Exemplary buildings help produce exceptional cities. This may appear self-evident, yet cities everywhere consistently fail to recognise and embrace good design when it is offered. Those that do, reap the rewards and in the process many coat tails are ridden upon. Yve apartments on Melbourne’s leafy, but ever-so-pedestrian, St.Kilda Road deserves plenty of credit for revealing the boulevard’s potential.

Rising as a great 20 level cone-shaped sculpture, Yve is rock solid architecture imprinted on the city’s psyche. This is a talked about building. Its glistening, jelly-mould skin and undulating folds recall Alvar Aalto’s sensuous, Savoy - or ‘wave’’ - glass vase inspired by the silver rimmed lakes of his beloved Finland. It is as if fragments of this mini master work have time-travelled into this quintessentially glass building.

Floating Elements

Yve contrasts its neighbours and in doing so exposes their limitations. The stately mansions that lined St.Kilda Road became dust long ago. Mini-England on a maxi scale in the 1950s and ‘60s was ripe for commercial conversion from elegant to mainly execrable. Prescient, 19th Century planning gave Melbourne a brilliant ‘outline’. The opportunity presented by this sweeping avenue is linked to the embryonic genius of the von Mueller’s Botanic Gardens. The opportunity was waiting to be grasped by innovative office and residential towers, yet the result is a conga line of superficiality.

Architecture can speak to the experience of place – of past and present - as well as being modern. And this is why the voluptuous, organic Yve is able to so convincingly connect with its environs. Roger Wood and Randal Marsh are no strangers to design difference. The firm’s residential and commercial work consistently resonates with ideas that emerge from the inside out rather than as martini-dry modernity or decorative appendage.

The firm’s design for the nearby Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) at Southbank is a striking assembly of rust that turns corrosion into art. ACCA’s angular arrangement of Coreten slabs pitch, slap and rise in their fluid dis-assembly. Produced on a bare-bones budget of just $9 million, it is proof of what can be achieved against formidable odds.

Earlier this year Wood Marsh was awarded the RAIA Victorian chapter medal for Yve before progressing to the 2006 national awards in the residential category. The final mix of projects in contention revealed the absurdity of judging apples, pears and oranges to decide the best fruit. Finally addressing the mis-match, from 2007, the national awards will have a new category - for residential towers - named in honour of Robyn Boyd’s partner Frederick Romberg. The decision should help overcome the disparities in the ‘residential’ category that has had the imbalance of apartment towers competing with beach houses, warehouses and suburban villas.

Wood Marsh has retained much of its wunderkind qualities that catapulted them from the outset in the early-1980s. The pair’s work with Biltmoderne had impresario qualities aplenty including scene-setters such as the bush modern Choong House and savvy, industry-tech, Metro nightclub. The duo remained resistant to the superficiality of post-modernism - something that cannot be claimed by many in the profession. Even now, there is a sense that their best work is still to come.

The pair has always believed in the atelier principles of designing on paper rather than leaving it to exotic computer software. “It starts from discussion, ideas, goes to paper then computer and back to paper for refinement,” says Marsh who believes this is the best course to produce buildings of authenticity.

If there is any subterfuge the sweeping ribbons of glass contain the form and disguise the direct balcony step-in, step-out arrangement. It’s a small but vital difference that distinguishes it from its neighbours with their bland, usually blank, curtain walls.

Given the compromise caused with removal of glass shards from another nearby work of difference – LAB’s Fed. Square - it is little surprise that Yve struggled to survive intact. Melbourne City Council’s planning department came close to scuttling the design according to Wood Marsh. Most cities have a love affair with regimentation and the rectilinear is frequently the literal, common denominator. This partly explains why the Gehry’s lustrous, fluid Bilbao is such a triumph.

To stray from the theme poses risks. It is to the architects’ credit that they resisted the temptation to trade off successful pattern-making, or as exchange for the language of rectangles.

“And all done to a budget,” enthuses Marsh, as if to reveal that good ideas need not drive anyone to bankruptcy. The opposite is closer to the truth. “No more or less than the ordinary grid plan box. It was inexpensive,” says Marsh. “It had to compete at the same level as generic buildings, in the same selling price realm and therefore as a competitive building price. When you think about it, there’s nothing other than a set-out to achieve the form. It has a curtain of glass walls, most buildings have that, and then it has an extra layer of glass in front of the windows. That’s it,” he explains still slightly bewildered by the objection and doubt the design created.

