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Interview with an Architect: Six Degrees Architects Melbourne

Published 06 January 2011   

As one of the ‘six’ that makes up Six Degrees, Mark Healy has been instrumental in crafting the look of Melbourne over the past 20 years. With his company taking on something of iconic status in Australia, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to consider them the ACDC or U2 of architecture, their name instantly evoking ‘cool’. In particular, punters would recognise Six Degrees from their indelible stamp on the ‘barchitecture’ craze that has made the city’s watering holes the envy of the world over.

By Emma Westwood

I hear you named your company after the temperature on the famous Nylex clock that looks over Punt Road…

“Yes, that’s true. It was the early ‘90s and we were in this shared studio space, which was a place to keep our drawing boards and gear. We had no formal plans to organise an office together so the business actually started by us falling into it. In coming up with a name, this space was in Richmond and it had big windows that looked out at that clock. It was six degrees outside that office and probably six degrees inside the office too. There were just six of us, it was six degrees and we had little of anything else.”

The ‘hole in the wall’ bar in the CBD, Meyers Place, seems to have impacted hugely on your business. Am I correct in assuming this was a turning point project?

“Absolutely. Meyers Place was really important for us when we built it back in 1995. But I’d like to be clear that it wasn’t just our vision – it involved a whole lot of other people. The bar was basically devised by a collective of people who lived in the city and had nowhere nice and low-key to drink at night. The licence laws were still fairly old-fashioned at the time. You could only drink in hotel foyers and a couple of places late at night. So Meyers Place was really about having a go at building something that suited ourselves and our peers.”

“Meyers Place was also really useful because a lot of people got to see it and it was a different idea, I suppose, being down a laneway and being this cheap little bar. Aesthetically, because we built it ourselves, there was a lot of discussion on-site of what something should be. We’d just talk about it, then go straight into screwing it, nailing it or cutting it.”

Regarding materials, Meyers Place cemented your reputation for using found objects in innovative ways…

“Yes, back in those days we had the time to scavenge, whereas we don’t have the luxury anymore to comb the world for weird and wonderful things. Although that said, I just did a job where we got to use a whole lot of old panelling from the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The old members’ long room has been cut up and reconstituted and is now lining a new dining room.”

How do you maintain a singular vision across the firm?

“There is no specific aesthetic of Six Degrees. The main thing we’re interested in is process. We’re about memory and meaning in old material. If I recall correctly, there are doors from an old chemistry lab covering one side of Meyers. No one drinking there would go, ‘Oh, they’re doors from a chemistry lab’, but they had a previous life and then they’ve been reconstituted into a different thing. The firm is very driven by a layered approach to architecture and that’s what we’re still about – it’s about functional layers of how things work, it’s also about all kinds of regulatory layers.”

“People say about the City Square project, which is an all-new construction, that some of the spaces feel like they’ve been there a really long time. It’s new material, but I think it’s how we’ve put it together and what this says to different people. There’s memory in materiality, but there can be memory and meaning in the way something is lit or the little things. In Melbourne, we walk on bluestone throughout the city every day, but no one would think of using bluestone for a bartop, which is what we did recently. It’s a matter of seeing these everyday things in a new way.”

Do you think your work reflects a specific Melbourne look?

“It’s not a conscious decision. You just do what you do and see how it goes. And it’s also driven by what the clients want—from Phoenix Bar, which is very different to, say, Riverland or The Public House or the old Pelican, which is very different to The Auction Rooms, which is different to our latest project, The Royal Saxon. We don’t ram down our clients’ throats what we think is the latest thing. I wouldn’t even know what the latest thing is. And I don’t care. You can talk about something being light or dark – should it be heavy, should it recede, is it a tactile experience thing or is it just a visual thing you’ll never touch. You’ve got to look at it through all these layers and then just get down to the boring things like slip rating, the lux levels and all of that.”

Tell us about The Royal Saxon Hotel in Richmond… It’s getting a lot of buzz…

“We took an old pub and just kept the four perimeter walls and chewed out the rest of it. It had been mucked around with so much over time there really wasn’t much to keep. So we scooped out the guts and built a building in the middle, the idea of it being a garden with a pub. Richmond has a lot of hard surfaces and concrete and no trees, so it needed to be a little bit of an oasis. I’m hoping over time, as all the creepers and everything grow, it will become a kind of ruin-within-a-ruin.”

What’s the future of Six Degrees?

“We’re ridiculously diverse in what we do – not just hospitality stuff – and we’d like to keep powering ahead with that diversity. People may not realise, but about 70 percent of our work is for schools and institutions. We also do a lot of stuff for community and government organisations, like the foyers for the commission flat towers for the Department of Human Services. We’re interested in design-driven, interesting solutions to human problems.”

Six Degrees Architects
Vaults 15-19 Princes Walk
Federation Square
Melbourne, Australia
Phone +61 3 9635 6000