Rob Kennon Architects have ushered a piece of Melbourne’s built history into contemporary relevance with its resurrection of a former warehouse conversion in the inner-urban suburb of Fitzroy.
Embedded within a historically rich locale on Melbourne’s city fringe, the collection of buildings that made up the existing conditions at Ackmans House evolved time and time again before reaching their present iteration. The circa 1860s site was originally part of the property holdings of the Ackman Furniture Group, with the brickwork of the facade still bearing its name. Shifting through a myriad of adaptations, a commercial enterprise and then later office space, the buildings had been all but stripped of those design gestures that would have carried an enduring story of place.
“When we began the project in 2018, the interior was narrowly visible behind a poorly constructed renovation and the clutter of household objects,” Rob Kennon recalls. “The lofty warehouse volume had been carved into a series of smaller, awkward spaces delineated by plasterboard walls, partition windows and a mezzanine level.” So Rob Kennon Architects embarked on dismantling reactionary additions to reveal the heritage elements. Simultaneously, the team fused them with contemporary relevance by instilling the spaces in-between with meaning “much like buildings within a city whose edges define laneways, streets and plazas.”
Knitting together disparate volumes, negative spaces have been thoughtfully bestowed with function – a ramp, entry courtyard, bedroom – to allow the old and new to be experienced holistically and for circulation and navigation to become fluid throughout the whole. In tandem with resolving layout and shifting Ackmans House from industrial to residential contexts, Rob Kennon Architects have also cultivated an environment that is “expressive of the client’s personalities and reflective of their interests in art, music and craft.”
Curves have been integrated into the architectural language, sweeping elegantly throughout to delineate space, imbue a sense of everyday domesticity and temper the imposing strength of the heritage brick and stone. Rob describes the curves as creating “a seamless expansion and contraction of space that flows from interior and exterior to curate a journey through the heritage artefact.” This counterbalance in composition between the new and the existing is what shifts Ackmans House into modernity without compromising the buildings’ story.
Echoing the original composition of buildings on the site – a double-fronted Victorian warehouse, cottage, and a separate addition dating back to the 1960s – a contemporary extension has been added at the rear of the residence, “snaking around the corner and making use of all parts of the site.” Framing views onto a 19th-century church next door, the extension articulates an intent to sympathise with the surrounding context, engage with it and celebrate it. In the same sentiment, a double-layered skin at the entry to Ackmans House “enables the large barn doors to be open to the street, a gesture of public generosity to pedestrians passing by.”
Rather than drawing short at a contemporary extension at the rear, Rob Kennon Architects have lined the interior of the old building with new walls, dovetailing chronologies to find an entirely new experience of space.
“The language of the new is purposefully dark and recessive,” concludes Rob Kennon. “The blackened steel, concrete bricks and charred timber appear like shadows – receding into the background so that the surrounding heritage remains the focus.”