The evolution of BAU and Grant Amon's landmark building in Melbourne is a story of letting go and embracing the unconventional, buoyed by a groundswell of support for LGBTIQ+ people
When, aged 19, James Brearley moved to St Kilda, Melbourne’s seaside pleasure ground, he had a touch of punk rock about him. He had studied at RMIT in the city and done a stint with Alsop & Lyall in London. Now, decades on, his practice BAU Architects and Urbanists works all over the world, but he was exhilarated to see that Australia would get its first pride centre in his backyard. It felt part of a groundswell of support for LGBTIQ+ people, uplifted by the 2016 same sex marriage plebiscite.
The resulting Victorian Pride Centre is a flamboyant testament to a place that nurtured alternative cultures and a statement of intent for the future of LGBTIQ+ groups working together in unconventional ways. There is an architectural story of conceptual shape making, a lesson in the art of architects letting go and relishing the potential of the unfinished. But most of all it is a story of the place, St Kilda, that made the building. It is a place that Brearley loves.
So let’s start at the beginning, with the land and the sea. Where the two meet so too do the people of the city of Melbourne, revelling in the sensuality, in sea bathing. ‘You would come down and take your clothes off,’ laughs Brearley. Here the people of Australia’s gold rush found pleasure in the mid 1800s. It has been a rich Victorian suburb of grand mansions and a red light district. Day trippers would take the train to music halls and amusement parks. ‘It has a gregarious and bawdy history,’ says Brearley, ‘and it became this queer space where you could meet anonymously, where bars and clubs can open with a slightly different agenda without being noticed.’
By the time he arrived there was a sense of dilapidation, mansions were divided up, neglected and plants were taking over. Cheap, yet oddly grand, it attracted not just Brearley, but also architect Grant Amon now of Grant Amon, which worked with BAU on Victorian Pride, and like-minded people who over the years have started up LGBTIQ+ support groups for youth, clinics and cultural and community organisations like Joy Radio, Melbourne Queer Film Festival and Australia’s Queer Archives. Here, on the edge of Melbourne, these little groups coalesced.
Now the Victorian Pride Centre makes them very visible on the central drag of Fitzroy Street with an in-your-face building that creates both a moment on the street and a shelter from it. But it was not at all clear what form it would take. It started as a hope, uplifted by the vote in 2016 in favour of same sex marriage in Australia. The Victoria state government obliged with AU$15 million and St Kilda’s authority with a plot. When a design competition was announced Brearley and Grant just had to go for it. This was the first time the firms had worked together. But the ideas fell into place quickly, says Brearley.
The programme is complex and flexible with health centre, radio station, an archive, gallery, bookshop, gathering area for events and conferences and a multitude of spaces for small organisations to make their own. To bring all these disparate groups together to make a welcoming space the two practices drew on St Kilda’s history of ‘exotic’ queer space, turning its arches and cupolas into a building of flamboyant curves. Well that is how it has ended up.
At first they didn’t know what to do with the idea. ‘It was looking pretty postmodern and pretty awful in the first sketches,’ admits Brearley. Experimenting in Revit, they tried to create an architecture that was non-traditional, non-hierarchical maybe even non-binary. ‘Instead of a building of assembled parts we excavated the urban mass.' The planning envelope was shot through with a clutch of tubes from front to back. The ‘town square’ of the brief became an ellipsoid shape that carved out an atrium that has become the centrepiece of the building and its circulation. ‘It produces these totally surprising emergent forms,’ says Brearley. And there are more tubes carving into the roof with trees so we have the overgrown Piranesian landscape that will assert itself over time alongside cuts worthy of artist Gordon Matta-Clark. And vaults on the roof creating extruded pockets of shade. All these exuberant curves are running through an otherwise straightforward building in a ‘pragmatic’ car park grid. And yet they are fundamental, they are the structure, not a decoration that can be removed.
This idea of emergence, of a process that mirrors those of the groups in it, rather than a finished object is embedded in the rough and smooth of the white precast concrete and in the spare finishes of space that tenants have been left to fit out to express their own personalities. People have bumped trestle tables into empty spaces for Gay Stuff markets and the plan of the stage has been subverted as speakers take over the stairs - where the audience might have sat - to address the whole atrium. The bookshop moved in using construction hoarding as walls.
There are some more fundamental things left unfinished, particularly the green accreditation - it was aimed at being an Australian Green Star project with natural ventilation, high insulation and a rooftop stab at biodiversity, but final accreditation needed two years of servicing and checking at around AU$900,000. ‘It's got all the initiatives there, but it's just not the final accreditation,’ says Brearley.
Equally significantly there is work carrying on to ‘tattoo’ the building with the rather remarkable weedy sea dragon, an indigenous fish related to the seahorse, with indigenous artist Jarra Steel from the local Yaluk-ut Weelam Clan of the Boon Wurrung peoples.
Just as it was formed with St Kilda’s culture and curves, so the Victorian Pride Centre is helping this once-wild street reassert itself after the years of pandemic lockdowns and the needs of the homeless who survive on it. The intention has been to welcome people to a safe space inside the building but, as it does so, the street is reanimated giving it and St Kilda’s a pleasure-loving boost again.
Lead image (top): John Gollings.