The iconic, heritage-listed Nicholas Building – built on the corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Lane in 1926 – is a towering beacon of Melbourne’s arts and culture scene.
Above the art deco Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor – and its dramatic leadlight ceiling – are more than 100 studios occupied by artists, designers and makers that run the gamut of Melbourne’s creative community. That means architects and archaeologists, milliners and jewellers, writers and filmmakers, and more. They’re joined by small businesses such as galleries, bookstores, boutiques and tattoo parlours.
But now the landmark is up for sale. And its tenants have banded together to drum up financial support to ensure it remains the dynamic, affordable hub it’s been for decades. And to ensure, just as importantly, that the longstanding community remains intact.
Leading the charge is the Nicholas Building Association, which was established in 2017 to help protect the cultural significance of the building – and the livelihoods of the artists who innovate inside it. While appealing to local government, philanthropists and private investors, it’s currently mounting a business case – aided by funding from the City of Melbourne – to participate in a bid to buy the Nicholas.
“[We’re] campaigning to ensure that whoever buys the building buys it with us – that they, too, recognise the value of Melbourne’s most unique and diverse creative business community,” Dario Vacirca, Nicholas Building Association member and artist, said in a statement.
According to Andrew Milward-Bason – another association member and director of architecture practice Urban Creative Studio – the worst-case scenario is that the building is converted into apartments or a hotel. That would result in its residents, already hit hard by lockdowns and their aftershocks, being displaced and dispersed across the city.
While the obvious, immediate result would be a loss of day-to-day collaboration, “The story … goes beyond the walls of the building,” Milward-Bason tells Broadsheet.
“This vertical creative precinct has an intensity to it,” he continues. “And we can produce things for the good of the entire city because of that. There is nothing like this intensity anywhere I can think of in Melbourne – or even in Australia.”
Not to mention the momentum drop-off for such an intergenerational, interdisciplinary space. “It’s got 30 years of inertia behind it,” Milward-Bason says. “You can’t become all the things we are in a day, you need to build that incrementally and organically.”
For Milward-Bason, an ideal outcome looks like this: a rent-controlled, creative-led social enterprise that’s made sustainable via events and exhibition spaces that can be hired out, and an on-site bar that can recycle revenue back into the project. He also foresees an annual events program, similar to the popular A Night at the Nicholas, that could involve collaborations with other organisations.
So, what can you do to keep the Nicholas on the up and up? Sign the petition as a show of community support for its future, or – if you’re in a position to – donate to the association’s campaign to help make sure the building remains in its hands.
“Our city is on its knees coming out of Covid, and it’s trying to get on its feet,” Milward-Bason says. This is one way to ensure an essential piece of it stays intact.