The Making Of An Icon: Riverland, Melbourne

Published 06 January 2011   

No one could dispute that Melbourne’s urban visage has undergone a significant amount of ‘nip & tuck’ over the last decade. In terms of fashioning an image for this city, Melbourne now has one of up-turned orange night lights, laneways bars and secret grottos, and not to forget that flashy casino with its erupting gas jets.

By Emma Westwood

A short meander across from the aforementioned casino – hidden below the historic Princes Bridge on the southern border of Federation Square – is another defining architectural development for Melbourne, a precinct known today as ‘Riverland’ that has become one of the central components of the city’s identity since its opening for the Commonwealth Games in 2006. Head down the steps or take the elevator to the Riverland Bar & Café and you’ll be greeted with the thrum of social banter as Melburnians enjoy a drink along the banks of the Yarra River. However, what few of these punters know is that the area has a chequered past and was largely ignored for over a century.

“The project started with a phone call,” says Mark Healy from Six Degrees Architects, the firm responsible for taking on the ‘re-imagining’ of this forgotten enclave. “Are you interested in trying to bring a derelict part of the city back to life? That’s what the people at Federation Square asked us back in 2003.”

Healy admits Princes Walk – with its series of bluestone vaults – was “pretty spooky”. Assaults, rubbish dumping, drug taking and violence 24 hours a day were commonplace. It was a run-down waterfront strip characterised by boarded-up doorways of scrap timber, corrugated iron and the occasional confused tourist scuttling alongside the Yarra River to catch a boat cruise.

“I think it was built as a retaining wall when they constructed the Princes Bridge,” muses Healy, but only after laughing hysterically at this correspondent’s speculation the vaults had once housed prisoners. “Well, they have been utilised for everything from wool bale storage to model airplane shops. Apparently, there was a nightclub there during the ‘80s.”

What could have been the ‘curse of death’ for some proved the golden ticket for Six Degrees. They assumed ownership of every detail of this development, from conceptualisation, demolition and building, to sourcing operators for the cafés and bars, and encouraging relevant bodies to sign on the dotted line. They put their heads together and nutted out a creative solution to a problem burdened with constraints.

Not only were the vaults in utter ruin (think: rats), the high heritage value of the site meant the bluestone façade had to remain intact. The delivery of services was achieved through a high tech service trench connecting all the vaults. In a sense, you could say the design process was more reminiscent of submarine design than earth-based architecture. Operable joinery and roof mechanisms were adopted to stop view-lines of the river being blocked, as was the treatment of the passenger lift to the terraces.

“We had to gut it, fix it, put services in,” remarks Healy of this mammoth effort. “The vaults had been butchered over time – people bashing different holes in them and so forth. But we had this vision of filling the space with a café/bar mix and reorienting the city towards the Yarra River. Sometimes you’ve got to polish something up and represent it by doing the smallest amount possible – not over-design the hell out of it, just get some basic things right and let people take it over.”

In its completed form, the Princes/Walk Riverland promenade – centring around Riverland Bar & Café – showcases the Yarra River in a totally unique manner. The idea is to draw people as close to the water as possible, which is achieved through beautiful cantilevered decking in an outdoor ‘warung’ setting. With an eye for the environmentally-friendly, all light fittings are made from stormwater plumbing pipe, and recycled timber defines the external spaces, as well as marine stainless for long-time usability.

“We like the idea of an inclusive space,” says Healy. “It’s not just here and now for the mob that sees the new thing and then they leave in two months and go off to the next new thing. It’s Melbourne – Melbourne’s a very inclusive city.”

For Six Degrees, the icing on the cake was to witness a previously shunned area make a complete about-turn and attract local interest like moths to a flame. “When we originally approached people to start up a business down there, most of our clients said, ‘No way. It’s horrible’,” confirms Healy. “Now everyone wants to be there.”

In fact, Six Degrees were so confident of the appeal of their Riverland development they transformed one of the vaults into their home office base. Healy confirms, “There were these last little vaults down the end, and it was important that we opened the place full so we thought we’d be there for a while then we’d turn it into a different use.”

Three years on, and Six Degrees are still comfortably nestled in their vault. With such an idyllic vantage point on the Yarra River, they’ve been known to occasionally drag the ping-pong table onto the promenade for a friendly game on sunny days. And Healy doesn’t hesitate in calling their headquarters “the best office in Melbourne”. Somehow, it seems doubtful they’ll be moving soon.

Riverland Bar & Café
Vaults 1-9 Princes Walk
Federation Square
Melbourne, Australia
Tel: +61 3 9662 1771

1 Comment

  1. I love the concept of designing into nooks snd crannies. You could be an episode of Grand Designs. Maybe kevin McLeod will read this. Or Restoration Man. It’s just brilliant.

    Posted by Jill sharwood on 08 February 18 at 8:39pm [Comment]

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