From a large terrace on the roof of 699 Bourke Street in Melbourne’s Docklands district, employees of energy company AGL can look out over the rippling roof of the adjacent Southern Cross station. Situated on a new ground plane constructed 23m above the train tracks, the building cleverly resolves complex logistical issues relating to the over-rail, air-rights site, providing its occupants with A-grade office space in the heart of an evolving neighbourhood.
The site for 699 Bourke Street was safeguarded by Grimshaw in 2002, when the practice developed the masterplan for Southern Cross station in association with local firm Jackson Architecture. Following the completion of the station building in 2006, Grimshaw was engaged by local developer Mirvac to design 699 Bourke Street. Occupied by AGL in 2015, the tower is the first of two commercial buildings that together will extend the length of the new deck. Its sister building, 664 Collins Street, is expected to be completed in 2018.
“It will be a great thing for the precinct once the southern building is finished, as it will mark the completion of a new city block that seeks to unify Melbourne’s Central Business District [CBD] to the east and Docklands to the west,” says Neil Stonell, a partner at Grimshaw who moved from the UK to Melbourne in 2002 to oversee the completion of the station. Stonell is now involved with implementing the final details of the original Southern Cross station masterplan.
In contrast to the highly sculptural canopy covering the station, 699 Bourke Street is a distinct rectilinear building, informed by its context and tailored to the needs of its occupants. “We didn’t want the building to visually compete with the roof of the station,” Stonell explains. “We designed 699 Bourke Street as a confident and timeless piece of architecture which offers a premium workplace environment within the heart of the city. In both form and function, it offered an opportunity to unify the CBD and Docklands and the varied, highly expressive built form that surrounds the development.”
The commercial development was initiated when Mirvac bought the deck on which 699 Bourke Street now rests and subsequently obtained the air rights to build upon the new ground plane. Building above rail is becoming increasingly common in Melbourne as the city densifies. While it presents inevitable technical challenges, the benefits include improved natural daylight and views. From each of 699 Bourke Street’s 12 floors, there are extensive vistas to the north, east and west. Having proposed several schemes intended to occupy the entire deck, Grimshaw eventually split the project into two separate buildings with smaller floorplates to deliver a design solution that is better suited to the commercial market.
As Docklands has evolved over the past 15 years, its public realm has been largely neglected and the team behind 699 Bourke Street recognised the importance of improving the relationship between the public and private areas of the precinct. Between the building and the station, a passage that recalls Melbourne’s traditional laneways connects the concourse to the north of the building with a road bridge to the south. Stonell is particularly proud of this new public thoroughfare, which overlooks the station roof and is lined on the opposite side by a perforated metal facade offering a glimpse of the abundant bicycle racks that form part of the end-of-trip facilities. A cafe set to open at the southern end of the laneway will enliven the route, promoting the new north-south pedestrian access that the air-rights development affords. As a key planning initiative of the project, the architect hopes that the laneway, with its mesh finish providing a flexible and adaptable backdrop and supporting structure, will accommodate a variety of cultural programmes – a point of difference from the traditional retail podium.
A glazed pavilion that cantilevers from the north-west corner of the building marks the entrance and contains escalators, stairs and a lift ascending to the lobby and reception area. This triple-height volume resolves the significant level change between the external concourse and the occupied floors. Upon entering the lobby, a glazed wall opposite provides a view of the Southern Cross station roof. A not-for-profit cafe is situated within the lobby and features a modern palette of neutral and muted tones, which are applied throughout the communal areas of the building.
The interiors of the office floors and core circulation spaces were developed by Australian firm Hassell, and feature pale wood veneer to complement the refined expression of the base building. “The client’s appreciation for context had a strong influence on the interior of 699 Bourke Street,” suggests Jacqui Low, senior designer at Hassell and lead designer on this project. “Like the building surrounds, there is a lean efficiency to the forms and choices of materials, but they have consciously been made warmer, more tactile and more human.”
At the top of the building, the spaces with the best views and light accommodate amenities that are accessible to all employees. Labelled the “lantern” by the architects, the highest level of the building contains a glazed multipurpose room that can be used for meetings and conferences. “Usually these spaces are handed over to the executive offices or the boardroom but we wanted to be more democratic about the spatial planning,” says Stonell.
Next to the glass volume is a roof terrace of equivalent dimensions. With premium catering facilities and a large outdoor barbecue, the roof terrace is a popular lunch spot that offers a unique view of the undulating roof of Southern Cross station with the city skyline as its backdrop.
The democratic approach to the interior architecture extends to the distribution of workspaces and to the consistent use of materials throughout the building. “A conscious decision was made to spend what resources were available on the whole floorplate and not concentrate them into the front-of-house areas or areas frequented by more senior staff,” explains Low, adding that typical offices are located in the areas that receive the most natural daylight, and access to the building’s communal amenities is also uniform across the floors. The cost of the furniture and finishes has been evenly distributed throughout the offices, with extensive planting contributing to creating an environment that is intended to provide the best possible workplace for every employee.
And now that 699 Bourke Street is occupied and thriving, Mirvac has been able to use the building as a case study to help secure tenants for 664 Collins Street, which is due to start on site imminently. “It’s literally a unique opportunity to say ‘here’s one we built earlier’,” claims Stonell, “offering prospective tenants the opportunity to experience what the new workplace at 664 Collins Street will afford, not just in terms of the architecture but also its locale and integration with the urban realm.”
With the inventive solutions and appealing spaces evident at 699 Bourke Street being replicated at its sister building, AGL is set to be in fine company once 664 Collins Street is completed.
Rising directly from a deck above the practice’s landmark Southern Cross station in Melbourne, the first of two office towers to be completed by Grimshaw has a role to play in its evolving neighbourhood