Putting pride at the heart of design - The Victorian Pride Centre

23 March 2023

When Melbourne’s Brearley Architects and Urbanists (BAU) and Grant Amon Architects (GAA) joined forces to design the Victorian Pride Centre, collaboration, consultation and community connection were central to their approach. The result is an incredible public building and the winner of the 2023 Victorian Premier’s Design Award of the Year.

What does the 140-year-old Victorian Trades Hall have in common with the new Victorian Pride Centre? Actually, more than you’d imagine. Firstly, they are both legacy public buildings that will stand the test of time. And more importantly they are both physical embodiments of a cultural shift – a celebration of human rights and social justice. Titled ‘The Unfinished,’ the Victorian Pride Centre is a work in progress, one conceptualised to continually evolve and transform, just like the community it’s home to.

Brearley Architects and Urbanists (BAU), together with Grant Amon Architects (GAA) knew immediately that the chance to design a building that represents Australian cultural progress was one they were keen to pursue. According to James Brearley, Principal at BAU, the Victorian Pride Centre is one of the most important representational buildings that has been constructed in Australia for decades.

Making a social impact through design is a privilege that he doesn’t take lightly. ‘A chance to work on a building of this significance is rare and fantastic. As a symbol of the LGBTQI+ community, it drives the campaign of equality further,’ said James.

Another element that attracted him and the team of 18 design professionals who worked collaboratively on the project – including Grant Amon, Steve Whitford and Jens Eberhadt – was the fact that it’s located in St Kilda, where James and other members of the group both live and work.

‘I’m a St Kilda guy and this is in the heart of Fitzroy Street. It’s important to me and I feel a strong personal connection. It’s momentous for the LGBTQI+ community but also for the St Kilda community. I believe the reason it is situated here is because St Kilda has a long and colourful history of inclusiveness so there’s a strong sense of place and the two play hand in hand,’ James commented.

Taking inspiration from the design brief and traditional St Kilda motifs

The design philosophy behind creating a cultural icon took a huge amount of thought and consideration. The team was fortunate to have had a very detailed and intricate brief that involved community consultation and specific goals and outcomes.

What drove the design was a combination of the brief and the idea of building something experimental – finding new ways to create architecture within in an intense competition environment and just ‘going for it.’

The building needed to be appropriate to the land-locked site, to look like it was going to last or like it had already been here. As such, the design’s distinctive curves are inspired by St Kilda’s memorable architecture – dance halls, Luna Park, domes, cupolas and vaults. This idea of curvature is a hallmark of the design, both on the monolithic exterior and voluminous interior spaces.

A collective vision emerging from a mass

One of the big successes of the building is the atrium space, a gathering area that brings light into the heart of the building, links top to bottom and where everyone circulates. It is also the most experimental part.

‘We saw the building form as a mass,’ mentions James. And through that ‘mass’ a series of tubular shapes the emerge and run across the entire design.

This concept of ‘emergence’ –letting things happen or just coexist, exemplifies the spirit of the building. The idea of becoming or emerging is also a metaphor for the Pride Centre – an organisation that invites disruption, the LGBTQI+ community’s right to self-expression and individuals’ freedom to change.

Inclusivity – as an architectural and social concept

Nothing in the building is rigid or dictated. The designers didn’t tell the tenants of the building where to put things. It is up to them to decide the purpose of a space, and with plenty of nooks and crannies, that freedom is well-established.

The lack of rigidity is also evident in the way the designers scalloped out the back of the building to accommodate two existing peppercorn trees and cut out circles on the rooftop to allow for the planting of indigenous and community gardens.

Not fighting nature, the team made a building that is inclusive of all elements, allowing everything to coexist.

The Indigenous consultant they worked with noted that ‘there was no greater acknowledgement to Country than flora and fauna.’ The team also pursued other strategies for First Peoples involvement and inclusion, including creating contours in the floors throughout the building which will eventually house Indigenous names carved into the concrete.

Choice of materials dictated by affordability and sustainability

Coexistence is at play throughout the design, not only in the overlapping of different materials but in the way the building makes everyone feel welcome.

Use of materials was very much about being affordable with precast concrete a natural choice.

The façade with its street edge porch structure was difficult to get through local planning authorities but the architects fought for it. It was symbolic of the Centre’s role as a public building which would be accessible and very much part of the local streetscape.

The double-height ground floor adds to that sense of publicness. Rather than finishing it, the designers left most of it in raw concrete – so it could act as a blank canvas for those who chose to use the space.

Sustainability initiatives included making it a low energy, healthy building with great thermal mass. Consultation revealed a high number of users with physical sensitivities so good acoustics and light control were also a priority.

Home to everything from art exhibitions to conferences, a radio station to disco yoga, and a bookshop to the Australian Queer Archives, the Victorian Pride Centre encapsulates diversity to a ‘D.’

The significance of receiving accolades

To James, winning the 2022 Victorian Premier’s Design Award of the Year and the Best-In-Category Award for Architectural Design is first and foremost about the client, the fact the Victorian Government had the foresight and courage to bring their concept to life. The award raises the profile of the Victorian Pride Centre and the LGBTQI+ and St Kilda communities it represents and elevates its status as a building of significant cultural merit and value. For the team at BAU and GAA, it’s a moment to realise that their contribution is appreciated beyond its original purpose.

The recipient of over a dozen local, state, national and international design awards, the Victorian Pride Centre continues to break down barriers, advance LGBTQI+ community causes and represent a welcoming space for people of all identities, backgrounds and ideologies.

Victorian Premier’s Design Awards

Established by the Victorian Government in 1996, the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards are an opportunity to highlight and celebrate local design capability.

The Awards provide an opportunity for businesses and the community to better understand the role of design in creating functional, safe and efficient products, services and spaces. The Awards also showcase the depth of design talent in Victoria and the capability and capacity of the Victorian design industry.