Words by Indigo ClarkeMelbourne-based architecture practice Six Degrees has a reputation for inventively recycling materials. The firm’s new office is an innovative adaptation of derelict boat sheds beside the Yarra River A series of derelict bluestone boat sheds known as the Vaults are tucked beneath Federation Square, the large-scale cultural centre in the heart of Melbourne. Over 100 years old, the Vaults are quirky, cavernous spaces that overlook the Yarra River – a prestigious water view. From street level, the spaces are below ground, but at the riverbank, the resurrected Vaults appear as a series of glass-fronted, fishbowl-like spaces on display to passers-by.
“It’s a great space,” says Six Degrees director Craig Allchin of the Vaults. “Particularly for Melbourne where there is only one true waterfront place – Southbank. The Vaults look out to this river view as well as to the Arts Centre Spire – Melbourne’s postcard image – while also taking in a view of the public gardens around the city. The decked outdoor area of our offices is pretty large, so the table-tennis table comes out every lunch time so people can play by the river.”
It was a big downgrade in physical size for Six Degrees, which has previously inhabited expansive open-plan spaces, but the rare opportunity to exist alongside the riverbank was the motivating factor in the relocation. “The Vaults posed a unique opportunity to be as close to the river as you can get, without being on a boat,” explains Six Degrees director and head of the Vaults project, Mark Healy. “It’s a bit like being inside a submarine, with a lot of linked volumes in a single line. Maximising the river aspect also drove most of the plan decisions – there is an interesting crossover of private and communal spaces.”
Included in the precinct is an adjacent cafe/bar located in one of the Vaults, owned by Six Degrees and open to the public all year round. This somewhat unorthodox extension is a tradition for the 15-year-old practice, beginning with the opening of its Meyers Place bar in 1994. Owned and designed by the six company directors, Meyers Place was the first of a new breed of Melbourne bars that effectively revived forgotten laneways – inspiring the city’s alleyways and backstreets to come alive at night.
This unobtrusive, out of the way, European-style bar not only spawned a series of similar laneway hotspots, but helped define a Melbourne typology. Characterised by Six Degrees’ many commercial fit-outs in the city, this aesthetic is a successful merging of old and new, with vintage materials juxtaposed with modernist design to provide a new residence with a sense of instant history. The partners’ idiosyncratic fusing of myriad found materials and objects was born out of necessity (the practice began at the height of an economic recession), but soon became its trademark style.
The first Six Degrees office was conveniently located next to the Melbourne Theatre Company, from which it would acquire discarded stage sets and props. “This became a way of working both innovatively and ethically, gathering interesting materials and employing them to get the right results,” explains Allchin. “It also developed into a way to get texture and history into places so that there was a blurring between new and old.” Through Meyers Place and following small-scale commercial work, Six Degrees gained the reputation of the “cool bar” architect who could build things cheaply and sustainably out of recycled materials, garnering something of a cult status among students, artists, designers and other architects. Meyers Place also won the team the inaugural Melbourne Prize (as part of the Institute of Architects Awards), an award recognising architectural projects that have made a significant contribution to the city.
Six Degrees’ current workplace, while extraordinary to most, is in keeping with the company’s aims and culture and in practice is not as unusual as its former work environs, Public Office. Situated in a dilapidated warehouse space in West Melbourne overlooking the docklands, Public Office was a concept space developed in 1998 that catered to new ways of working. Featuring an interior bar, cafe and lounge, the space was open to anyone to use a computer, store files, grab a drink or have a work meeting. It encouraged collaboration between creatives and was often a site for bustling art and design events.
Beginning with its 1991 manifesto that proposed “To work as equal partners on ideas-driven projects and to avoid the stereotypical ego-maniac architect attitude”, Six Degrees has continued to break the mould with non-formulaic projects and democratic workspaces. The opportunity to take over the Vaults came through the management of Federation Square not knowing what to do with the river’s edge. Businesses were reluctant to take up the challenge of working in the historic capsules that were dank, relatively small and off the main strip. Six Degrees happily took up the challenge, and developed the project into a small precinct with a cafe and bar as well as an outdoor servery inspired by the Indonesian beachside eateries. A lot of outdoor space, where staff can sit with their laptops and work outdoors, was pushed onto the riverbank to catch the sun. Because of the delicacy required when restoring the heritage-listed Vaults, Six Degrees enlisted the services of conservationist architect Michael Taylor.“Deciding on how to restore the Vaults, which were in a really sorry state, was greatly assisted by our locating original City of Melbourne drawings from 1890. These provided a vision to direct restorative works,” Taylor explains. “I remember the Vaults when part of them was used as an awful nightclub in the early 1980s. It was a terrible venue, mainly due to the form and linear arrangement. It was very satisfying to have it all ripped out as part of the new project.”
An unanticipated factor, says Taylor, “was how much of a fishbowl the offices would be. Visibility is high to the passer-by, with no chance of avoiding clients, trade reps or builders who turn up at the door unannounced.” The offices are spread across six vaults: four of the spaces sit three people each, while the final two house the kitchen and dining areas, and the bathrooms.
The Six Degrees workspaces in the Vaults precinct offer an environment that allows for a lot of informal sharing of information, crucial for the growth of ideas and skills in the company, as well as “games of table-tennis on the Yarra, and lunch on the green banks taking in the view,” says office manager Sarah Bennett. “We provide lunch here for our staff every day, so the new office had to feature a kitchen to suit our needs – making sandwiches and eating around a table together. It’s a very alive and stimulating work environment.”
The Vaults offices have not only proven impressive spaces from a client perspective and showcased Six Degrees’ ability to undertake difficult projects with a unique vision, but, perhaps most importantly, they have provided staff with an inspiring work environment.
“Ever since moving here in April this year, we haven’t been able to take the smile off people’s faces,” says Bennett. “There is a great feeling of community and cosiness in the office.”