The Building: 176 Little Lonsdale Street


The Wheeler Centre: gate detail

Designed by Joseph Reed, the Melbourne Public Library was established in 1853 and opened in February 1856.

The south wing was completed in 1886 and the first floor opened by the Governor on September 2nd. It was named Barry Hall in memory of Sir Redmond Barry, the first chairman of the library’s board.

At first Barry Hall was used by the library and was essentially an extension of the Queen’s Hall collection.

During the twentieth century the wing was used by both the National Art Gallery, the Museum of Melbourne and, at one time, the Planetarium.

It is now the home of the Wheeler Centre for Books Writing and Ideas.

Three years in the planning, the Victorian government enlisted a n umber of architects to reimagine the space for its new use, beginning the design project in June 2008, and committing $13.6m for the refurbishment of the building.

When designing the space, the architects considered the building’s heritage, the centre’s identity and how the space would function.

Traditional heritage colours have been used, combined with injections of bold colour in the joinery and graphic details.

The joinery has been designed to function as a sculptural form, visually connecting spaces.

Coming up the ramp to the main door the first thing visitors will see is an ever-changing LED, advertising our events and acting as a beacon for our patrons.

The building’s main entrance is via the second floor, where the centre’s reception sits in front of the lifts, with the main performance space to the left.

The foyer features sculptural light fittings by Melbourne lighting designer Geoffrey Mance.

His ‘Ping Pong’ fitting was chosen for its delicacy, sympathetic to the existing interior and providing a soft light to emphasise the grandeur of the space.

From here there are internal lifts and a staircase, which take you up to the third floor, where the centre’s resident organisations are housed.

As you enter the third floor you come first to Writers Victoria reference library and reception. The library is open to the general public, although only members of Writers Victoria will be able to borrow.

Next on the right are Australian Poetry’s library and meeting rooms.

Through the doors is the main administrative area of the VWC, along with SPUNC’s) in-house office on the right.

Past the staircase up to the Wheeler Centre office itself, is another meeting room.

The stairs throughout the building have been highlighted with a variety of red finishes creating texture and pattern, whilst emphasising fluid circulation.

There has been an emphasis on using Australian designers and products when choosing furniture, fixtures and finishes, as in the case of the stairs, where the railings have been lined with Florence Broadhurst designs.

There was a feeling that her interesting life story and classic Australian designs had a relevant place in the Centre.

Beyond the staircase is the Australian Poetry Centre, the Emerging Writers' Festival, Express Media, a youth arts organisation and the Melbourne branch of PEN, which campaigns for freedom of expression amongst writers around the world and general meeting rooms.

Here you reach another flight of stairs, which take you up to the fourth floor. Up another couple of steps on the right to the director Michael Williams’ office and meeting room.

To the left of the stairwell sit the operations manager and executive assistant.

Beyond the glass doors, on the balcony overlooking the third floor, are first of the Centre’s five hot desks, where visiting or temporarily resident writers will sit, followed by five more general hot desks, for use by all the rest of the Centre’s resident organisations.

Returning to the stairwell by the fourth floor kitchen, there is a final flight of stairs up to the fifth floor, in the building’s eaves.

Here, in what was once a coin storage facility, sit the programming and marketing teams, high above the bustle of Swanston Street below.

Some six months after the Melbourne Museum left in the late 90s a library staff member discovered the room and found that the coin collection was still in place, forgotten during the move.

Apparently, once notified, the Museum dispatched armed guards to retrieve the collection.

The red staircase back down to the third floor, where the Wheeler Centre’s boardroom is located, facing Swanston Street, was once the chief librarian’s office.

Continuing down the stairs to the second floor, the Centre’s the grandly-proportioned club room is found, directly below the current boardroom. Facing Swanston Street, the room will be used as a green room for our speakers and guests, and was once where the Library trustees met.

On the landing between the club room and performance space is the glass lift shaft, which goes down to first floor, where the Melbourne Writers Festival offices will be housed, as well as in-house cafe and bar.

The Melbourne Writers' Festival will also have its own entrance in the bluestone walls of the semi-subterranean first floor, as will the cafe.

Externally, the glass lift signifies the presence of the Centre on Swanston Street, designed to be a beacon that would catch the interest of passersby and draw them into the Centre.

Across the second floor landing is the entrance to our main performance hall, where up-lighting has been used, illuminating the original ceiling roses.

The space has the capacity to seat up to 200 people, or could be divided by a Hella Jongerius-patterned screen to seat 100.

The area is also licensed for up to 500 people.

The building’s design


The Centre’s staircase, lined with Florence Broadhurst wallpaper.

According to the architects, the design was approached by addressing three major components of the fit-out: the building and its heritage, the client and their identity, services and their function.

The base building, the cornice, architrave, ceiling and walls, were painted in tones of traditional heritage colours.

The fit-out used a simple palette of materials with injections of bold colour in the joinery and graphic detail.

The joinery was designed as sculptural forms visually connecting spaces, constructed from a birch ply with shadow lines used to play on the base building fenestration and allow the encased colour to bleed through. The services were left in their raw state and exposed allowing as many site lines to the base building as achievable.

This project started with a business case submitted to Arts Victoria in April 2008, with the design commencing in June 2008. Construction began in October 2008.

An emphasis was placed on using Australian designers and products when selecting furniture fixtures and finishes, Florence Broadhurst was a prominent designer and artist, we felt her interesting life story and classic Australian designs had relevance and a place in the Centre for Books Writing and Ideas.

The general lighting is sympathetic to the proportion of the long lineal space providing direct and indirect light sources, this has allowed the existing ceiling detail to be illuminated and work functionally with the desk lamps as task lighting.

Up lighting has also been used in the performance space utilising and up-lighting the existing ceiling roses. The main entry has been activated with sculptural-like light fittings by Melbourne lighting designer Geoffrey Mance. The light fitting ‘Ping Pong’ was chosen for its delicate nature, sympathetic to the existing interior and providing a soft glow of light emphasising the internal grandeur of the space through the play of height, and fixing the fitting at differing levels to emphasis the volume of the space.

The stairs throughout the building have been activated and highlighted with a variety of red finishes, creating texture and pattern. These areas were developed as a way of finding devices to emphasise the vertical circulation zones of the building. Where the new stairs were introduced a ply shell was used to encase the colour.

The glass lift is the first thing to signify the presence of the centre on Swanston Street. It was designed to be a beacon that would catch the interest of the passerby and funnel them to the lit canopy up Little Lonsdale Street.

The Centre canopy is designed as a portal, symbolic in transforming the expectation of the people entering the building.

Finally, glass lift and the Centre portal, when lit, tie in together when the second level performance space is used, fully activated with people, activities and light.

Plans for the building




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