How Whitlam Place in Melbourne eschews the cookie-cutter design of most new apartment complexes springing up in the fast-growing city.
At first glance the copper façade of Melbourne’s Whitlam Place, with its angular bronze pop-out windows, appears to be a daring contrast to the Victorian vernacular of Melbourne’s Fitzroy suburb. But, on closer inspection, this new apartment building’s subtle references to the city’s oldest neighbourhood become apparent. The oxidised-copper façade, for instance, mirrors the fluting of the Corinthian columns in the elegant, late-19th-century Fitzroy town hall next door. And those large, semi-circular windows at the building’s base level resemble the neighbouring hall’s grand arched panes.
“We like to play on that idea of memory and the cerebral effect you get as you pick up on notes or cues around the area,” says the building’s architect Michael White, co-founder of Freadman White (with wife Ilana Freadman). He adds that the colour palette, all bronzes and greens, aims to harmonise with the drooping branches of the lanky eucalyptus trees that line the southern walls of the building.
In a city like Melbourne, which is experiencing a population and housing boom, multi-residential projects like this are typically quickly built, making use of standardised materials and cookie-cutter blueprints – all in an effort to maximise profit for developers. But Whitlam Place is different. For starters, it’s more beautiful than many of its contemporaries. The reason for this is that the project was developed in partnership with a close friend of Freadman and White from architecture school: Marcello Donati. Not only did Donati (a successful butcher turned developer) sell most of the 11 units to family and friends, giving the architects time to nurture the project over several years, he’s also a passionate designer in his own right and was closely involved in the concept from the beginning. He now occupies one of the penthouse units; his sister, Olivia Donati-Beech, and her family are in the other. “The monetary gain from doing it wasn’t the absolute primary concern,” says Donati. “If things meant a lot to us – if they were absolute dealbreakers – they happened, even if they cost one and a half times [more than a standard alternative].”
As a result, unique custom touches abound at Whitlam Place. The entryway is a candy-coloured standout, with Dan Flavin-inspired neon tubes set against concrete fluted walls and pink terrazzo floors that are studded with chunks of forest-green marble. The fluting re-appears in the apartments as a design feature beneath Carrara marble countertops (which come standard in the 11 flats). Statement splashes of pink are carried through in the building’s more whimsical moments, such as its inner stairwell and a sharply angled, conical lightwell in Donati’s penthouse apartment.
As both a co-designer and a future resident, Donati had a chance to personalise his own living space, down to the tiniest detail. The lightwell, for instance, became an obsession for him, with the idea being to create an eye-catching architectural feature that would reflect the light and change the shade in the apartment depending on the time of day. “It was the great unknown until we started doing it,” he says, admiring the finished result. “Even the builder was like, ‘How am I going to do that accurately?’”
With views of the eucalyptus trees and the old town hall beyond, the spacious terraces are undoubtedly the focal point of each apartment. White says allowing for generosity within these semi-outdoor spaces gives residents the feeling of “living in a treehouse”. Donati’s balcony has become his favourite place to unwind with a beer after work. “There are birds, bats, possums, pub,” he says. “I always try to have the sliding doors open and a few leaves on the floor.”
The views are impressive thanks to the low-lying nature of the neighbourhood beyond. The depth provided by the large trapezoid-shaped pop-out windows also frames the cityscape. “You have to stand back to get the effect,” Freadman says. “It’s the way the walls draw you in.” For Donati-Beech and her husband Jack Beech, the city views led them to take a more minimalist approach to decorating. “All the windows are like little artworks so you don’t need to add that much,” says Donati-Beech. “We’ve kept it very simple and let the design speak for itself.”
The couple have also embraced apartment living for the first time and couldn’t be happier. With a six-month-old baby, Raffaella, they appreciate the close-knit community that such a small residential building fosters – one major bonus being that it means 10 different babysitters can be on hand at any given time. The generous amounts of natural light and large communal spaces in the apartment have also enhanced the livability of the space. “I think it shows what’s possible when an apartment is well considered in its design,” says Beech. “It hopefully demonstrates to future projects [in Melbourne] that this can still be a really enjoyable way of life – you’re not in a dog box.”
Such impressions are not common in other garden-variety apartment complexes, a fact not lost on White. “We love working with the end-users,” he says. “It’s like designing 11 individual homes that happen to be in the same complex.”
Australians, who once lusted for the “quarter-acre block” (the common expression for a nice suburban home and a bit of land), are today turning their attention skywards. In the past 25 years apartment-living numbers have risen by 78 per cent across the country. With this in mind, the market for multi-res developments in Melbourne – the nation’s soon-to-be-largest city – is booming. But while new developments such as high-end The Muse are breaking records for property prices, younger people are struggling to afford to live in the city despite density increasing. Thankfully, in a place that’s known for its creative nous, a number of developers are working on smart sustainably minded projects that also offer affordability for young Melbournites.