There are jewels to be found still among the dross of the city: small but elegant.
Monaco House is located in the hidden laneway of Ridgway Place in Melbourne’s CBD. It was built for the Honorary Consul of Monaco and is the first to be granted naming rights outside of Monaco. Situated on a tiny site of just 101 square metres the building was designed by Melbourne architects McBride Charles Ryan.
In Melbourne it’s the architecture, of course, but it is the lanes and alleyways and arcades, and a string of urbane street hugging little buildings that provide the poetic context, add the fine grain so important to defining the profound attributes of a place. The stuff that taken collectively gives the city its sense of genius loci. Structures like the skinny black and green-tiled Alkira House, an art deco beauty from 1936 at the bottom end of Queens Street, near Flinders Street; and Majorca House (1928), an exercise in the exotica of Spanish Moorish architecture in Flinders Lane, framed perfectly at the end of Degraves Street. And others of more recent times, like the Adelphi (1990), the minimalist boutique hotel also in Flinders Lane, wrought from a 1930s rag trade pile, its plain façade used as a canvas for an overlay of de-Stijl-like coloured and metal tiles and with a glass-bottomed pool overhanging the street; and the Victoria University Law School library in Queens Street (2003), a delicate zinc squeezebox placed on top of a nineteenth century public records store.
These buildings are about discovery and surprise, about happening upon the unexpected as you wander and explore the lanes and little alleys for which Melbourne is famous. Few, however, hold the power and sense of delight as when you chance upon this little gem tucked away in Ridgeway Place, a lane off Little Collins Street, near Spring Street, used mostly as a pedestrian shortcut to and from Collins Street. For here, rising from the corner of a narrow service alley, is a four storey structure made of paper-thin folds of white glass-reinforced cement, polished black concrete, steel and glass that on an impact-for-size scale has a far greater presence than many of the tall towers looking down upon it.
The building is Monaco House and, as its name suggests, contains the office of the Honorary Consul of Monaco. It also contains
a street level café, business offices, meeting rooms and a roof top garden of synthetic grass. It was designed by architects McBride Charles Ryan and demonstrates that architecture with the power to stop you in your tracks can still be had on even the smallest of sites.
The site measures just 102 square metres and faces a long brown brick wall concealing the lush garden of The Melbourne Club and its magnificent plane trees. Along the lane is the austere, women’s only Lyceum Club. Around the corner stands the now-defunct Naval and Military Club, which once owned a brick warehouse on the site of this new building. It used to be occupied by a business selling prosthetic limbs and way back before that is reputed to have operated as a brothel. McBride Charles Ryan have replaced the warehouse with a little building of surprising physicality as it folds and bends and soars to a pointy peak.
It looks bigger than it is, and on first encounter brings to mind a jagged snow-capped alp, the flag of Monaco fluttering from a steel pole near its top, as if the place had just been scaled and conquered.
“We wanted the building to be both abstract and awash with imagery,” says architect Robert McBride. “We looked at the plane trees, the gothic, surrealism, the heraldic, deco and the Prague cubists. We wanted it to be above all else something that amplified its miniature urban grain and enriched the pedestrian experience of the city. What we like about concrete is that it can be anything you want it to be…we saw this as an opportunity to master our 3D software modeling tools to produce complex architecture at a reasonable cost.”
It is the “mountain peak”, set at the corner, which is the dynamic force of the building’s architectural expression. Without it this could just as easily have been another bland infill in an otherwise unremarkable lane. The corner comprises three super-sized sections of glass-reinforced concrete made in Adelaide by a specialist manufacturer. Working from 3D drawings the company made the 12 metres-tall assemblage in a computer-cut plywood form, blocked in three sections, into which to spray several coats of a mix of white cement slurry and alkaline resistant glass fibres to a thickness of only 15mm, moulded to a steel frame. The glass fibres give the cement its structural reinforcement. The three segments were then transported to Melbourne and bolted to the edges of the building’s concrete floor plates. The main façade is of precast panels of black polished concrete with exposed black granite aggregate, shaded by deep balconies and an array of jagged holes ’punched’ into the façade as windows.
It is a terrific composition: the rationality of the black polished concrete morphing into the abstract of the wafer-thin sculpted corner cascading towards the ground, stopping short and culminating as a section of steel cladding, cleverly bent and folded to become a seat for the street-level café. Entry is along a hall of back-lit azure-coloured glass, reflected in a floor of polished black granite stone. Internally, the geometric, permeable profile of the façade continues: the exterior folds are reflected inside, walls flow on to become an upholstered ceiling, folding surfaces create plays of light and shadow, a cave-like balcony built into the third level provides views over the garden-oasis of the Melbourne Club, with its two enormous plane trees, and the skyline of towers beyond. The trafficable roof is a warped landscape of synthetic grass, no less resolved than the rest of the building. Cities need more buildings like this, totally unexpected little treasures you bump into, that heighten the experience of walking and the joy of discovery. JR issue 11 – Monaco House
McBride Charles Ryan Architects
This four storey building located in a largely pedestrian lane (Ridgway place) at the East end of Melbourne’s CBD. Dominant in the lane is the historic Melbourne Club wall and the gigantic plane trees emanating from the Melbourne Club Garden.
Our brief was to provide a ground level entry and café, followed by two levels of office. The top level contains a small reception area primarily for official functions associated with the client’s role as Honorary Consular of Monaco.
Within the office large apertures to the west are well shaded by deep balconies and the adjoining plane trees. The workspace has good natural light and cross ventilation. Outdoor balconies and the ‘green-roofscape’ provide areas of release from the office desk. The building is an essay in fine grained urbanism, it seeks to talk about its consular role as well as to enhance to pedestrian experience of the city.
From a technical point of view the complex geometry and use of materials such as Glass Reinforced Cement and its structural support demanded sophisticated use of 3D software and integration of those techniques with the off site production. This project may have brought us a small step closer to the ideal where our CAD software can integrate with production and enhance diversity, complexity and apparent craft without large cost impost.
- We wanted it to be above all else something that amplified its miniature urban grain and enriched the pedestrian experience of the city.
Project name: Monaco House
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Coordinates: 37°48′46.60″S, 144°58′21.54″E
Type: Office Building, Shop / Store / Showroom : Building, Adaptive Reuse
Program: Café on ground level, two levels of office and small reception area on top level
Site Area: 102.5 sqm
Total floor area: 400 sqm
Project Year: 2005
Completion Year: 2007
- 2010 Athenaeum International Architecture Award – The Chicago Athenaeum/Europe
- 2008 Australian Institute of Architects Awards – National Annual Awards – Commercial Architecture Award
- 2008 Australian Institute of Architects Awards – Victorian Chapter Annual Awards – Sir Osborn McCutcheon Award – Commercial Architecture
- 2008 Design Institute of Australia Awards – Victorian State of Design Awards – Premier’s Design Mark – Commercial Architecture
Client / Owner / Developer: Private
Architects: McBride Charles Ryan Architects, 4/21 Wynnstay Road, Prahran, Melbourne, Vic, Australia
Principal Designers: Robert McBride, Debbie-Lyn Ryan
Project Team: Drew Williamson, Adam Pustola, Fang Cheah
Building Surveyor: PLP Building Surveyors
Structural Engineer: VDM Consulting Engineers, BuilderL Easton Builders
ESD Consultant: Cundall Johnston + Partners
Fire Safety Engineer: Lake Young & Associates
Quantity Surveyor: Construction Planning + Economics
Text Description: © Courtesy of McBride Charles Ryan Architects
Images: © Trevor Mein – meinphoto Pty Ltd, McBride Charles Ryan Architects