Text description provided by the architects. The Protagonist is the result of a 2018 Arts Centre Melbourne design competition which challenged a curated selection of Victorian architecture studios to design a unique and memorable home for the existing Arts Centre Melbourne forecourt cafe.
The Protagonist creates an opportunity for the theatre to have a presence on the street by engaging with the passing public and creating a new visitor experience relating to the Arts Centre Melbourne brand. Firstly, the design plays on the universally understood element of the theatre curtain as a device to signify ‘open’ and ‘closed’. In the morning, the curtain is raised to the desired form (fully open in summer, partially closed for private events) and is a visible, welcoming symbol that it is open from afar. At night, the curtains are lowered and locked to create a secure compound. The lowered curtain creates a veil which can be used for art projection, marketing and branding of upcoming ACM events, and lighting to activate the precinct at night. Beyond references in form, these contemporary projection technologies allow the new structure to literally bring the theatre to the street.
While the bronze curtain colour is a direct reference to the Arts Centre Melbourne tower, the material itself is something less familiar. Kaynemaile, a polycarbonate chainmail mesh, is a secure, fire and UV resistant product originally developed as chainmail for the Lord of the Rings movie costumes. The bronze screen provides weather protection for the cafe, welcomes dappled light within the interior and allows for natural air flow, while creating a singular and cohesive design form that discretely hides building services.
Beneath the kaynemaile curtain lies a polished stainless countertop, used to reflect the heritage St Kilda road pavement and reduce the visual impact of this new addition to the Melbourne arts precinct.
The roof structure takes cues from the fly tower / grid of theatre stages to create a playful and flexible approach to suspending services in an unlimited arrangement. Heaters, lights, speakers, projectors, signage, etc. can all be located and adjusted over time to be where most practical. Lighting bars also enable the space to be used for events and seamlessly adjust for seasonal changes in daylight.
In analysing the monumental architectural context, we have created a single statement that responds, although is of a completely different scale, to the surrounds. In doing so the design takes a similar architecture approach to the adjacent buildings, each of which have a solid grounding element complemented by a sculptural or grand facade gesture (the NGV arch, the ACM spire, etc.). While the form responds to the scale of the context, the materiality expresses a lightness which reflects its temporary nature that contrasts with the heavy masonry of the permanent public buildings.