Melbourne Art Deco & Modernism
By Robin Grow
The city of Melbourne sits at the bottom of the continent of Australia. For lovers of Art Deco architecture, it’s worth the long trip, as Melbourne is one of the world’s great Art Deco cities.
Founded in 1834, the new city struggled as a British colonial outpost until gold was discovered nearby in the 1850s. Within a few years, over half a million people poured into the booming city, mainly from the United Kingdom. Another boom followed in the 1880s, then a major bust in the 1890s. After the Great War (World War I) and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the city slowly recovered and struggled through the 1920s and depressed early 1930s. But things were starting to change, and the centenary in 1934 saw the influx of large amounts of capital. Form follows finance and the low-level and dull city began to be transformed—in the Art Deco style. (It wasn’t called this; the style was described as “Continental” or simply “the latest.”)
The 1930s saw Melbourne develop many new, exciting, and colorful examples of existing building types together with new building types, particularly associated with changes in society and technology, such as the motor trade, aviation, radio, and
Koala clings to Australian Natives Association Building
Photo: David Thompson
Hollywood movies. Improved building techniques, plus new technology in equipment such as elevators, reduced the costs and time of construction. Many new buildings were designed using steel reinforced concrete and cement rendering, while the use of new materials such as terra cotta facing, terrazzo flooring, black vitrolite glass and the use of white metals (chrome, aluminium and stainless steel) provided colorful and exciting finishes on buildings, many featuring simplified and stylish lettering of names of buildings and stores. Young architects, influenced by trends in Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, began to break free within a conservative profession and produced some wonderful buildings.
However, there were no skyscrapers to be seen, as the City Council imposed a height limit of 132 feet, which was not overturned until the late 1950s. But while many buildings were relatively squat, it meant that the roofline (where many of the best design features are located) could be easily seen from the street.
(Fig. 2) Century Building, 1939. Photo: David Thompson
Many of Melbourne’s Art Deco buildings remain and are grouped closely together. So what can you see in a two-hour walk around the city center?
My personal favorite is the 1937 Alkira House, which was designed by James Hastie Wardrop. Tucked away at the bottom of Queen Street, it has been described by a leading architectural academic as “urban jewelry.” The reinforced concrete building rises only six stories but packs an enormous amount of style and color into its exterior, combining finishes of black, grey and green terra cotta with a central section of stepped fins, resembling a waterfall.
(Fig. 1) Myer Department Store, at time of Opening, 1934
Photo: ADMSA archives
The Myer department store (fig. 1) is a perennial favorite and anchors a retail precinct on Bourke Street. The entrepreneur Sid Myer, a Russian immigrant, often visited the United States to study department store trends as he gradually built a retail empire. His showpiece was completed in 1934 and, like many other buildings from the era, features a central tower. It also includes the Mural Hall, used as a restaurant and for many shows and events. The major feature of Myer is the exterior—cement render finished in dazzling white SnoCrete.
The Manchester Unity Building sits on one of Melbourne’s most prominent corners in Swanston Street, opposite the Town Hall. Completed in 1932, its style can best be described as “Commercial Gothic,” reputedly informed by the Chicago Tribune building. Many of its finishes would characterize Art Deco buildings in the next few years—marble, curved window design, zigzag motifs, rich wood panelling in the elevator cars, fan-shaped tiling on the floor of the foyer, and butter-colored terra cotta tiling on the exterior.
At the other end of the block sits the Century Building (fig. 2). Designed by Marcus Barlow, the architect of Manchester Unity, the layout is similar. But what a difference a few years could make in the world of design! Completed in 1939 and finished in white terra cotta, the building has little in the way of adornment. The elevator lobby on each floor features exquisite blond wood, and the building originally included a newsreel cinema in the basement.
The headquarters of the Murdoch newspaper empire were located on Collins Street. A former nineteenth-century warehouse was remodeled in the Art Deco style in 1932. The Newspaper House is a six-story building of modest design but has two major external features—a neon sign, unique because it is built into the stone façade of the building, and a tiled mural at the level of the first floor, entitled “I’ll Put a Girdle Around About the Earth.” It depicts the role of newspapers and radio to spread the news from the worlds of education, manufacturing and farming by means of rapid transport—cars, trains, ships, and there’s even a zeppelin tucked away! Unlike the United States, with its rich history of tiled murals on buildings, Melbourne had very few and this is the most highly prized.
Yule House (fig. 3) is a modestly sized, five-floor building that encapsulates many of the features of Art Deco styling, color, adornment and materials in its elegant design. The exterior of the reinforced concrete building is simple and the asymmetrical design gives it the appearance of clinging to the building next door. A series of fins wraps up and over the parapet. The façade of the narrow building features large glass windows to allow maximum sunlight to the workrooms above the ground floor shops (electricity was expensive in 1932) and the plain cement render finish is punctuated with speed lines, which Australians call “speed whiskers.” It demonstrates the transition to sans-serif typography as shown in the building name, an elegant composition of flat plate-metal lettering.
Department stores boomed in early twentieth-century Melbourne. In 1933, a new four-story Buckley & Nunn department store (fig. 4) was constructed to be used exclusively menswear. Buckley’s was locked in intense competition with the nearby Myer store. While Myer was finished in dazzling white, the award-winning Buckley’s building was finished in glamorous and glossy black terra cotta tiling surrounding three levels of steel-framed windows, with sunburst motifs and Staybrite steel chevrons. If you look up, you will see a series of three colorful terra cotta friezes depicting the garments available for sale, such as walking outfits, golf ensembles and the tuxedo, worn by a formally dressed man at a party drinking a pink cocktail.