At entry level the architects’ palette of coloured glass – pink, blue, green and gold – create a rich, lustrous series of veiled spaces. Few apartment towers have a ground floor swimming pool on full view to passers-by and entry foyer. The building’s fish-bowl quality is confined to the ground floor and contributes to the stage-set quality of Yve. Introverted types need not apply.

This decorative use of vast glass panels echo the great stained glass windows and doorways that once framed the boulevard’s mansions. It is reference, intentional or not, that puts the magical jewelled colours of a time past into an entirely modern context.

This startling sequence of colour and patterned light, defines and connects discrete spaces and volumes – swimming pool, change-rooms, lounge/reception and foyer to create an intriguing, shimmering palette. Modern and baroque furniture, contribute a spare, truly luxurious simplicity.

There are ethereal qualities of the ground floor are quickly reversed upon entry to the upper levels where charcoal toned walls and low-voltage lamps convey a sense of the subterranean. Not much global warming here. This orchestration of experience – of progressing through a man-made terrain - is part of the intrigue evoked by a transitional rhythm of colour, shade and finally arrival into the vibrant apartments.

The movement of the curvilinear floor-plan is convincing and recalls the sensual line of a Matisse nude. And this is the effect of good architecture. It absorbs ideas from right across the Arts – dance, sculpture, literature, painting, - rather than as a narrow ‘architectural’ process or technical language. Interiors are uncluttered and spacious with some thoughtful touches including glass cubed en-suites in master bedrooms that pick up the carnival of ground floor glazing.

Other benefits flow from the fenestration provided by glass walled balconies and layered, screened glazing. Solar loadings and glare issues are dramatically reduced without any real loss of natural light. Balconies framed in translucent glazing provide an appreciable extension of volume. Being able to move along, around and through apartments with breeze and daylight is an uncommonly good feature here rather than being hermetically sealed into space. Views are through the century old elm and plane trees on lower levels to the east, or Port Philip Bay and the Dandenong Ranges from higher up. South and north are slightly more problematic but at least the building’s stepped form provides an appreciable set-back from the drably omnipresent boxes either side.

“It’s a sandwich site. It does have buildings either side. That’s true. But that is why we set the sides so far back. Most buildings along there just rise in parallel. There is some air and volume on a very difficult site. Look at Sydney or many European cities. They have this history of living together in apartments. It’s a problem people in Melbourne are grappling with because we don’t have that history of apartment life. I guess if you don’t like it you buy a house on a quarter acre block in Doncaster.

“The balcony glazing was really designed as a shimmering, mesmeric ribbon,” notes Marsh. “Those ideas just pull together and synergise with the form of the idea. If you look at the elevations of the building it is all very simple. There is nothing shocking about its elevations. They’re very simple and yet Council read them as a blank. It was beyond them.”

The often un-recognised challenge of architecture is to overcome varying degrees of difficulty. It is a business that has less than ever to do with free rein. Constraints are everywhere. By this definition, Yve and ACCA, are all the more remarkable. Pitfalls inevitably await aspirational design. The planning approvals process, a myriad of changing regulations, budget revisions and slack building practise can all work to bring gorgeous, computer rendered, concepts back to earth with a thud.

Even modest difference can raise eyebrows. What should have been a straightforward approval process was much harder than necessary. “It was only council that objected,” says Marsh. “This was an issue of comprehension. Council simply didn’t understand it. It was too conceptual.

“We understand rejection based on height issues. Especially when towers exceeded their neighbours, but this was opposed purely on the basis that they didn’t understand it.

Draw a happy face on it, apply some novel facades, a few stainless steel blades and they get it. Yve has a strong concept and it follows clearly.

“It is staggering that they could challenge this project’s fit when approval is freely given to so many intrusive and ugly tower blocks. Council simply didn’t demonstrate an understanding of architecture. What’s the reference for this building? There wasn’t one. After completion we were commended. Yet, sadly, if council had had its way, this would never have been built.”

There is an uncomfortable irony in this sort of challenge to good buildings and the easy rite of passage for the bad. Despite running a gauntlet that threatened a numbing down, the architects persisted. The result is in Melbourne’s top tier of buildings that contribute a real urban identity. In an age of globalisation, franchise design and facsimiles – authenticity is an issue all bureaucrats and burghers might consider as they grapple to understand how great cities are made.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.