A New Take on Social Space

Six Degrees Architects

Six Degrees Architects is an industry icon, known for its unique approach to addressing human needs through the built environment. The journey began two decades ago, with a small group of friends determined to make a splash in the Melbourne architecture scene. Armed with six recently earned degrees, and convinced that the chilly Melbourne studio they shared was a perpetual six degrees, the eager grads dubbed their fledging business Six Degrees Architects.

The new company faced an uphill battle. “We started in 1991, pretty much in the middle of a recession,” Director James Legge remembers. Ironically, the difficult economic conditions and shoestring budget helped mould the company into the leader of architectural innovation that it is today. The team was forced to be inventive and resourceful, principles that have become a hallmark of the company.

The team cut its teeth on a project that introduced an entirely new style of social drinking space to Australia. The team wanted to “to open up a small bar that would be in the vein of European bars, or Asian bars, or American bars,” Mr Legge reports. “Because at the time, really the only place you could get a drink was in a pub with a band going. So we wanted to create an intimate space.” In response to this gap in the market, the team created Myer’s Place, the first laneway bar in Melbourne.

“We had very little money, very little funds at the time to do it,” Mr Legge recalls. “We borrowed and scrounged whatever funds we could to create a bar.” This meant turning to renovation and demolition sites for materials. The team realised however, that old timber veneers and antique details were worth more than cost savings. The found materials carried a unique history and told valuable stories. As a result, the “new” bar boasted a unique character forged out of the assembled history of Melbourne’s ageing structures.

“For a while, we were known as the guys who recycled stuff,” Mr Legge remembers. “So there was a sustainability element there… But it was much more than that really. We were much more interested in what those materials did and allowed us to do – the history they brought with them and the stories they brought with them. And that carried through to our other work.”

Today, many of the company’s projects are too large to accommodate the same level of reclaimed materials. But, “we are still very much interested in materiality in our work, of how expressive the materials can be and what they can suggest.” The team takes advantage of renovation and restoration opportunities to continue exploring the stories surrounding Melbourne’s ageing structures. “Quite a lot of our work is around older buildings and we don’t polish them to the extent that they lose their history and their stories like many architects might,” Mr Legge reports. “We welcome the previous stories and history that these buildings have and put our layer on top of that.”

Myer’s Place also set the company on a hospitality track, and the team has worked extensively in this sector ever since. Its experience with hospitality spaces has inspired the group to think carefully about how people interact with architecture in high use public space. The result is a commitment to creating “architecture for people.” This “human centred approach” produces environments in which people feel comfortable and are free to interact naturally.

For example, Six Degrees designs give people a choice of how and where they will engage with each other. “One of the things we do with hospitality work is, if someone comes into a venue, they can feel there is a choice of where they might sit. If they want to sit at the bar in full view… they can do that, or they can sit around a corner by themselves and read a book,” Mr Legge explains. “[We] give them opportunities and different scenarios and different spaces within those environments.”

The team’s approach includes bringing the scale of large buildings “down to a more human centric scale.” This can be accomplished in many ways, including using elements of craft. “For example, you’ll see in some of our architecture there are elements of stained glass… Even if you are in a large institutional building with necessarily large walls and ceilings and spaces, [the stained glass creates] a smaller scale adjacent to you that makes you feel more comfortable.”

All of the team’s human centric ideas and approaches work together, “cross pollinating” each other and leading to continual experimentation and improvement. For instance, the group’s approach to the Deakin University library drew on theories derived while creating hospitality venues. The team recognised that today’s university libraries fulfil important social, as well as educational, roles. This required “looking at the way people interact in a library and saying, ‘well, there are similarities there to how they may interact in a bar,’ as strange as that seems.” In response, Six Degrees designed a space that gives people plenty of options regarding how and where they will engage with one another.

