Melbourne

Transformers: old blocks in a new guise

Melbourne is a city of contrasts, with one foot in its richly storied past and the other in a bright new future. The CBD is teeming with heritage buildings of incredible scale and worldliness that have been sympathetically transformed, creating luxurious new spaces that house some of the country’s best cafes, bars and restaurants.

Fusing two heritage gems with empathy for what’s gone before, the InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto is the perfect example of Melbourne's ability to combine the old with the new. The Rialto building, designed by the celebrated William Pitt and completed in 1891, is an ornate neo-gothic treasure. It’s connected to former wool store the Winfield building, designed by Richard Speight Jr. and Charles D’ebro, by the addition of a great glass atrium.

The Rialto

Alluvial restaurant and the Bluestone Wine Lounge are stretched out far below. Mesh steel floor lamps pick up the cast iron metal work of the internal heritage façade that once housed famous journalist and suffragette Catherine H. Thompson. A bluestone laneway beside the Rialto once gave access to horses and carts. These days it hosts graffiti master classes, a very Melbourne fascination.

Sydney-based architect Joseph Pang oversaw the InterContinental’s luxury, multi-million dollar renovation, completed in 2008. He says the long and tall nature of the space was a challenge, but one he embraced empathically. “You have to understand the character of Melbourne, so the atrium becomes an enormous laneway itself.”

One of the two internal facades was rebuilt in the ‘70s and doesn’t quite share the same character as its worldly neighbour. Pang decided to take a very modern approach and introduce the then unusual LED lighting to frame each guest room window. “We turned it into something with character and life, with personality,” he says. ‘They can change colour and so the whole façade gains different moods. Because of the sheer scale, it becomes a huge mural made out of light”

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

The Yarra Vallery suite at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

The Laneway Suite at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

The Great Ocean Road suite at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

The club floor lounge at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto

Transformation

Higher Ground

Nearby, Higher Ground was one of the year’s most hotly anticipated cafe openings. Housed in an impressive redbrick edifice at the bottom end of Little Bourke Street, it was once the Spencer Street Power Station.

Designed by Glaswegian engineer Arthur Arnot, it came into service of the city’s electrical needs in 1894, burning coal and harnessing steam to turn the turbines. Shuttered just short of a century later, it lay more or less empty for three decades, playing host to occasional events, including an exhibition of artist Bill Henson’s work.

When Higher Ground co-owner Nathan Toleman and his business partners, the brains behind Top Paddock cafe in Richmond and South Melbourne’s Kettle Black, first scoped out the space, they were impressed but also cowed by the sheer size of the proposition.

“Initially we were a bit overwhelmed by it, but it wouldn’t leave our thoughts,” Toleman admits.

“We love finding spaces that are untouched and untapped, creating life where there is none.”

Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street
Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street
Talk of the town. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Talk of the town. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Starting your day right with a delightful breakfast at Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Starting your day right with a delightful breakfast at Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Nathan Toleman, owner, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Nathan Toleman, owner, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

From above, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

From above, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Delicious sweet treats, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

Delicious sweet treats, Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

A look inside the old Spencer Street Power Station. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

A look inside the old Spencer Street Power Station. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

A space to relax. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

A space to relax. Higher Ground, Little Bourke Street.

DesignOffice

Engaging architectural practice DesignOffice, they played to the strengths of the expansive, fascinating venue, leaving the characterful brick walls exposed as well as the soaring wooden ceiling with its impressive steel trusses. A mezzanine level was placed over the kitchen and works its way down and around the walls to the entrance, bathed in light from vast arched windows.

It was a challenge working to tight heritage requirements, with a two-year design stage and a nine-month build, but well worth the breathtaking result, a perfect for Melbourne’s worldly outlook.

“We wanted to keep that sense of space and the openness, and that restraint is pretty unique,” he says. “Most venues are all about squeezing in as many seats as possible. You can have a different experience on each level and we can also dim the lights so it works as a dinner venue three nights a week too.”

Ten years ago Toleman transformed his first cafe venue, a derelict shop in Alphington. Since then, he and his partners have built an oft-awarded hospitality business that leads the pack.

Finding the right space and regenerating it is part of the magic. “We want every venue to have a different look and vibe,” he says. “Melbourne is the cafe capital of the world and we really want to stand out on that world stage. We’re inspired by other cafes coming along for the ride too, pushing us.”

Join acclaimed author Peter Hessler and explore the energy and excitement of a country that is redefining itself – moment by moment. Discover more stories at intercontinental.com/life

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