Stephen Crafti: Black warehouse a modest advert for Big Red

A Prahran warehouse redesigned by Pandolfini Architects for advertising agency Big Red. Photo: Josh RobenstoneUnlike many advertising agencies whose splashy signs clearly light up their building’s facades, Big Red gives no clue as to what goes on behind its office’s black exterior.

Visitors simply walk through a car park and enter through steel-and-glass doors. Even the reception area is underplayed, with stained black timber-battened walls and a modest glazed window resembling Ned Kelly’s helmet in a painting by the likes of Sidney Nolan.

“Our brief included a secure entrance as well as a level of discretion,” says architect Dom Pandolfini, director of Pandolfini Architects.

Originally built as a warehouse/factory in the 1960s, this orange-brick warehouse in Prahran was previously used as a gallery for Helen Gory, together with studio spaces for artists and designers.

The orange bricks have been painted black to complement a black web-forged steel wall and security gate. Reworked by Pandolfini for Big Red, the discrete facade conceals a busy office – well, three interconnected offices that work independently as well as coming together for larger advertising campaigns. “Each ‘arm’ of the business required its own space, but one of the key drivers in the design was flexibility,” says Pandolfini.

While the original warehouse-style office space appears relatively intact, the architects virtually gutted the 800-square-metre building (over two levels) and created new steel and glass windows to increase natural light and allow for greater transparency. One of the few remaining features is a side steel door where a lift and freight platform once stood, together with a terrazzo staircase typical of the late 1960s. “We retained all the structural steel and concrete columns, but removed paint from ceilings and floors to expose the concrete,” says Pandolfini.

At ground level, occupying their own niches, are a number of enclosed offices. And to the rear of the building is now the staff kitchen linked via large doors to a boardroom. “When larger functions are called for, the two areas become one,” says Pandolfini, who included a generous commercial-style kitchen complete with a five-metre long stainless steel island bench. Double doors, equally as generous, measuring almost four metres in height, allow the rear courtyard to be integrated into the scheme during warmer months of the year. “One of the most challenging things with the brief was to create quiet and more intimate nooks and meeting areas, while still allowing for fluid spaces that could be used by larger teams,” he adds.

The first floor of the Big Red agency combines both these type of spaces. Pivotal to the design is a house-like structure completely covered in grey felt. Enclosing three meeting areas, including a mezzanine-style office on the roof (below the ceiling), the felt functions as both a pin board as well as for acoustic control against the concrete floors. “Staff are constantly pinning work on walls and discussing ideas and concepts. It’s an integral part of how an advertising agency operates,” says Pandolfini.

Pandolfini’s brief included using a limited colour palette, restricted to black, grey and white. The only exception is the red, indicative of the agency’s name, appearing in the red painted steel rafters. Even the photos, dotted around the building, taken by eminent photographer Angus O’Callaghan in the 1950s through to the 1970s, are in black and white. Depicting Melbourne’s street life from that period, these photos, like this warehouse, are a gentle reminder of the city’s previous life. “Our approach is fairly restrained, so this brief tied in with our office’s aesthetic,” adds Pandolfini.

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