The team’s leading edge approach to architecture has brought it widespread recognition over the years. In 2012, the company has been honoured with multiple awards by the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) for several different projects. Heller Street Park and Residences is a ground breaking attempt to blur the line between public and private spaces. The project also utilises land that was once contaminated, which the team remediated. As a result, Heller Street Park and Residences won both the 2012 AIA (Vic) Best Overend Award for Residential Architecture and the 2012 AIA (Vic) Award for Sustainable Architecture.

For the Heller Street Park and Residences project, the team created an inviting public park that spills over into ten residential townhouses. The team was inspired by the spaces in which local Greek and Italian immigrants interact. The townhouses capture the concept of the open, European style front porch or terrace, from which people in these communities can easily engage with people on the street. The group put a contemporary spin on the concept, creating private open space for each townhouse immediately adjacent to the park, rather than tucked away behind a fence.

“We had trouble convincing the council, who want private open space to be private,” Mr Legge explains. “[Council] asked when we were putting the planning application through, ‘where is the private open space?’… My argument was, ‘well, we actually don’t want it to be private. We want it to be semi-private. We want residents to engage with their neighbours’… It is another way of thinking about private space, public space.” The concept worked, and the spacious, three story townhouses are now filled with families. “There are always kids out on the lawn,” Mr Legge says. “Community is developing around that.”

Obviously, reclaiming contaminated land for the community deserves a sustainability nod, but the team added many other green elements throughout the project as well, such as channelling rainwater from the townhouse roofs to water the park below. “There are sustainability elements in all our projects,” Mr Legge explains. In fact, a holistic, creative approach to going green is a hallmark of Six Degrees’ designs.

The Boatbuilder’s Yard, located in the South Wharf Maritime Precinct of Melbourne, won the 2012 AIA (Vic) Urban Design Award. The goal of the project was to revitalise the area and create a comfortable, relaxed environment within a previously unwelcoming open space. The site is “near some very large pieces of public architecture – the Convention Centre, the Exhibition Centre, and across the river from the World Trade Centre,” Mr Legge explains. “So there is a massive scale.” To counteract the intimidating surroundings, the team wanted “to bring the scale down” to create a more inviting space. “It brings an intimacy back… People can actually enjoy the environment.”

At the centre of the project is an old shed that the team converted into a bar. As usual, Six Degrees respected the history and the character embedded within the existing structure. “We have tried to keep as much of the beaten-up, old shed as possible,” Mr Legge reports. And, as with the Heller Street Park and Residences, the team wanted to push people to engage naturally by blurring the lines of where one space begins and another one ends. “We have tried to make the space as permeable as possible,” he explains. The layout encourages pedestrians to cut through the site on their way to their actual destination. “Walking along the river, they won’t feel as though they are entering a hospitality venue. They can actually walk through it quite easily.”

Six Degrees was also awarded the 2012 AIA (Vic) Public Architecture Commendation in the Alterations and Additions category for its upgrade to the central campus precinct at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds. The purpose of the project was to create a welcoming social space for students and staff to enjoy. “It’s an area that had been neglected for a long time,” Mr Legge explains. “The university was trying to create space that would keep students on campus. [Before the upgrade] they would come to their lectures and go.” The team designed multiple spaces ideal for socialisation, and placed them all around a central landscaped area. The layout ensures that students have a choice of how and where to interact within each area, and allows people to easily pass from one space to another. The upgrade also made the entire area fully wheelchair accessible, a feature it was lacking before, so that the University’s social spaces can now be utilised by all.

From a handful of classmates in a shared studio, to a ground breaking firm offering today’s most innovative architectural solutions, Six Degrees is well deserving of its recently earned awards. And the team has no intention of slowing down. Instead, they continue to expand their scope of expertise. “We don’t just specialise in one thing,” Mr Legge points out. “We’ve got university work, hospitality work, and multi-residential work just in the three projects [honoured by the AIA].” The group, it seems, is still as eager today as they were twenty years ago to leave their mark on Melbourne’s structures. “I don’t think you are ever satisfied, really,” laughs Mr Legge.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

June 2, 2020, 2:47 PM AEST