Riverland Bar

Riverland Bar:

Vaults 1 – 9, Federation Wharf, Melbourne
(03) 9662 1771 or www.riverlandbar.com

The Riverland Bar’s progress has been anything but meteoric. Life began out as a single coffee bar with a handful of staff to coincide with the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in 2006. Now? The venue stretches almost 100 metres along the Yarra River foreshore and caters to 500 to 600 people a night when Summer hits. It is part of a project (commissioned by Federation Square and helmed by Mark Healy of Six Degrees Architects) to develop the disused Princes Walk Vaults under Federation Square and rejuvenate them from ‘troll under the bridge’ status into a burgeoning hub of riverside activity. Originally a retaining wall, the vaults have housed bales of wool, a nightclub… even a model plane shop. When Healy got to them, they were ‘buggered’, all boarded up and rotting, and a hotspot for derelicts. It was a crying shame that such a great spot — central, quiet, lovely views, the river — could be boarded up and abandonedWith such a big space to work with, Healy brought two of his previous clients in on the project to see what they could do together. Richard Ludbrook is the bar man, starting some 16 years ago with the Public Bar in North Melbourne, before opening Phoenix Bar and then the Northcote Social Club — one of the best live venues in the country. David Sharry brings coffee nous to the collaboration, owning both Wall cafes in St Kilda and Sydney. It’s a complementary partnership of expertise that allowed the venue to operate as one, rather than two smaller competing offerings. It was a chilly Winter’s day on the shady side of the river when venue chatted with Richard Ludbrook, but the compulsion to sit outside remained irresistible.

Richard Ludbrook: With a little bit of sunshine, and no rain, it suddenly blossoms into a great little bar… then Winter cuts in and it’s a bit like Siberia down here. But people are resilient, it takes a really nasty day for us to not get many people down here, and they’d rather sit under an umbrella with it raining and the heaters on than sit inside where it’s toasty warm. It’s a Melbourne thing — maybe because we get so much cold weather we get used to it. It’s probably one of the biggest bar/cafes in Melbourne. Though when it’s operating it doesn’t feel big, because it’s long and thin and you never feel like you’re on top of someone. It’s a place that works as a café during the day, for afternoon drinks, and then a night bar, all without us having to change the décor or turn the lights down. It gets quite atmospheric with the fading light, the Arts Centre spire lights up, the gardens have lights on the trees and the bridge gets lit.

venue: Tell us a little about how you got Riverland off the ground.

RL: Mark, Dave and I drove the project early on and had to coordinate three bodies of people. Because Parks Victoria runs the section from the step onwards towards the river, Melbourne City Council runs the outdoor section, and Fed Square runs the vaults. The Commonwealth Games helped get things moving, because they wanted this area fixed up by the time the TV cameras were rolling. Having that goal and pushing point, we were able to say to the council, ‘if it doesn’t happen this week we won’t get it finished in time’. A lot of people thought it may not work, because it’s not the sunny side of the river, or a side of the river that was used, and it was full of junkies and rats. But Mark, Dave and I always had faith that it was a great spot.

venue: Did you only have the option to take the whole space?

RL: Originally I was going to take a section, and someone else was going to do a café. But that would have been silly because it’s going to be quiet during the day. So we just did one place that covers everything, and stagger the opening as the day goes on. As the temperature rises — every extra five degrees that we have — another of the three bars opens up, including a portable one on the end deck.

venue: And the bars open out onto the decks…

RL: Yes. Because the inside is so small it doesn’t work to have everyone ordering inside. We didn’t want people to have to go too far for a drink. There’s nothing worse than having a great position, getting up for a drink and finding a line a million miles long. We thought if you could see how long the line is from wherever you’re sitting, you could time it. I hate going to a place where one person out of the group spends half an hour in a line. It’s all about dispensing things as well as we can so the punters’ experience is as good as it could be. It’s a beautiful spot, and we’re just trying to do it justice. We’ve also got an outdoor kitchen, which was a response to the fact that we didn’t have much room inside. We put a barbeque out there, and cook some organic sausages — pop them in a roll and on a serviette. We sell thousands of them. They’re quick, reasonably priced and they add to the outdoor experience, plus there’s no point having three thousand plates that you can’t wash.

venue: Were design decisions influenced by the fact Six Degrees was already involved?

RL: We trust Mark with the design. He takes advice really well and he understands how to make something fit in its environment. We tell him if something’s not going to work from our perspective. He doesn’t pretend that he knows everything about that. He’s been working on this place for the last two years and he’s still working on it. We’re going to cover the second deck in, and we don’t want a marquee, so Mark’s developing a steel tree with a cover on it to replace the tree that died on the deck.

Healy-ing The Vaults

Mark Healy likes the vaults so much he even relocated the Six Degrees’ offices there. venue took a brief stroll down stream to find out more about the design and found the man at his desk.

venue: Had you ever been involved in a project like this where you coordinated it to the extent of pitching the space to potential tenants?

Mark Healy: We don’t do it much, but our firm does really diverse work, and we have a background in property development and product design. There were a lot of people involved and to get the whole thing up and running someone had to spin the spider web. It was just bringing people together — real old- fashioned architecture. Almost medieval — almost like ‘let’s build a cathedral…who owns a quarry?’ It was an unusual project, even down to supply authorities and trying to work out who owns the wires in the ground, and what you can tap in to. There are a whole lot of people that can take credit for putting this thing together, from Fed Square, city council, all the operators, great builders, and Heritage Victoria.

venue: How hard is it to build within a heritage space?

MH: Depends. For example, I wanted to bolt cables onto the bluestone to hang outdoor lighting, and they weren’t having a bar of that. Which is fair enough; you can’t go butchering these big beautiful things. And, design-wise, it’s best to let the history do the talking. And it’s built so well; the brickwork is as tough as old boots — you can forget about trying to get someone to do that sort of work these days.

venue: And what have you done with the vaults themselves?

MH: It’s about minimal disturbance. What with the new energy rating requirements, the heritage overlay… you have to work ecologically smarter. The hanging structure in each vault distributes the lights as well as power cables and the speakers. The design incorporates ready-made materials; the screens and bottle racks are just PVC conduit and sit in the background, and there’s a stripped back palette of steel, timber, glass, stainless, conduits, and the carpets. It’s all about the vaults — the architecture should just fade away and not be noticed. A lot hospitality design is down to subtle little tolerances of how humans want to interact. Make it work. That’s all I ever aim to do.

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