Neometro projects completed in the first five years included a Japanese restaurant, the headquarters for a surf fashion label, and the first of their own developments – a warehouse conversion in Fitzroy and three townhouses located in a back lane in Richmond. Neometro gained early recognition with publication in Belle, and Herbert Ypma’s emergent iconic magazine
Interior Architecture, and received the inaugural Dulux Colour Award in 1988.
In 1989 I joined the Neometro team. I moved to Australia after completing my architecture degree in New Zealand and came to Neometro after working for Geyer Design and McBride Charles Ryan Architects. In 1991 I became co-director with Jeff and Barry of the newly formed in-house practice, Neometro Design (later Neometro Architects). Initially we provided design and documentation services to Neometro, but the practice soon expanded to include ‘outside’ residential and commercial clients. This was valuable as it provided a feedback loop with a real client base, beyond the speculative resident, which then informed the design of the Neometro developments. When I first joined Neometro it was just the three of us, with some part-time admin help, working out of the narrow switch room at the rear of a rag-trade factory (with no access to toilets after the factory closed at 4pm, without a walk up the road the local Corner Hotel!). In 1991 we moved to Neometro’s first ‘real’ office in Hill Street, Richmond.
The early Neometro model involved first finding a site; these were often located in back lanes as sites without street frontages were less expensive. Neometro then carried the project through all stages, from concept design and feasibilities, design development and documentation, to construction and sales. Neometro also took a ‘hands on’ approach to marketing, self-generating the marketing material and building personal relationships with purchasers. These projects provided the opportunity to try new ideas about medium density housing, without being constrained by real estate agents dictating what the market would accept. For example, the first developments (on adjacent sites in Bolger Place, Coppin Street and Lyndhurst Street in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond) were an investigation into building ‘mini’ warehouses – lofty townhouses and terraces with the advantages of warehouse living (generous, flexible open plan floor plates and high ceilings) but without the disadvantage of vast, hard to heat spaces.
In that first decade Neometro survived challenging economic times as the high interest rates of the late 1980s were followed by the 1991-1992 recession. While many developers faltered and large numbers of architects were out of work, Neometro‘s ‘self-generated’ projects and flexible structure allowed survival of the roller coaster ride.
Karen Alcock joined Neometro Architects in 1997, becoming an Associate Director in 2000 and moving to full Directorship in 2003. As well as contributing a strong architectural design sensibility, Karen’s dynamic organisation and professional practice skills became invaluable as Neometro flourished and Neometro Architects grew into a medium-scale practice.
The strong in-house design focus was (and remains) a ‘point of difference’ within the Melbourne property market. In the early days, few Melbourne developers or construction companies had this integrated design expertise – in contrast to today where more development companies have architecture and design departments. There were exceptions, including the influential Merchant Builders, who collaborated with architect Graeme Gunn from 1965 -1991, and Robinson Chen who designed and built single residences and commercial projects in the 1980s. In the 1990s a few architect/developers followed, including McBride Charles Ryan with their Legon Street townhouses in 1994 and Nonda Katsilidis with the Richmond Malthouse Silos development in 1996. However, in the 1980s and into the 1990s Neometro were considered early pioneers and were invited to talk about the designer/developer model at architecture conferences and local and state government forums.
Luxe, in Inkerman Street, St Kilda (completed in two stages in 1998 and 1999), was a ‘step-up’ in scale for Neometro developments. A joint venture with the owner of the existing building (located next to a Council waste transfer station and in the heart of St Kilda’s red-light district), the project involved alterations to a 3-storey 1950s warehouse and the construction of a new 7-storey building on the existing carpark. Luxe helped revitalise a neighbourhood while maintaining its existing ‘gritty’ character and avoiding the ‘homogenisation’ of gentrification. The mixed-use zoning allowed for a flexible program of residences and studio offices – many of the 24 live/work tenancies were offered as shells to allow individual customisation, with a restaurant and cellar bar providing street level activation. At the heart of the building is a large central shared communal terrace – accessible to all occupants but directly connected to studios located on the first floor to encourage interaction. Luxe received several awards, including the 1999 Port Phillip Design and Development Award and the 2000 Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian Chapter) Sir Osborne McCutcheon Award for Commercial Architecture. Luxe was Neometro’s headquarters until the office moved to a shopfront studio in the Nine Smith Street, Fitzroy development in 2019.
Over the next two decades Neometro continued to create innovative residential developments throughout inner-ring Melbourne suburbs including St Kilda, South Melbourne, Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak and, moving ‘northside’, Fitzroy and Brunswick. Although the scale of the projects increased, the core Neometro design principles remain a focus. These include:
Being a ‘good neighbour’ by carefully considering context when stitching new built form into the existing urban fabric. Architect Norman Day (writing about Luxe) described this as ‘weft and weave’ architecture . As well as considering the wider urban context, this approach requires paying attention to the small scale; especially, the critical eye-level interface between building and pedestrian, employing finishes and textures with a ‘tactile’ quality and building elements that are carefully ‘crafted’. Supporting a sense of community. Buildings that support and encourage an active street life not only help create safer environs, they also provide connectivity and a better ‘fit’ into a local neighbourhood. This approach includes the careful ‘curation’ of the ground floor tenancies in mixed-use developments. Neometro was an early instigator of the now common practice of including a bar or café – providing street level activation but also creating a ‘de-facto’ communal meeting place for the residents and office tenancies in the building. Understanding what ‘liveability’ really means, designing apartments the Neometro ‘team’ could live in themselves by providing all the functionality and livability of a small house, albeit within a smaller space. This doesn’t only apply to the functional aspects of apartment living; Neometro also strive for emotionally resonant interior architecture.
After twenty years of innovative design and development, Barry retired from Neometro in 2006. In 2008 Karen and I separated the architectural practice from Neometro and re-named it McAllister Alcock Architects (now MAA), continuing to work with Neometro on developments including George Corner, Brookville, Nine Smith Street, and projects within the Jewell Station precinct in Brunswick.
The Jewell Station Village is an important multi-stage, revitalisation project. In addition to four mixed-use buildings at 1, 9 and, 27 Wilson Avenue, and 17 Union Street, Neometro were also responsible for the restoration of the heritage Jewell Station building, and public realm works including the bike path and the landscaped station forecourt.
Recently, in addition to larger scale apartment and mixed-use developments, Neometro have worked on a series of smaller townhouse projects (56 Shaftesbury, 57 Martin Street and South Crescent). Designed ‘in-house’, this return to smaller-scale residential infill projects allows scope to take calculated design ‘risks’, testing new ideas that can then ‘inform’ the larger scale work, and resonating with the early Neometro approach.
Jeff was joined by current Neometro co-directors: James Tutton (2008), who focuses on the commercial side of the business while building on Neometro’s core tenet of developing and supporting community initiatives and Lochlan Sinclair (2018) whose architectural background supports the Neometro design ethos. While the Neometro model has changed (sales and marketing remain in-house, but design and construction are now outsourced), under their leadership Neometro continues to produce high quality, carefully considered buildings, in collaboration with several of Melbourne’s leading architectural practices and builders. And Neometro continues to maintain long-term relationships with many of the residents who have chosen to make a Neometro project ‘home’.
 Norman Day, ‘Weaving a city fabric’, Monument Residential Special 2000