Degrees of Change

25th February 2014

"It’s about creating a more tactile experience at the pedestrian level."
— Mark Healy

Merchant Street is about to change – for the better. And the architects behind the revamp of Victoria Harbour’s main retail street are among the best in the business. By Rowena Robertson.

If you’ve lived in Melbourne for even a short time you’ll probably be familiar with the work of Six Degrees Architects. The firm is  responsible for the now iconic Meyers Place, one of Melbourne’s early laneway bars, and for more recent, high-profile hospitality projects such the Newmarket Hotel in St Kilda and The Boatbuilders Yard at South Wharf. Large urban-planning projects, including the Eastern Freeway Sound Walls and the Vault Precinct at Federation Square, are also part of the firm’s extensive catalogue of work.

In 2014 the results of Six Degrees’ planning and hospitality nous will become apparent at Victoria Harbour in a revamp of the western side of Merchant Street. Two of the firm’s senior architects, New York-based Craig Allchin and Melbourne-based Mark Healy, spent time during 2013 working on a retail plan for the precinct. This first part of the plan is now complete and, in short, it is all about hospitality.

The stretch of Merchant Street, from Woolworths and around the corner into Bourke Street, is set to become a vibrant hub of cafes, bars and restaurants. “We’re trying to consolidate the activity, to generate a bit of a buzz by grouping the hospitality venues together,” explains Mark Healy. A key focus for the new retail plan is the upper balcony on the corner of Merchant and Bourke Streets, with activity being transferred from the ground plane to this upper level.“We want people to kind of go ‘oh!’” says Healy. “It’s a little bit  unexpected. There are lots of examples from Bondi to Byron Bay of balcony dining. It’s about ensuring there’s variety and that everything’s not consistently on the ground.”

Changing things up is also part of Six Degrees’ approach to the project more broadly. Its aim is to achieve the mixture of venues and shopfronts you would see in any high street in Melbourne or, indeed, in any high street anywhere in the world. “In your usual high street … you’ve got evolution of 100 years – you’ve got all sorts of canopies, verandas, free-standing cantilevers and so on,” says Healy. “We want to bring in that idea of variety and diversity. This is important at the level of scale. We needed to introduce a finer grain, so we decided to ‘chop’ and make tenancies into two and three … but we are trying to make it somewhat architecturally consistent per tenancy.”

This focus on variety is also clear in the choice of materials for the project. The usual Docklands’ aluminium and glass will be  jettisoned in favour of natural materials, including timbers. “It’s about creating a more tactile experience at the pedestrian level,” says Healy.

Healy likens the Merchant Street revamp – the setting up of a basic structure for the precinct that can be built upon as time goes on – to “making a reef for a fish”.

“Fisherman chuck tyres and old refrigerators and stuff into the water, knowing that in a couple of years there’ll be some kind of structure to build on and attract aquatic life. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Healy believes the slowly-slowly approach Six Degrees is taking to revitalise Merchant Street is the best one for ensuring the long-term success of the area. “Like all good precincts, it’s got to start in a genuine way. It will start small-scale, but we hope it will build on individual successes. We think it’ll work.”

For lease enquiries regarding the revamped Merchant Street tenancies, contact Michael DiCarlo on 0418 969 220.

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