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Life In Torbreck: Brisbane’s Landmark Modernist Apartment Building

Apartments

Around 1.3 million Australians live in an apartment, and yet it’s rare to hear of a building with a genuinely close knit community of residents. 

When we asked Torbreck apartment owners Mat Williams and Steph Cooper (whose home we featured individually in May) if they knew any neighbours we could also visit for a story, we were delighted to learn of several residents with a shared appreciation of their landmark 1958-1960 building. ‘You’ll be spoilt for choice,’ Steph told us… They weren’t wrong!

We recently spent the day touring the significant mid-century building, including three apartments respectively owned by a group of friends known as the ‘Torbreck lovers.’ Each of the apartments has been sympathetically renovated over time, without detracting from the original vision of Torbreck architects Aubrey Job and Robert Froud.

10th October, 2022

The Torbreck lovers! David Clarke and Nic Freeman; James Lewandowski-Cox and Natalie Lewandowski-Cox; and Mat Williams and Steph Cooper. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

The back garden block entrance to Torbreck. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

The west aspect of Torbreck tower and garden blocks. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Steph Cooper and Mat Williams’ Torbreck apartment, renovated by Kin Architects. Custom timber flooring in the kitchen and dining area crafted by William McMahon Cabinetmaker works to subtly demarcate the open-plan living space. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Steph Cooper and Mat Williams. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

The blue carpet references the 1960s origins of the building. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Brass details have been thoughtfully incorporated in Stpeh and Mat’s apartment across the legs of the island bench, the finger pulls on cabinetry, and a dining room pendant that catches light to reflect both the interior and view. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Mat purchased a smaller Torbreck apartment back in 2009 before recently upgrading to this larger place with Steph. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

The Torbreck tower block entrance. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

The garden block’s outdoor tiling has recently been restored under heritage regulations. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Alvar Aalto A330S Golden Bell Savoy brass pendant light. Retro amber wine glasses from Goomeri Antiques. Ceramic cups by Nic Freeman Ceramics. Smeg kettle. Bowl by Dinosaur Designs. BlueQ screen printed tea towel. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Nic Freeman and David Clarke in their Vokes and Peters renovated apartment. Chrome cantilever Mart Stam S34 Bauhaus armchairs salvaged from a skip by David’s dad. Retro Pyrex coffee pot and vintage coffee set from David’s parent’s wedding. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Dish by Nic Freeman Ceramics. Vase by Brush and Wheel. Alvar Aalto A330S Golden Bell Savoy brass pendant light. Wattle print by Edith Rewa. Top wall art original by Patsy Ross. Bottom framed print is ‘Desert Moon’ by Lee Krasner. Chrome cantilever Mart Stam S34 Bauhaus armchairs salvaged from a skip by David’s dad. Cushion by Gorman. Shelf displays items from Nic and David’s travels including Maltese Mdina glass vases, a Turkish brass tea tray, and Egyptian chess board. Mixed media art on the shelf by Chloe WadellPhotography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Vase by Bridget Bodenham. Sulis ceramic tile by Jai Vasicek. Finger bowl by Alex Naghavi. Antique circa 1890 chair. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Lounge area with views over The University of Queensland in Nic and David’s home. Cushion by Gorman. Outside shelf holds planters by Erin Lightfoot Porcelain and Nic Freeman Ceramics. Original Torbreck laundry basin repurposed as a planter; Artiko Designs credenza. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Torbreck’s kidney-shaped pool is surrounded by palms and grass. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Torbreck provides views across the Brisbane River all the way to the Glass House Mountains and Moreton Island on a clear day. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Natalie Lewandowski-Cox and James Lewandowski-Cox with Frankie the dog in their Studio Wolfe renovated apartment. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

‘This new take on the original bar is one of our favourite features. Our architect Bruce Wolfe also included the hidden liquor cabinet!’ says owners Natalie and James Lewandowski-Cox. Cabinetry by PQI Group. Flooring by Cork Interiors. Kitchen pendant light by Umage. Pineapple artwork by Tanja McMillan. Flower artwork by Hannah Murray. Calendar by Kal Store. Mugs collected from travels and the owner’s favourite local cocktail bar Jungle, in West End. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Paint colour throughout: Dulux Whisper White. Flooring by Cork Interiors. Cabinetry by PQI Group. 1960s brass light pendant by Torsten Orrling and Hans Agne Jakobsson sourced from Found Furniture. Vintage 1960s Parker table and chairs. Dinosaur Designs plate. Iitala blue vase. Marimekko red vase. Artwork by Mel Baxter of Moonshine Madness. Mugs collected from travels and the owners’ favourite local cocktail bar Jungle, in West End. Georg Jensen metal citrus bowl. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

1960s Danish teak sideboard from Found Furniture. Flooring by Cork Interiors. Wavy vase by Romy Listo. Custom reeded glass doors by All Kind Joinery  Artworks by artists and businesses including: Hannah Murray, Jean Ballands, WoodCarving Northshore Hawaii, Rosina Peters of Walkatjara Art, Stuart Carrier, Rob Ryan, Valerie Brumby of Walkatjara Art, World Famous Crochet Museum, Marian Cox, Ryan Presley, and Doreen Shaw. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

