Contributing to History – Cobden Terrace by Matt Gibson Architecture + Design

Cobden Terrace sees a state-level heritage-listed home renovated with great respect for both the past and the clients’ tasteful art and design collection. Matt Gibson Architecture + Design adds a layer of sophistication over the home’s Victorian-era history by combining contemporary aesthetics with original crafted details.

Today, the suburb of Fitzroy in Melbourne’s north brings to mind images of its bohemian reputation – fashion, food and the art activity happening in the Gertrude Street precinct. But this small municipality, belonging to the Woiwurrung people, was recognised in 1858 as the City of Melbourne’s first suburb. The early years of settlement in Fitzroy defined its architectural character, with an eventual high-density population leading to the construction of single- and double-storey terrace homes. Cobden Terrace was built in 1869 with a two-storey cast iron verandah and decorative brickwork and windows. The façade imposes on the street front, and a step inside reveals a grandeur in detail.

Classic Danish midcentury modern design pieces from the client’s own collection juxtapose with the heritage environment.

Matt Gibson Architecture + Design approached the renovation and extension of Cobden Terrace with the intention of honouring the simplicity of the original floor plan and the elegance of its principal rooms. The clients, a professional couple, brought an arrangement of their well-travelled histories, an existing collection of midcentury modern furniture and contemporary art suited to their cultured perspectives. Their discerning taste for architecture and design made for a strong collaborative relationship. “The clients’ interest in modern design objects inspired us to develop eclectic interior spaces,” Matt describes. “We juxtaposed classic modernist design pieces – from the client’s own Danish midcentury modern shelving to Le Corbusier’s Marseille Lamp – with a heritage environment.”

The clients’ appreciation of more than 100 years of art and design intimates that the interior-focused project should have had a relatively smooth run. Yet, the state heritage listing imposes a range of rigorous requirements that stipulate minimal intervention to the existing structure. “In addition to the usual siting and overshadowing constraints of an inner city site, the state-level heritage provisions meant that all changes to the building, both internal and external, required approval from Heritage Victoria,” notes Matt. “This challenged us to minimise change, but focus on the most effective and impactful change. To paraphrase the Burra Charter: we sought to change as much as necessary but as little as possible.”

Material selections offer a careful and deliberate balance to bright and striking décor.

With building options constrained, Matt Gibson Architecture + Design devised a simple extension and renovation that, rather than significantly adding to the footprint of the original home, focused on sensitively rearranging the space within it. The darkly clad extension sits like a shadow of the existing building and remains sympathetic to its context with an intentionally humble form. It is no easy feat to sensitively handle the amalgamation of different eras, yet as a practice deeply invested in heritage, Matt Gibson Architecture + Design adhered to some key heritage principles, and as a result, the extension is both ‘reversible’ and ‘legible’ whilst also helping to enhance an understanding of the heritage of the home. The courtyard beyond the kitchen reveals the extension and its ground-floor shower room that opens up to lush vegetation, a blend of native and introduced species that border a pathway of basalt stepping stones.

One notable challenge was the modernisation of the Victorian-era kitchen, which the clients felt was unusable. “Victorian-era kitchens were isolated from the rest of the house, but in the modern era the kitchen is a social area in the heart of the home,” says Matt. “This sparked debate at Heritage Victoria about the concept of ‘living heritage’ and how domestic roles, especially those of women, have changed over time, and how these changes take shape in this renovation. Through an iterative design process, we found minor modifications which led to significant increases in functionality. One important change was the removal of a small part of the kitchen wall, which opened up the kitchen to the rest of the house. This created a semi open plan space and increased connectivity, while retaining much of the existing building fabric.”

Mustard, gold and brown tones operate in contrast to the vivid blue of the living room.

Every design choice was considered by both client and architect and enacted in the interest of emphasising the terrace home’s best attributes. Upon entry to the home, a rich interpretation of colour is apparent. The mustard, gold and brown tones complement the brass accents and operate in contrast to the living and dining rooms, painted in a vivid blue. A warm invitation continues throughout, with each space distinguished by a different spectrum of light and colour. A forest green disguises the timber veneer joinery in the kitchen, calming this important functional and social space for the owners, and more subdued colours and materials are utilised in the main bedroom to foster a sense of retreat.

The generously-proportioned rooms of Cobden Terrace are adorned by soft curving archways, detailed cornices and ceiling roses that celebrate the period, whereas the new addition of bright colours and the number of striking artworks owned by the client creates a series of balanced accents. Similarly, the material selections offer a careful and deliberate harmony throughout. As an example, discreetly hidden beneath the staircase is the powder room, small in scale yet luxurious in character. Stone is repeated here in continuity with the dramatically long island bench in the kitchen and the feature fireplace, a translation of heritage materials into more contemporary forms.

Matt Gibson Architecture + Design’s approach to heritage and preservation of authenticity sees an elegant and personable interpretation of one of Victoria’s oldest and most important homes. The legibility of the original structure has been enhanced and the fabric of its heritage restored through subtle details, such as the exposing of the brick imprint of an original fireplace and chimney breast in the kitchen. With a showcase of colour, the newer Cobden Terrace celebrates a legacy of site, suburb and city whilst harmoniously enabling curated moments of modern living.