of a Victorian-era pub in Abbotsford, Melbourne, DesignOffice has created an elegant fashion showroom that doubles as a private residence. A paredback approach to restoring the clarity of the spaces from beneath years of accumulated alterations and additions is complemented by a series of considered contemporary insertions that come to represent the building’s layers of history.
Built in 1889 as The Friendly Societies Hotel, The Carringbush Hotel, as it is now known, has been a cornerstone of Abbotsford’s social history. The clients, who had been longtime friends of DesignOffice co-creative directors Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill, were committed to maintaining this important neighbourhood establishment. “They were keen to ensure their custody of the building continued to give something to the community and, as committed vegans, sought out a local operator who would share their vision and lease the ground floor as a vegetarian pub,” says Mark. Having previously lived in a converted warehouse, the clients also recognised the opportunity for the adaptive reuse of the building’s ancillary spaces to create a series of elegant, multipurpose salons in which they could show fashion collections, host clients and live during the week.
Built in 1889 as The Friendly Societies Hotel, The Carringbush Hotel, as it is now known, has been a cornerstone of Abbotsford’s social history.
Over the course of more than a century, the condition of the building had become “reasonably illegible,” Mark recalls. “The first floor has been divided up into a warren of more than 15 small rooms, often created with new walls cutting brutally through the original skirting boards and cornices.” It was necessary to peel back these many layers to clarify the plan and understand the hierarchy of rooms, which meant that work on site began without full, detailed construction documentation. Rather, “as the building revealed itself, we could study it and then respond to what we found, resolving sketch details as the project progressed,” he explains.
With the structure disclosed, opportunities were uncovered to recapture the integrity of the building’s history. A series of reception rooms that face the street were reinstated, the original floorboards refurbished, cornices and skirting boards restored, and the grand yet peeling primary façades painted with a tinted limewash. Balancing this emphasis on restoration of the old, the new elements are clearly delineated by their contemporary nature, with all the interventions conceived as incisions, linings or objects within the original fabric. It is an approach that pervades the design, holding the key to both the successful creation of multipurpose spaces and the definition between the public and private areas.
From the street entrance beside the pub, the journey through the heritage building is defined by a sequence of new expressed thresholds, level changes and material shifts. “The central stair defines the axis of the arrival sequence through the spaces, ”says Mark, “and the contemporary gloss steel balustrade is designed to read as a single sculptural element within the space.” The move from the public areas to the private bedroom suite is another important transition, which takes place via a dressing-room and bathroom located within what is effectively a timber box set inside the original heritage rooms. “This pair of timber chambers, with oak veneer lining the walls and ceilings paired with Bedonia stone floors, offer a materially rich sense of immersion distinctly separate from the original fabric” he says. “This serves to mentally and visually remove these more private areas, enhancing the separation between work and home.”
Meanwhile, the downstairs salon (formerly the club room for the Collingwood Football Club) sees a single piece of contemporary joinery, containing a kitchenette, storage, fold-down bed and concealed door into the new bathroom, create a space that is suitable for the showing of small collections and also for accommodating visiting clients from overseas. “The joinery which makes the room work functionally is conceived as a flexible piece of furniture, inserted into the heritage fabric of the room,” says Mark. “Simple in its aesthetic, held off from the walls, and deliberately not full height, it allows the room to retain a simple elegance.”
The deliberate delineation of the new is not simply a case of contrast drawing attention to the old, although this is certainly true – the new interventions are designed to heighten the experience of the original architecture even as they are altering its fabric. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the considered series of new openings made in the central masonry wall. These were carefully proportioned, Mark explains, “to enforce the legibility of the primary volumes whilst connecting them visually to the spaces beyond, both inside and out.” Visually defined by contrasting grey-green thin steel frames, these openings are overtly contemporary. Yet their effect is of portals that offer a new perspective on the heritage building. From a single space, one can observe the light changes in other parts of the building throughout the day and also gain a more holistic experience the original plan and hierarchy.
The new window in the bathroom, which represents one of the most consequential alterations to the original architecture, is equally purposeful. Where the ornate primary façades and original windows were carefully restored, “the rear façades are far less grand and more typical of the mixed-use and eclectic nature of the suburb, overlooking the train tracks and facing onto brick warehouse buildings,” Mark explains. This offered an opportunity for a new large window that, framing the Vickers Gin advertisement painted on the brickwork of the outbuildings, “reflects this new layer of history for the building and adds to the varied urban fabric of this context,” he says. Here, too, is an intervention that is distinctly contemporary but whose purpose is fundamentally to serve as a lens directed at the building’s history.
Where once this history was compressed, each layer partially erasing or hiding what came before, past and present now achieve a necessary distance so that each can be fully appreciated. Befitting its new purpose as an elegant showroom and contemporary residence, a sense of sophistication is created that is born of achieving a true timelessness – not transcending time, but clarifying and encompassing all that has come before while creating space for the future to unfold.