A 144-year-old church and parish hall in Fitzroy, Melbourne were stylishly transformed into contemporary apartments in an adaptive reuse project that also saw the addition of a magnificent adjacent building.

Set in one of Melbourne’s renowned heritage locations, the project was executed by Zest Developments, James Stockwell and Kerstin Thompson Architects.

It is perhaps the façade of the new addition, nestled right beside the church, which draws the eye of passers-by on Napier Street. Simply because it has nailed that delicate balance, yet striking contrast, between old and new, thanks to a thoughtful design by Kerstin Thompson Architects, a team renowned for adaptive reuse of heritage buildings but also considered, sympathetic designs.

This complementary, yet contrasting black three-storey building consists of a triangular section at the front and a more rectangular addition at the rear, each separated by a breezeway. While the rear section contains a two-bedroom apartment on each floor, the front contains three levels of studio apartments.

“It’s a sympathetic, but completely contemporary interpretation of the gothic revival church that sits next door to it,” says Michael Archibald, senior architect, Kerstin Thompson Architects.

The design intent is to echo, rather than mimic the material palette of the church, while its shape, in particular the pitched component, mirrors its roofline.

The sides of the building are lined with black glazed brick tiles. “To echo the bluestone masonry construction of the church, without being a direct copy, we wanted to use a completely different sized masonry unit – the brick tile as opposed to the large block stone. And we like the reflective quality of the glaze, as opposed to the muted tones of the bluestone next to it,” explains Michael.

It’s cleverly contrasting, yet still sympathetic, the black colour tying in with the dark greys of the church.

Most spectacular in this design is the perforated bi-fold screen that fronts Napier street, which has an abstracted pattern based on some of the church’s gothic windows. The screen provides much needed privacy to the residents, located directly opposite public housing flats, while still offering filtered light through. They can be opened, too, of course, whenever needed. Not so visible to those passing is the tensile mesh that forms a type of balustrading around the breezeway at the rear; another elegant and fitting addition.

This beautiful black apartment building veiled behind the bi-fold screen is a wonderful addition to this three-part development, which has been positively received by the neighbourhood. Michael and his team are also suitably pleased: “We’re so happy with the façade and how it sits on the site, how it addresses Napier street and gives back something with its screen – a little bit of joy and interest – to the street.”

Excitingly, the project is currently shortlisted in the 2021 AIA Victorian Awards for both Heritage Architecture and Residential Architecture.

Photographer: John Gollings