Transformation of old power plant surprisingly intimate


The Higher Ground restaurant has become a beacon for those wanting a sense of intimacy within what was once a power plant.

Overhauled by DesignOffice, it is the recipient of a swag of awards, including national and state awards for interior design from the Design Institute of Australia.

Those who recall the forecourt in front of the late 19th century building might now find it difficult to locate.

“Buried” behind a street cafe and below high-rise apartments, access to the Higher Ground restaurant/cafe/bar is from an entrance near Spencer and Little Bourke streets.

When DesignOffice’s creative directors architect and interior designer Mark Simpson and interior designer Damien Mulvihill first inspected Glasgow engineer Arthur Arnot’s brick pile, it was literally a shell.

Five massive concrete columns reached up to the 12-metre-high pitched timber ceiling.

DesignOffice’s client initially suggested carving up the building’s grand proportions over two levels.

“We thought there could be another option, given the dramatic ceiling heights,” says Simpson, who initially erected a series of scaffolding to see how diners would feel eating at various levels.

“We eventually settled on six different levels, with each one allowing virtually unimpeded views over the entire space,” says Mulvihill.

“That’s when the name ‘Higher Ground’ started to play in our minds,” adds Simpson.

The design brief was initiated with the words “hotel lobby, with no rooms, and has a different ambience depending on the time of day visited”.

“The idea transcends the usual typology for a restaurant, a bar or a cafe, where there’s often a mood that’s created for each function,” says Simpson.

Apart from the open kitchen and bathroom amenities, which feature lower ceiling heights, the cluster of eating options is considerable on each level.

Patrons can choose shared trestle-style tables, banquette seating or even perch on a bench, should they be eating alone.

“We wanted people to feel as comfortable coming here by themselves, as for couples or with larger groups,” says Mulvihill, who, with Simpson, was as mindful of including places where groups could entertain independently.

The top level at Higher Ground could almost be “read” as a lounge and kitchen area in a swank city apartment.

Complete with tables, armchairs and comfortable lounges, there’s a sense of going to a club.

To ensure this higher ground didn’t feel too remote, DesignOffice ensured clear visibility lines over the balustrade when seated.

DesignOffice trod lightly on the original building, inserting overscaled pipes to create continuous fresh air and two solid steel staircases, painted in a midnight blue.

“We wanted people to be able to circulate through the spaces comfortably rather than feeling as though they’re restrained by corridors or passages,” says Simpson, who sees the elevated seating arrangements like suspended pods or clusters.

Framed with compressed fibrocement board, terrazzo tiles and edged in steel, each seating group feels intimate, even though the seating area below is only 800 millimetres away.

“You’re far enough away from other people’s conversations, yet you still feel engaged with the broader space,” he adds.

Generous planting on all levels further animates the spaces, as well as removing carbon dioxide.

DesignOffice also retained the beautiful double-height arched windows and the distinctive distressed brick walls.

The result is the visual contrast between the past and present, making Higher Ground worthy of its numerous design awards.

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