It re­quires courage and care to un­der­take a home re­model in a her­itage precinct, but the right com­bi­na­tion is brought to this ter­race home in Mel­bourne’s St Vin­cent Place

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The com­mis­sion to al­ter one of the ter­race houses cir­cling Mel­bourne’s tightly held St Vin­cent Place in­vokes both de­light and dread in most de­sign firms. The precinct is home to prom­i­nent elite with plump ren­o­va­tion purses, but said elite loves the lace­worked sta­tus quo and seeks to pre­serve it. So does Her­itage Vic­to­ria, which has de­ter­mined the unique streetscape to be sig­nif­i­cant to the state. In short, he who dares the brash quick­step of ren­o­va­tion doesn’t win, but he who learns the slow dance of com­pro­mise can sneak in by sly sur­prise. Brod­er­ick Ely, de­sign di­rec­tor of BE Ar­chi­tec­ture, doesn’t strike as the danc­ing type, but he’s pulled of the paso doble of ar­chi­tec­ture (el­e­gant move­ments in dou­ble time) in Mel­bourne’s most prud­ish ball­room. Ely re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with a client who had snaf­fled one in a row of three houses for sale in the es­tate’s blue­stone pitched av­enue. “I told [him] that he had bought some­thing that was bro­ken, and that just be­cause it was bro­ken didn’t mean they would let him fix it,” he says. “But I did en­cour­age him to buy the one in the mid­dle, as it al­lowed the near-im­pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity to build new.” Stand­ing in front of the three-house carve-up of a for­mer Catholi­cowned con­vent, Ely points to the al­ter­ations on a fa­cade that stands as the “only real thing we kept”. It now dis­solves into the wider her­itage con­text with­out a hint of aber­rant ar­chi­tec­ture, which has to please the plan­ners. But the front door winks in fore­warn­ing of what lies be­hind — a sprawl­ing pad, seem­ingly one cen­tury old, that has risen from the rub­ble of nine prin­ci­pal rooms. “We’ve been rip­ping stained glass out of Vic­to­rian homes for years be­cause it makes my stom­ach turn,” says Ely, lead­ing pas­sage through the arched en­try door that fil­ters a godly light through panel in­serts of sliced agate. “It can take days to get that con­fig­u­ra­tion of agate right, but when we do, we num­ber them, pho­to­graph them and send them to our stained-glass guy.” ››

‹‹ Ref­er­enc­ing the stone-filled win­dows of con­tem­po­rary artist Sig­mar Polke, who washed Switzer­land’s roughly 1000-year-old Gross­mün­ster church in ec­cle­si­as­tic light, this golden door dis­tils the alchemy of provoca­tive art, el­e­men­tal ma­te­rial, rich pig­ment and ob­tuse re­li­gious re­flec­tion that will play out over three lev­els. It also af­fects the air of an aged ar­chi­tec­ture lay­ered with an evo­lu­tion of era and owner that BE Ar­chi­tec­ture has dili­gently con­trived. From the for­mal front room — a mix of re­in­stated Vic­to­ri­ana, mod­ernist shape, mar­ble sur­face, cast steel and a nine­piece Per­spex cof­fee ta­ble — to the rooftop’s bul­bous blue­stone spa, noth­ing iden­ti­fies as store-bought or bog-stan­dard. And if it is, Ely has con­cealed its cre­den­tials in the de­tails of cus­tomi­sa­tion. The jour­ney con­tin­ues into a shrine-to-wine din­ing room through a dou­ble-height void. “All the cab­i­nets in here are real old Tarax-type fridges, but we went to the man­u­fac­tur­ers and asked if we could change the met­als and seals,” Ely says. “If I’d known how hard it would be, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have at­tempted the ex­er­cise.” But the bot­tles glow with a re­peat Polke res­o­nance that de­clares the ex­er­cise def­i­nitely worth it. Ely de­liv­ered with the same de­gree of dif­fi­culty in a com­mer­cially equipped kitchen that de­fines the heart of a wing ex­tend­ing the fic­tion of new struc­ture added to old. It in­dulges a client “who can re­ally cook and who knows an out­ra­geous amount about wines,” says Ely. “But he has gone on the jour­ney with con­tem­po­rary art.” He nods to the il­lu­mi­nated text by cel­e­brated Scot­tish artist Nathan Co­ley, whose provo­ca­tion about heaven drops down an ad­ja­cent stair­well. It lends Ely’s ide­al­i­sa­tion of a pen­sione kitchen a piece of moral un­cer­tainty that is stilled on the room’s eastern side with a court­yard in­stal­la­tion of bon­sai, cy­press beam and aged vine. “I was driv­ing through Ver­mont and saw this non-fruit­ing grape on a house, so I knocked on the door and said, ‘I’ll buy your vine’,” re­calls Ely. This ran­dom ex­change net­ted the gnarled branch that now stretches across the black fence. “The court­yard isn’t quite Ja­panese; it’s more David Chip­per­field goes to Ja­pan and tries to do Ja­panese in the 1980s.” That dis­com­bob­u­la­tion of de­sign fol­lows up­stairs in a main bed­room suite de­serv­ing of ABBA’s Agnetha Fält­skog, circa the 1970s (the patch­work leather bed is the best), and a se­ries of gue­strooms that give off the repar­a­tive air of a Swiss sana­to­rium. But the base­ment — a killer com­bi­na­tion of Ja­panese on­sen, gym­na­sium and 22-me­tre lap pool — is pure Bond, James Bond. “It’s not that this house is more rad­i­cal or more ex­pen­sive than any other we’ve done,” says Ely. “[The client] wanted to go on this jour­ney and won­dered if I was up for it and we went all the way. What a trip!”

above: in the ENTRYWAY, cir­cles of sliced agate em­bed­ded in and fram­ing the front door, cre­ated in homage to Ger­man artist Sig­mar Polke; Lasvit Nev­erend­ing Glory Prague Es­tates The­atre pen­dant light by Jan Plecháč and Henry Wiel­gus from Liv­ing Edge.

this page: a sky­light trib­ute to Amer­i­can artist James Tur­rell il­lu­mi­nates the dou­ble-height STAIR­WAY; Seido arm­chair by McGuire Fur­ni­ture from Cavit & Co. op­po­site page: in the OUTER STAIR­WELL, Scot­tish artist Nathan Co­ley’s light in­stal­la­tion Heaven...

this page: in the cav­ernous blue­stone BASE­MENT, 22-me­tre lap pool lined with Fal­low gran­ite tile from Eco Out­door. op­po­site page: in the MAIN BED­ROOM, green-onyx-backed cast-steel fire­place and patch­work leather bed both cus­tom-de­signed by BE...

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