The Boatbuilders Yard brings 'fine-grain urbanism' to Melbourne's South Wharf, an architectural mixed bag. Photo: Greg Elms
FINE GRAIN CITY
The Boatbuilders Yard, South Wharf Architect: Six Degrees Architects; heritage architect: Trethowan
THE Boatbuilders Yard, a new cafe and bar designed by Six Degrees Architects, has introduced some ad hoc comfort and ''fine-grain urbanism'' to the big-scale environment of South Wharf. And it does so in an unusual way, blurring the cafe with the public space of South Wharf Promenade.
South Wharf is an area in transition. It feels like it has not quite settled in yet. Between the freeway and the river, it's home to a mixed bag of facilities of varying architectural quality - Jeff's Shed, the Melbourne convention centre, a Hilton hotel, a DFO shopping centre, the barque Polly Woodside and heritage-listed cargo sheds. It's the urban equivalent of a freshly renovated house.
The Boatbuilders Yard at South Wharf. Photo: Greg Elms
There are beloved, slightly worn, older things among the flash new spaces, but the inhabitants are still to make the environment their own.
And the ''inhabitants'' are also mixed - tourists, conference delegates, shoppers, hotel guests, workers, apartment dwellers, cyclists, joggers and those strolling the promenade in the sun.
The Boatbuilders Yard is aiding this urban ''settling''. Housed in a heritage-listed cargo shed, it occupies the site of a former - you guessed it - boatbuilding yard. The shed has been reused but not over-restored. New pavilion structures cluster in the old yard between the shed and Duke and Orr's Dry Dock, Polly Woodside's home.
The Boatbuilders Yards at South Wharf. Photo: Greg Elms
Robust and chunky, each provides shade, shelter and an overhead heater to one or more outdoor tables. Deckchairs line the dock and are scattered through other outdoor spaces. It feels a bit rough and ready, a ''designed'' but casually thrown together collection of shelters behind an old shed. This is appropriate.
The shed and yard were once home to National Trust volunteers looking after Polly Woodside and other historic boats. Conservation architect Bruce Trethowan says: ''When we took on the project, the place looked a bit like Steptoe's yard, with lots of old marine objects all over the place, and bits of boats and the volunteers busily repairing and reusing salvaged items.'' But the casual appearance belies the very careful new planning. The location of the pavilions, and careful use of level changes creates a set of intimate outdoor spaces, each a slightly different size and with a slightly different character. It's comfortable and relaxed.
More importantly, the planning encourages people to cut through the site on their way to other places. And on the day I visited they did - cyclists wheeled their bikes, people strolled through on their way along the promenade, others meandered down to Polly Woodside. Our kids clambered between levels, but that seemed fine too. A couple rested on a bench. The dockside deckchairs were empty, but they also suggest that passers-by might linger.
This is what makes the project noteworthy: it promotes an unusual relationship between the private areas of the cafe and bar and the public space of the promenade. The restaurants further south all follow a more usual model. Also housed in refurbished heritage sheds, each has a strip of outdoor dining clearly separated from the public boardwalk by planters or bollards. You could not simply wander in without buying something.
The Boatbuilders Yard is more than another riverside cafe fitout, it suggests a different way to connect public and private urban spaces of varying scales.
Over the years, Six Degrees has encouraged people to use Melbourne's hidden spaces in new ways - Meyers Place Bar (their first project, tucked into a city lane), West Melbourne's Public Office, and the Riverland Bar, in the Vaults, to name a few. Here they show us what ''fine grain'' can mean in more exposed places. In doing so, they also invite us to consider what other activities should be layered in as we build such grain back into redeveloped parts of the city.
Six Degrees: Greatest Hits, Wunderlich Gallery, Architecture Building, University of Melbourne, until November 23.