Located on a prominent corner, the stylish Mitchell House (fig. 5) displays the rounded corners associated with the Streamline Moderne style and effectively combines both vertical and horizontal elements. The six-story reinforced concrete building (1936) replaced a derelict hotel with a cement-rendered classic, originally finished in white. One of my favorite views in Melbourne is to stand across the street and admire the large stylized gold lettering of the building name at the roofline, the columnless curved corners, stylized metal gates and lettering over the entrance, and the motif of ”The Victor” on the façade, which refers to the best-selling brush from the range sold by Mitchell Brush company. Entering the building takes you past distinctive shadowed lettering and over colorful terrazzo, incorporating the letters MH, and the elevator foyer shows off the original, highly polished tenants’ directory.
Insurance companies were responsible for the construction of many of Melbourne’s Art Deco buildings. The ACA (Australian Catholic Association) building (c. 1936) on Queen Street features a wonderfully symmetrical façade, dominated by a series of fins that terminates in stepped forms. But the most distinctive feature is the cladding material, a synthetic stone, called Benedict Stone, that could be produced in a range of colors, and is seen here in dusky pink, (an unusual choice for a conservative organization). It also includes a variety of decorative touches, such as metal lettering, fins that sweep back over the parapet, chevrons and a stepped central tower.
The Commonwealth Bank of Australia expanded rapidly in the 1930s and constructed a series of stylish branch buildings across Melbourne’s suburbs. Its imposing eleven-story head office, on Bourke Street, was completed just before World War II and demonstrates a vertical expression of a modernist aesthetic, finished with polished granite and sandstone from regional Victoria. The façade has little adornment—just a series of three slit windows and a flagpole—and was derided by many as excessively austere. However, it was designed in this way to reassure depositors and businesses that their money was safe in this fortress, a major concern after the Great Depression.
Melbourne was a major center for the moviegoing public. Early cinemas were elaborately decorated designs—except for the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street (fig. 6, 7). This early (1922–24) modernist design was the work of two Americans, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, who had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright before successfully entering the 1911 competition to design the new Australian city, Canberra, and relocating to Australia in 1915. Their exquisite cinema design is contained within the twelve-story Capitol Building, which combined shops, offices, and the cinema. Movie fans love the interior, where the walls and ceiling are covered with cement protuberances, giving the impression of a crystal cave, with thousands of concealed colored lights. The dramatic ceiling was made possible by massive reinforced concrete portals, which also meant that there were no internal columns. It was also the first building in Melbourne to feature a cantilevered street canopy, with its light globes and skylights. Regrettably, it no longer shows films and is now used as a university lecture hall.
Given the straitened circumstances of the Victoria government during World War II, it was remarkable that a large sum was found for a new police headquarters on Russell Street, which opened in 1941 (fig. 8).
The thirteen-story building was constructed of reinforced concrete and
(Fig. 3) Yule House, 1932.
Photo: Brian Scott
(Fig. 5) Mitchell House, 1936. Photo: Robin Grow
(Fig. 4) Frieze on Buckley's Men's Store, 1933. Photo: ADMSA archives
(Fig. 6) Exterior, Capitol Theatre, 1922
Photo: Christopher Biggs and
(Fig. 7) Interior, Capitol Theatre, 1922
Photo: Colin Rose and Sandra Cohen-Rose
finished in cream brick. It features a stepped roofline, and its style is often described as reminiscent of New York skyscrapers. Topped with a massive steel-framed communications tower (Melbourne had one of the first radio-controlled police forces in the world), it was complete with new facilities to allow the police to use technology in the fight against crime. But buildings get tired, and in 1976, the police force relocated. Twenty years later it was successfully converted to apartments, some of which are short-stay rentals. Fortunately, the radio tower was restored as part of the redevelopment.
Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, the sprawl continued, generally aligned to tram and train transport routes until the 1950s. The Art Deco aesthetic was used extensively on structures for commercial purposes, manufacturing, entertainment, motor industry, civic buildings, places of worship, medical purposes and, most importantly, small local hotels, referred to as pubs.
Most people in Melbourne preferred the domesticity of the suburbs, occupying fully self-contained houses. Many were designed in Deco style, particularly in the more affluent eastern suburbs and in large, architect-designed houses in the nearby Dandenong Ranges. In addition, this was the era when apartment living became popular, particularly in suburbs near the sea, such as Elwood and St. Kilda, a short tram ride from the city center. Many blocks of apartments with outstanding and innovative Deco designs were constructed, generally three-story walk-ups to avoid the cost of installing elevators. Many of these blocks remain today and are highly prized on the real estate market.
Many of Melbourne’s Art Deco gems survive, thanks largely to the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia and other heritage warriors. So if you are in the neighborhood, get in touch and we’ll take you for a fun walk! We love to meet new friends from the USA. Why don’t you come on down!
(Fig. 8) Russell Street Police Headquarters, 1941. Photo: Brian Scott
About the Author:
Robin Grow is the longtime President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society of Australia (ADMSA) and author of the award-winning Melbourne Art Deco (2009). He has researched and written extensively on the interwar era and has presented papers at local, national and international conferences. He is active in the preservation of interwar buildings around Australia, and a number of the buildings in this article have been landmarked as a result of efforts of ADMSA. He is heavily involved in ICADS and currently holds the role of Vice-President with responsibility for preservation activities.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Spring 2017. View a digital version of the full journal here.