1960s Danish teak sideboard from Found Furniture. Paint colour: Dulux Whisper White. Custom reeded glass doors by All Kind Joinery. 1960s Queensland maple armchairs by Vuer Chairs and restored by Found Furniture. 1960s brass light pendant by Torsten Orrling and Hans Agne Jakobsson sourced from Found Furniture. Vintage Bitossi lamp. Samsung The Frame television. Artworks by artists and businesses including: Robyn Killen of Port Stephens Community Art Centre, Selina Kulija of Walkatjara Art, Tjanpi Desert Weavers, Michael Matchitt. Hannah Murray, Jean Ballands, WoodCarving Northshore Hawaii, Rosina Peters of Walkatjara Art, Stuart Carrier, Rob Ryan, Valerie Brumby of Walkatjara Art, World Famous Crochet Museum, Marian Cox, Ryan Presley, and Doreen Shaw. Flooring by Cork Interiors. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Rosa bathroom tiles by Ceramica Vogue. Hooks, rack and holder by Abi Interiors. Towels by Marimekko. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

This second balcony was enclosed by a previous owner and forms a wonderful sunroom for Natalie and James’ growing collection of plants. The blue pre-colour coated metal louvres are distinct feature fixed vertically to protect central balconies in the tower block. Wall shelving by String Furniture. Bench by Mark Tuckey. Carving from the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre. Plants and pots sourced from The Plant Lounge and Mappins Nursery. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

‘After selecting the colours for the two bathrooms, we found out that the original bathroom colours were also pink and blue when demolishing the existing bathroom. This was a lovely moment of serendipity during the renovation!’ say homeowners Natalie and James. Left image: Bed linen by Marimekko. Bed by West Elm. Bedside lights by Soktas. Chair from Bunnings. Table from Ikea. Telegraph pole stool by Five Mile Radius. Blue and white pot by Laura Pascoe. Right image: Tiles by Ceramica Vogue. Bespoke blue sink by Robert Gordon Interiors. Tap by Abi Interiors. Photography – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files. Editorial styling – Annie Portelli

Amelia Barnes
Monday 10th October 2022

‘Some people might see challenges in not having a garage, [having to] share a foyer and not having your own backyard, but we’ve learned to love these parts of apartment living. That’s how we’ve come to know so many neighbours.’ – David Clarke.

News of a Torbreck apartment for sale moves fast among Brisbane’s architecture enthusiasts. 

Prominently located on the crest of Highgate Hill, this multi-residential landmark comprises two modernist-influenced reinforced concrete and brick buildings (the tower and garden blocks) crowned by a glass observation room.

Designed by architects Aubrey Job and Robert Froud in 1957 and constructed from 1958 to 1960, Torbreck is a significant early example of high-rise living in Queensland. A distinct feature of the development are the blue pre-colour coated metal louvres fixed vertically to protect central balconies in the tower block. These adjustable vertical sun ‘fins’ create dynamic random patterns of colour and texture as residents reposition the blades for their individual requirements. 

Friends knew David Clarke and Nic Freeman were hoping to buy a small home close to the city, so they were quickly alerted to a Torbreck apartment for sale in 2016. ‘We received two separate messages about the sale from close friends (an architect and a designer) on the same day, knowing it looked perfect for us and was in our neighbourhood,’ says David. 

The apartment in question had recently undergone a comprehensive makeover designed by the vendor, architect Aaron Peters of Vokes and Peters. ‘We loved everything about the renovation they did, especially the nods to modernism and all the timber and details in the bespoke cabinetry,’ says Nic. 

So taken with Aaron Peters’ vision, David and Nic have made a conscious effort not to alter the apartment since taking ownership. David says, ‘We spent ages sweating the decision to put a ceiling fan in the bedroom, trying to keep the clean lines but also survive the balmy Brisbane summers!’

Many of the other Torbreck residences remain in the original owners’ hands, or in some instances have been scooped up by existing residents seeking a slightly larger place! 

Natalie and James Lewandowski-Cox first spotted the building on a work trip before moving to Brisbane, and it had stuck in their minds ever since. ‘We kept thinking, “What’s that building with the air traffic control tower on top of it?!” James says. They eventually purchased their first apartment in 2015, before recently relocating to a larger residence after a major renovation. 

Working with architect Bruce Wolfe of Studio Wolfe and a team of stellar trades including NuTide Constructions, Natalie and James turned the home from a concrete shell into a bespoke project in just three months. The result is a more light-filled, spacious, and warm home, yet so in keeping with the building’s bones that one could easily assume the timber kitchen bench is an original feature.  

Mat Williams also purchased a smaller Torbreck apartment back in 2009 before upgrading to a larger place with wife Steph Cooper. Their apartment had been heavily renovated in the ‘90s, so they engaged Kin Architects to reinstate its modernist sensibilities including a ‘Jetsons-inspired kitchen.’

The communal areas of Torbreck seemingly remain as they were in 1960, complete with timber panelling and framed sketches of the original building concepts and plans that hang in the foyer.

‘Every floor in the building has a different colour for the hallway lino, but we all have some common features, like letterboxes and garbage shoots on each floor, and hall access milk cupboards that were originally intended for food deliveries to each apartment,’ says David Clarke.

It’s these communal spaces that have fostered the strong sense of community at Torbreck. David, Nic, Natalie, James, Mat and Steph (self-described as the ‘Torbreck lovers’) have all become friends as a result of living in the building, often coming together to watch the sunset, enjoy a glass of wine, or dance. There’s also a Torbreck gardening group and book club, in addition to neighbourly cake swaps, barbecues, and pool hangs.

‘Some people might see challenges in not having a garage, [having to] share a foyer and not having your own backyard, but we’ve learned to love these parts of apartment living,’ says David. ‘That’s how we’ve come to know so many neighbours.’

These owner-occupiers all feel proud to own a slice of Brisbane architectural history that provides views across the Brisbane River all the way to the Glass House Mountains and Moreton Island on a clear day.  

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net