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
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...