Ebony Fowler investigates the influence of a renovation by Brisbane architects Richards and Spence at 19 James St and the literal sense of ‘placemaking’.

“It’s one of my favourite places in Brisbane,” says young entrepreneur Bianca when discussing her experience of visiting Nineteen James Street. Sipping from a steaming mug of coffee poured by the bearded folk at Fonzie Abbotts Espresso, she remarks of her delight upon finding this hidden gem. “There’s a really nice energy about the place. It feels as though I’ve escaped from the city, the vines and cool materials set a relaxed tone. Yet it’s quintessentially cosmopolitan.” Originally from Sydney, now residing in sunny Brisbane, Bianca is just one of many who frequent Nineteen James Street.

As one turns from the suffocating traffic of Ann Street onto James, they are soon swathed by a lush canopy of Moreton Bay Figs overhanging the main drive of the hip inner city precinct. Curtains of illuminated facades are draped within the cooling shade, Australian clothing designers Camilla and Zimmerman being among the few high end retail stores to adorn the shopping strip. Stylish figures, likely inspired by the plethora of wardrobe offerings on James, stroll the street en route to the tantalising menu at Gerard’s Bistro, perhaps? Boasting a nationally recognised menu and an equally tantalising interior fit-out, Gerard’s dining experience spills onto the central pathway of Nineteen James. Sheltered by a concrete awning embellished with tangled vines and bromeliads, the customers experience is inherently linked to the atmosphere evoked by the architectural features.

Ingrid and Adrian of Richard and Spence Architects were faced with the task of reimagining the identity of the James Street precinct through an urban renewal venture established twenty years ago, with Nineteen James the second renovation conducted under this renewal act.   The history of Nineteen James dates back to the late 20th century, where the site was once home to Coca Cola’s factory warehouse. The project of redesigning Nineteen James Street required the architecture adhered to a high street quality, where Luxury boutiques and fine dining could revel in a lucrative, atmospheric environment. Despite this, the design needed to retain a certain village feel, and facilitate a heavy flow of pedestrians, and cater for the needs and services of the buildings inhabitants. The existing network of streets, parking and paths which dip in and around the building needed to be taken into consideration in planning, ensuring that a drive for aesthetic qualities didn’t subtract from functionality and ease of use.

The surrounding suburbs, New Farm and Tenerife, are rife with industrial heritage, notably the Woolstores along the Brisbane River. The area has witnessed a shift in the clientele due to significant redevelopment in the past 30 years, as Brisbane’s Urban density continues to swell. There is a noticeable absence of superfluous design elements, which could have stemmed from consideration of the areas industrial past. Also stemming from a restricting budget, the materials require little maintenance, therefore practical and economical in their application.

A Myriad of white bricks invade the entire surface of Nineteen James’s façade, providing a sense of familiarity; the brick being a diverse material we are exposed to in many building typologies. Accompanied by concrete and black steel, the materials adhere to the precincts contemporary and metropolitan spirit. As a result, Nineteen James holds a distinct presence over the street, evoking a sense of sophistication and understated elegance, in touch with the areas industrial past, and unsuspectingly responsive to the bounds of a restraining budget.

As a predominantly commercial and retail space, Nineteen James Street required a façade with a high level of permeability, one that created a seamless link between the onlooker and the contents of the internal spaces. Large panes of glass frame each stores frontier, allowing the inhabitants to contribute to the streetscape. One of the glass boxes fronting James Street carpark belongs to Optiko; the transparent façade allows the customer to browse almost their entire collection of optical glasses merely by passing the window. This presents an opportunity for the customer interaction to extend into the evening, once the store is closed and the street is alive with diners.

The features of Nineteen James denote a sense of connection to a network of buildings and pathways…

“I feel comfortable when I’m here, any sense of urgency tends to dissipate,” says Toby, a regular visitor of James Street. The building has an intimate quality which can be felt as one meanders within and around, despite the double height façade. A sense of grandeur, yet at the same time envelopment, is evoked. Palm trees accentuate the height of the building, whilst draping vines off an awning of concrete re-establishes the intimacy aforementioned. The features of Nineteen James denote a sense of connection to a network of buildings and pathways, and a sense that the building will grow into itself, and develop a characteristic patina over time. The building has been stripped back, exuding an essence of practicality and robustness, whilst easing gently into the street with its permeable façade, and large glass panels.

Despite the renovations apparent success in adhering to the taste of the style savvy, has the gentrification of New Farm and Fortitude Valley been to the detriment of a more direct link with the local community? A lost opportunity to enrich the culture of James Street and introduce an even greater vibrancy to the atmosphere? The internal passageways are indicative of the laneway concept, such as seen in Winn Lane, but don’t offer the same cultural exchange. Perhaps this tie could be strengthened by the addition of local artists ornamenting the walls with their art? Imagine transitioning from the carpark to the Main Street only to be surprised along the way by a carved sculpture propped amongst the leaves, or an elegant light installation hanging from the wall, masterfully crafted by an ambitious young creative.

Small scale designers are unlikely to afford the spaces offered by James Street whereas more established brands can afford premium real estate, resulting in an exclusion from the central market place. Should Nineteen James Street have been a canvas, a conglomerative space in which both national and local designers could intermingle? This is perhaps a naive notion as the development procedure is often strictly driven by time constraints and tight budgets, but should it be? It raises the question however, to what extent is it the responsibility of the architects, the designers, the creative community to push for these spaces to be about something more meaningful. If they don’t have the power or authority to do this, then the public realm and public spaces will continue to be purely commercial endeavours that contribute to an erosion of the existing culture.

The simple and clean design of Nineteen James provides a space which is adaptable to changes…

Designers withhold an enormous responsibility to transform the way people perceive space, and in the case of Nineteen James, play an important role in the success of the business’s within. There always remain opportunities to add and subtract a buildings components, whilst retaining its core principles. The simple and clean design of Nineteen James provides a space which is adaptable to changes yet at its very heart there lies an innate ability to provide tranquility and refuge from the bustle of city living. It is the role of the architect to formulate a level of authenticity within a space which meets the expectations of its users. A building which speaks meaning to it’s inhabitants, a building that will age gracefully, and withstand transitional cultures and trends. In this case, Nineteen James Street exceeds these expectations, propelling one of Brisbane’s most stylish commercial hubs into a category of its own.

Ebony Fowler

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