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Higher Ground

Designed by Design Office, an architecture firm based out of Collingwood Australia, has converted a former power station in Melbourne into a cafe and restaurant. located on the western edge of Melbourne’s central business district, close to the city’s Southern Cross Station. Higher Ground is an all-day dining destination on the western edge of Melbourne’s CBD. The former power station was reimagined to create 6 new connected levels which wrap around the perimeter of the original brick building to create a suite of intimate tiered platforms.

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-01-Sean-Fennessy-759x506 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy

The client’s brief called for a design response which would retain the volumetric impact of the existing site but allow for a wide range of different intimate settings for eating and drinking, continuously, from early morning to late night. To facilitate this seamless transition, and inspired by the client’s analogy of a hotel lobby, the design of the individual levels, the lighting and each of the furniture settings is considered from the specific viewpoint of the customer, with the aim being to provide both intimacy and layered perspective within the extensive volume of the site. Each level is considered in response to the client’s ideal service zone size, with the platforms working both separately and collectively, animated by the continual vertical movement of both staff and patrons. The visibility of the kitchen and simplicity of the central stone bar provide familiar anchors around which the various settings and levels cascade.

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-05-Sean-Fennessy-857x1200 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy

“Higher Ground is an exceptionally executed exercise in solving logistical challenges while safeguarding the expression of, and respect for, an existing spatial volume, a historic former power station in the western end of Melbourne’s city grid. The design team has shown considerable restraint in defining the space, creating a host of experiences at different levels (both literally and figuratively), resulting in what the jury has referred to as an “urban drawing room.”

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-06-Sean-Fennessy-857x1200 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy

Rather than relying on visual tropes that reflect well-known hospitality types, the resulting space is ambiguous in the way that a high-end hotel’s foyer can be ambiguous. The client refers to this as the ambition to create a “hotel without rooms,” and the desire to make something the likes of which Melbourne has not yet seen. The finished venue is remarkably comfortable and achieves this left-of-field ambition.

Finally, the variety of spaces and “perches” created at different levels in the singular volume allows many opportunities for diners to get comfortable. At the same time, each occupant is rewarded with a different voyeuristic perspective on the gathered crowd, and the experience of a visit is different every time.” – Jury Citation / Eat-Drink-Design Awards

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© Sean Fennessy

“The jury commends its redefining of the typical cafe typology into a high-end hospitality venue, more akin to a hotel lobby than a casual eatery. While the industrial appearance of its former use remains, the expertly integrated services, overall fine detailing and furniture and lighting selection are exemplary. Intimate niches are created at various platforms throughout this six-level tall interior so patrons can engage in quiet conversation or simply sit and enjoy the expansive internal view. It’s clever planning that allows for increased capacity, without jamming the space with tables and chairs. Circulation paths are generous and the general sense of theatre is unexpectedly fun and inviting, making it easy to order just one more coffee.” – Jury citation / Australian Interior Design Awards

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-09-Sean-Fennessy-759x517 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy

“Design plays a huge role in the hospitality scene, especially when working to create a particular sense of conviviality. At the end of the day a great dining experience is often about the food, people, acoustics and lighting. These ‘quiet’ qualities are the ones that often can’t be defined but are the ones which affect our experience. Brand also increasingly plays a part in the development of design responses for hospitality venues. A clear personality or point of difference is increasingly important in certain sectors of the industry.” – Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill of the award-winning DesignOffice

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© Sean Fennessy

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-12-Sean-Fennessy-759x465 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy


DesignOffice were commissioned by Nathan Toleman and the team behind Top Paddock and The Kettle Black to create a new all-day destination for food and drink close by Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station.

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-13-Sean-Fennessy-759x543 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Sean Fennessy

The design approach was anchored around the creation of a series of tiered platforms, providing both intimacy and layered perspective within the vast site.

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-23-Higher-Ground-759x948 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Higher Ground

The new architectural interventions are designed to sit with deliberate tension between the existing brick and concrete forms. Midnight blue staircases are expressed as confident geometric steel forms abutting the soaring columns which support the residential development above.

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© Higher Ground

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-30-Higher-Ground-759x504 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Higher Ground

The rich and tactile palette combines terrazzo, cork, painted steel, stone, black fibre board and solid timbers to define and anchor each setting. Layers of planting, rugs, furniture and lighting inhabit the levels to provide a range of seating options for customers from morning through to the evening.

Higher-Ground-By-DesignOffice-36-Higher-Ground-759x948 Higher Ground / DesignOffice

© Higher Ground

Project Data:

Project name: The Rabbit Hole
Location: 650 Little Bourke St, Melbourne Victoria 3000, Australia
Coordinates: -37.815326, 144.952802
Type: Cafe / Coffee Shop
Project Area: approx 250 sqm
Status: Built
Completion Year: 2016
Visit Higher Ground’s website: here


  • 2017 – Australian Interior Design Awards – Category: Hospitality Design – Winner
  • 2016 – Eat-Drink-Design Awards – Category: Best Cafe Design – Winner

The people:

Client / Owner / Developer: Higher Ground
Interior Designer: DesignOffice – 5 Hotham St, Collingwood Victoria 3066, Australia
Team: Basis Builders / Profile Furniture / BREC / JB Elliot
Text Description: © Courtesy of DesignOffice, Higher Ground, Eat-Drink-Design Awards, Australian Interior Design Awards
Images: © DesignOffice, Higher Ground, Sean Fennessy



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