Steven Chu from Habitat North Fitzroy

Words: Manuela Millan

We had a great day at Habitat, a recently launched co-working space in Fitzroy North. Habitat provides flexibility and a creative environment for people to come together and work without the need to set up their own office. We talked with Steve Chu of Alter Atlas Architecture about Habitat, community, and the future of the workplace.

It’s designed as a community space, it shifted the spatial design of what would’ve just been another private architecture office, into something a lot more open, accessible, and public.
— Steve Chu

MM: Tell us whats the idea behind Habitat? 

SC:Habitat is a co-working community filled with natural light and plants, located in a former cordial factory with a salmon pink exterior on a leafy residential street in the heart of Fitzroy North. 

The idea of Habitat is about creating a successful community on the scale of a small co-working space. Lessons from this project will then inevitably inform our designs for public spaces in the future.

Habitat started as a social initiative of Alter Atlas to fulfill three goals - for Alter Atlas to be grounded within a truly multi-disciplinary environment and community, to explore an alternative practice model where we can build a safe and stable space to achieve creative independence and economic sustainability, and to build something ourselves, with our own hands, with our own money, no matter how insignificant the amount - walking the walk so to speak. I believe this experience is only going to add to our ability to relate to our clients and approach projects from a position of empathy and understanding.

Because it's designed as a community space, it shifted the spatial design of what would've just been another private architecture office, into something a lot more open, accessible, and public. Even though we could've fit a lot more desks, we limited it to only 16 residents and no hot desks because we wanted to create a stable, secure and supportive environment that feels more like you're working with friends, an environment that facilitated deeper connections between people.


MM: Give us a brief history on Alter Atlas and what is the major creative drive?

SC: We established Alter Atlas after some intensive years working for reputable, high-profile architecture firms in Melbourne, contributing to some incredibly successful buildings that are now part of the local culture. Almost immediately after the company was established, we spent a month trekking and camping up in the Himalayas and helping to improve a primary school in a remote Nepalese village. 

Alter Atlas is driven to practice architecture not as you know it, but to operate in different and better ways. We like to question the profession itself rather than circle around the critique of different built outcomes, which are all valid to us, for better or worse. We like to treat everything as an intellectual exercise. That's how architecture endures. We lean towards the big picture questions surrounding the profession, still respecting the impact of every design detail of course. There is a time and place for every role, although, it's dangerous to linger too long with the choosing of form, colours, materials, and furniture, as charming as they may be. As an architect, there is a duty of care that must extend beyond what's simply in front of our eyes.


MM: How important is the community for you?

SC: Community is everything. Architecture is a craft that must be grounded in its time, place and culture. Community is time, place, and culture. Architecture must be grounded in community. We've designed Alter Atlas's office as a community space. We're definitely not the coolest, most photogenic architecture office. We never tried to be or had the money for it yet anyway. But we're definitely a community space. Community is everything to us. Like architecture, a true community takes time. When we achieve a sense of community, architecture becomes possible.

MM: What is really important for you as an architect when embracing a new project?

SC: Mutual trust and respect between me and my clients. I ask questions that search for a clients' values and character. If they are design savvy or creatively informed, great. But they don't have to be. That's my job. What's important to me is their values, character, that their motivations are right, that they do want to achieve the best possible outcome with their project, not take shortcuts, that they do want architecture. You don't need an architect to get something built. You do need an architect if you want architecture.


MM: Why did you decide to become an architect?

SC:Because of Che Guevara. I grew up travelling a lot. When I was 17, I was travelling throughout Burma, as I did every year. But that year I was reading Che Guevara's biography by Jon Lee Anderson while I was on the road. And realised what I was seeing around me in Burma was very similar to what was happening in Cuba in the 50s. But it's been 50 years, why hasn't Burma improved? Then I entertained the idea of joining a Burmese rebel army, but I would've just been another kid with a gun. What would that change? Eventually, with the combination of art and science and the ability to help those who can't help themselves, I knew architecture was my path. No one in my family supported or understood that path then. But I've been on this path since I was 17. Having the privilege of studying under and being mentored by the late Peter Corrigan only strengthened and sharpened my resolve, passion, and craft.


MM: How important is social media for your business?

SC: Social media has been kind to us in the process of establishing a community in Habitat. It's useful in building an online community that could eventually translate into an offline community, which is more important to us. In terms of Alter Atlas though, the practice of architecture doesn't lend itself to a daily, constant, visual update which social media users are hungry for. Unless you're just posting pictures of beautiful objects and inspirational photos daily to remain visible. Nothing wrong with that. Architecture is slow and contemplative, and can be so deeply personal that it sometimes demands confidentiality. So sometimes a bit of solitude, tranquility, and privacy is required and that is against everything social media stands for. 

MM: Where would we find you on Sunday?

SC: Probably cooking for my family, a bit of gardening, reading, and walking my dog in some natural environment, which we all need more of.

MM:  Where do you get the best coffee in Melbourne? 

SC: I used to get my coffee beans from Seven Seeds when I lived around the corner, but I've recently gotten back into Burmese coffee, which from a sentimental point of view, no award-winning Melbourne coffee can beat.

MM: What is your favorite place in Melbourne?

SC: The National Gallery of Victoria. Beautiful piece of work. Beautiful pieces of work. Beautiful space. Beautiful place.