Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal

20-30 Bourke Street as observed from the steps of Parliament. © Bates Smart
Laurence DragomirOctober 23, 20140 min read

Blink and you'll miss the most recent iteration - in a long procession of design proposals - for the Palace Theatre site at 20-30 Bourke Street. The current proposal is the response to the introduction of mandatory height limits to preserve the low-rise, finer grain scale of the Bourke Hill Precinct.

Gone is the W Hotel brand, replaced with a 7-storey (4-storey podium + 3-storey hotel), 23m building consisting of 7,195sqm of boutique hotel space including 78 rooms ranging in size from 35-53sqm with a typical hotel floor consisting of 14 standard rooms. Additionally, a number of supporting hotel programme and amenities are proposed in the form of a signature bar, restaurant and function facilities contained within the podium and a swimming pool in the basement. It is proposed that these would be accessible to both hotel guests and the public.

The proposal also seeks to retain the fifth bay of the adjoining building at 32-38 Bourke Street to the west, which was demolished in earlier schemes to allow for the provision of vehicular access to the porte cochère.

Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal
Retained fifth bay of 32-38 Bourke Street. © Bates Smart

Where previously earlier proposals redefined the skyline and streetscape of the Bourke Hill Precinct, the latest design becomes lost amongst the taller masses rising behind, maintaining a scale on par with buildings in the immediate context and adhering to the new height requirements. As this before and after comparison illustrates, the current proposal barely makes a visual impact on the view from the steps of Parliament House.

Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal
Spot the difference! Before and After. © Bates Smart

While the original ambitions may have been dented by the introduction of mandatory height limits, the aspirations of the design team in terms of creating a generator for renewal within the Bourke Hill Precinct appears to have remained largely intact.

The project site can become a new activity hub for the area and play a truly significant role in the growth of the area. It will bring this part of the city to life in a sensitive and interesting Melbourne way.

There is great diversity in the establishments surrounding the site. The classic and the 'cool' are juxtaposed together in unexpected and interesting ways. The laneways are part of the experience of discovering this exciting and authentic side of Melbourne.

There is great potential in the development of the ground plane around the site. High end new development will generate spontaneous renewal of many small shops, cafes and open spaces.

A new sensitive, respectful but none the less exciting new built frontage will revitalise Bourke Street. The podium would be in keeping with adjoining buildings. The potential to create a roof terrace on top of podium will add further interest and life to this tired part of the city.

Bates Smart

The most obvious implication of the proposal is the demolition of the existing Palace Theatre to make way for the new build. The City of Melbourne have previously indicated (in submissions to DTPLI and the applicants) they would support demolition of the existing structure if the replacement building was architecturally high-quality. The argument being the original building's architecture has been compromised over time due to various works undertaken last century.

... the site has a long history of many discrete cultural activities including theatrical and performance related uses, a hotel and accommodation, a cinema, and church services, variously dating back to the commencement of the 'Douglas Theatre' in 1860. Since this time the built fabric on the site has been adapted and remodelled on numerous occasions, including several comprehensive refurbishments and adaptations. This context is contributory to the building's low local heritage grading of 'D', which has not been afforded a 'site specific' heritage overlay control.

Urbis Town Planning Report

A timeline of past uses indicating alterations and renovations is included as part of the town planning submission:

Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal
Apollo Hotel. Circa 1944. © Lovell Chen
  • 1911: National Theatre/Pastoral Hotel.
  • 1916: Henry White alterations.
  • 1920: Alterations to dressing room block.
  • 1923: Henry White renovation (dress circle foyer space).
  • 1940: Apollo Theatre renovations.
  • 1952: St James Theatre renovations to present day facade.
  • 1954: Metro Theatre alterations.
  • 1955: Metro Theatre renovations.
  • 1964: Minor works to ticket window.
  • 1970: Live theatre including musical Hair.
  • 1974: Palace Theatre showing films.
  • 1980: The Revival Centre owned the theatre.
  • 1987: Becomes the Metro nightclub.
  • 2007: Renovated into current Palace Theatre.

Project details

  • Podium height: 14 metres.
  • Overall height: 23 metres
  • Previous heights of applications: 100, 70 and 50 metres.
  • Number of rooms: 78.
  • Setbacks: 24 metres from Bourke above podium level, 1.5 metres from the rear.
  • Car parking: 46 spaces.
  • Bicycle parking: 15 spaces.


As the render below illustrates, the 'tower' element of earlier schemes is no longer the dominant element to the pedestrian viewing the site from the south (along Bourke Street), thus becoming the most critical aspect of the proposal. Bates Smart have indicated a study was undertaken of the surrounding buildings which make up the streetscape, the results of which influenced and informed the articulation of the podium facade.

A rhythm of vertical elements supplemented by an extrapolation of the proportions of the bay windows was employed, keeping not only the scale of the streetscape consistent in terms of massing, but also in relation to the facades. References are made to the multi-level stores of the high end fashion brands, with a number of precedents included in the planning documents as a quality that the architecture is aiming for.

Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal
Is it a podium or can it be something more? © Bates Smart

The point to be argued then, does the design do enough architecturally? Is it exemplary? Is it of a quality that warrants the demolition of the existing Palace Theatre?

I'm of the opinion that once mandatory height controls were introduced, rather than continuing down the path of chopping at the proposal comply yet again, the best course of action would have been to start again with podium architecture taking precedence over the design of the setback volume accommodating the hotel guest rooms. The tower and podium typology can largely be ignored, as proportionally the podium is actually taller than what you would normally classify as the 'tower'.

Ignoring for a moment the requirements and constraints of the planning scheme on the site and focusing on the architecture in isolation, I believe the 100 metre version was the most successful architecturally, particularly when it comes to proportions of massing and articulation of 'tower' facade; an unordered rhythm is developed that can't be achieved across only three floors. It is probably a classic example of the right design for the wrong site.

Blink and you'll miss it > The revised Palace Theatre proposal
W Hotel - Proposal No.1 © Bates Smart

It will be interesting to see what ultimately becomes of the site. Will the team be sent back to the drawing board once more? Or will it be a case of fifth time lucky?

Project team

  • Architecture: Bates Smart.
  • Project Management: Sinclair Brook.
  • Town planning: Urbis.
  • Heritage: Lovell Chen.
  • Environmentally Sustainable Design: NDY.
  • Traffic engineering: Traffix Group.
  • Waste management: Leigh Design.

Laurence Dragomir

Laurence Dragomir is one of the co-founders of Urban Melbourne. Laurence has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience working in both the private and public sector specialising in architecture, urban design and planning. He also has a keen interest in the built environment, cities and Star Wars.
Bates Smart
Palace Theatre
Planning applications
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