The year is 2013 and Australian retail chain giant Myer said goodbye to Fremantle, WA, after 40 years in operation, leaving behind a five-storey masonry shell with two hectares of empty space.
Acting Mayor of Fremantle Josh Wilson called it “the end of an era”, but was optimistic about redeveloping the King Square building to give the centre of Freo a much-needed facelift.
Six months after sitting abandoned, the building opened its doors once again, presenting to visitors an eclectic offering of spaces so often found in pop-ups, although the terms ‘meanwhile space’ or ‘short term place activation’ is probably more accurate.
“[When Myer exited Fremantle] it left behind, also, the smack of an undesirable place, heaping more vacancy on an already ailing urban scene,” architects from Post- Architecture say of the project, which is in the running for this year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ WA Architecture Awards.
“And then people started squirrelling in and out of the building. Plastic covered the windows and materials were swallowed into the doors. After a couple of months, a thousand favours and many pulled muscles, the public was again admitted into the old Myer building.”
From a rooftop bar and garden, to workshops for private artists and retail start-ups, the building was transformed from the “dwindling shell of a changing retail landscape” into a vibrant hive of “making, selling, creating, workshopping, functioneering and celebrating”. The makeover of these spaces, now known as MANY 6160, was spearheaded by Spacemarket, a not-for-profit organisation that pairs empty urban spaces with potential tenants, and supported by the City of Fremantle and building owner, Sirona Capital.
However, it was Spacemarket’s development arm Post- Architecture who carried out the redevelopment, armed with scrap materials, steel tubes, 300m of red velvet and $20,000.
From the familiar Myer department store to a store full of departments: MANY comprises a loud and messy basement, a field of ground-floor retail, and workshops on the first storey. The second floor is dedicated to exhibitions, while the roof features a bar and areas for events. These spaces collaboratively put artisanship and community into the moulted skin of a multi-national company, says Post- Architecture.
A red velvet curtain, suspended on a bespoke 70m metal framework, was installed by two people over one weekend.
Sustainability ranks highly for MANY, although Post- notes that this is both the result of thriftiness as much as ingenuity. Re-using the building, for instance, was circumstantial.
The existing structure had limited glazing to the ground floor and an otherwise impenetrable mass, making it immense in its embodied energy, expensive to convert, and unappealing to commercial tenants, who are often more attracted to natural light and air. Together, these elements would have made it difficult for the building to find a new tenant, and in fact, the building was originally slated for demolition or conversion. However, the success of MANY’s occupancy – despite being a temporary space activation project – has legitimised the building’s case for retention.
Keeping a sense of vacuity was also important, and interventions were kept minimal or well-integrated. Deliberately low-lying fixtures allowing clear lines of sight, white walls, and clean columns are some of the specific design features, and the lack of walls separating tenants allows customers to drift through intentionally open spaces.
Painting the columns alone took a team of six people and three weekends to complete.
Post- also found that the building was whiling away $5,000 worth of energy while empty, which says almost nothing of its energy needs when in operation.
“Upon naively completing our first month of activity, we received a $30,000 power bill. While this may not have been insurmountable for a department store, it almost ruined us,” says the design team.
Today the building is close to passive, thanks to a changing of all the light globes to low emission alternatives, carefully zoning use patterns, and utilising the cool air that circulates through the neighbourhood parking lot. In real cost terms, energy bills fell from $120,000 per month to $8,000.
Finally, social sustainability was a big winner for MANY.
“This project has survived where one of the country’s biggest retailers could not,” says Post-.
“In doing so, it has provided recreation and confidence for its local community. It has helped more than a hundred small businesses and individuals launch. It has lit up an antisocial urban park and it has served as a pilot for new modes of retail economy. Its social sustainability impact is vast.
“MANY is a case in point for the retention of urban ghosts, for passive energy management, and for new, collaborative forms of retail and urban habitation.”
KEY PROJECT DETAILS
LOCATION: Kings Square, 2 Newman Court, Fremantle WA 6160
ARCHITECTS: Nic Brunsdon (Project Architect), Beth George, Jaxon Webb
CONSULTANT TEAM: Sirona Capital, City of Fremantle, Kate & Abel
PHOTOGRAPHER: Dave Sharp, David Weir