Some thoughts on the Myer Bourke St redevelopment

Photos by Dianna Snape

I had an interesting chat the other day with Roger Nelson, the architect whose firm, NH Architecture, designed the Myer renovation and the QV building, among others. My interest was sparked by a seminar Roger is slated to give later this month at Furnitex, the annual furniture and interiors industry expo, on the relationship between retail design, investment and commercial outcomes.

The role of architects in delivering on the triumvirate of needs – client’s, user’s and the community’s – is something I’m interested in and have written about before e.g. Is architectural criticism critical? Our main topic of discussion was the Myer Bourke St redevelopment, but this is not a review ( I’ve only spent five minutes in the new building!). Rather, I want to mention a few points that arose in our discussion I found particularly interesting. One is about the complexities of this particular project, one is about formulating the role of the building and another is about the need for more sophisticated understanding when we talk about meeting (or not) budgets.

You probably couldn’t get a better example of a commercially driven project than the Myer city store. The key players are the investors – Colonial First State and its partners – and the Myer retail chain, who’ve signed a 30 year lease on the new building. The business imperatives are straightforward: the Colonial consortium is looking for a return on the risk it’s taken on and Myer has to get and keep retail customers.

This was never going to be an easy project. For starters, Myer wanted to continue trading on site, so construction had to proceed without significantly impeding the operation of the retail business. This was also in large part a renovation, with all the attendant difficulties that working with an existing building rather than in a ‘new build’ environment implies. Successive renovations over the years have clad over the top of earlier upgrades and face lifts.

Perhaps the most daunting task was the immense responsibility of protecting and revitalising a Melbourne institution. The Myer Bourke St store is as important and visible a part of Melbourne as the footy – well maybe not that important, but it’s up there. It figures in almost everyone’s personal history in some way. It’s just part of what Melbourne is. Melburnians take a proprietorial interest in what happens to it and heaven help anyone who threatens the millions of individual biographies that include the Myer Bourke St store and all those personal ideas about what it is and should be.

A crucial idea underpinning the project teams conception of the project is that Myer is more than a store. The team saw it as a continuation of the public realm – as a place where people would go for multiple reasons, not just to shop. This vision is consistent with the project’s commercial objectives and a key way of creating it was to extend the functions of the building – for example, by restoring the heritage-listed Mural Hall and managing it for events and meetings mostly unrelated to its retail role. Another was to put windows in the top floor so that rather than the traditional department store approach of enclosure, visitors could see out across Melbourne’s rooftop landscape – a touch of Paris. And unusually for this type of building, the escalator takes visitors to the perimeter of the building on the top floor.

Then there are the smaller-scale design, layout and retail management decisions aimed at creating an attractive and generous environment. The key organising principle is the atrium, which inclines and widens as it ascends in order to gather in northern light. It offers many vantage points – visual connections and orientations – as visitors proceed upward through the changing retail offers.

A key commercial issue is how the build went against the budget. Roger isn’t hesitant in conceding the project went over the initial budget, but as always there’s much more to this sort of issue than meets the eye. One of the key questions is: which budget? Initial or final? No one really knows at the outset what a project is ultimately going to cost, especially when it involves complex unknowns like the condition of an existing building. Initial budgets are framed without perfect information and often with excessive optimism. I think an illustrative case is Fed Square – we all know it went well ‘over budget’ but what isn’t ever mentioned is how new and expensive requirements were progressively imposed on the project by the client.

What matters most when costs are fluid and initial budgets aren’t commensurately flexible is whether or not the parties feel the ultimate cost was fair and reasonable in relation to the outcome. Did it provide value for money? Did it meet or exceed the expectations of the client? Creating a major building in a competitive market involves far more than simply costing nuts, bolts and routine procedures. Clients want intangible qualities like distinctiveness and character because they have commercial value – they can be monetized. These often require innovation, a process which necessarily widens the margin for error on costings.

As I said at the start, this is not a review. Determining how ‘good’ a building is really requires time to see how it works for users and for all practical purposes that’s an option that isn’t available to reviewers. However from what I know this building has been very well received by the investors, by Myer and by that demanding public who care about one of the cities enduring icons.

5 Comments on “Some thoughts on the Myer Bourke St redevelopment”

  1. Q.Maisie says:

    You’re right. Melburnians do take a proprietorial interest in the Melbourne store. It’s where a lot of us got our first part time shop assistant jobs, hurried through both buildings near closing time on our way to Flinders Street Station (before Melbourne Central existed), saw Santa there and queued to see the latest Xmas window event. It’s the source of the colloquial “He’s got more front than Myers”… which is up there with “So mean he wouldn’t give you last night’s Herald” in terms of local colour.

    I’m delighted to see it rising from the malaise it had become. Like the look of the new store, works for me!

    I wonder what the cost contingency is in a budget like that? How much ‘give’ do they build in?

  2. heritagepoliceman says:

    So Alan what is your point of discussion? Seems that ultimately you think it is a good building, delivering on all the fronts it was required to.

    As to how much ‘give’ in the budget, there must have been a lot, because the rear facade and the rooftop ‘dome’ were both originally shown to be rather more exiting than what was actually built. Though its pretty exiting for a department store. And here follow my architecrural review – the atrium is a good pivotal point and dramatic space, and the top floor is also a great space (though perhaps underutilized). From my perspective, happy to see myer rejuvenate, but a lot more than just the Bourke Street facade and the mural hall could have been retained – there was loads of great deco detailing at the tops of the columns in the front section all chipped off, and 2 nice nice deco stairs that were demolished, and the new deco-style lift lobbies and adjacent showcases only serve to remind of what was lost. A couple of older facades on the rear could also have been kept (one 1880, another 1907) but werent. The real test is whether the rather busy / flashy new stuff, which is now the ‘style’ of Myer, will date, or become as loved as the the old mish-mash it replaced. And though the Lonsdale facade will remain, behind it will be a shopping centre, of which Myer may occupy one floor, so there wont be much ‘Myer Bourke’ vs ‘Myer Lonsdale’ any more – I think this can only make Myer seem smaller, less of a retail giant, les the heart of the city, in future.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’ll concede I don’t have a strong POV on this building – hence my decision not to frame it as a question as I usually do. From what I’ve seen and heard it sounds good, but I’ve literally only spent five minutes in it on the ground floor (whatever the Myer demographic is, I don’t seem to be in it!) – that’s nowhere near enough info to write a critique.

      I think Myer’s gone down from 60,000 sq m to 45,000 sq m (not sure if that includes the new Myer Homemaker centre in the Emporium Melbourne, Lonsdale St building), but some of that old stuff was poorly utilised.

  3. adam says:

    its a wonderful building – the atrium places it far ahead of comparable retail buildings. As a unifying device its turned a rabbit warren into a distinctive space where you always know where you are. The old myer was confused and tired, now its fresh and unique.

  4. Richard says:

    The new Myer building is fresh and, at least architecturally, compares favourably with famous emporiums globally. The top floors offer great space and natural light which flow on to the other floors. It is also coherently laid out whereas the old Myer was, as we all know, an ad-hoc hodgepodge of years of neglect. But whilst the outside may have changed, Myer is still the same old outmoded retail outlet offering expensive wares and blindingly bright perfume counters. It is, however, a vast improvement on NH’s QV which is an dead-end ridden retail space.

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