Sunday, 11 May 2014

Australian Art Deco - Melbourne City Centre

Melbourne's city centre, known as the CBD (central business district), is busy, bustling but relatively small. It is home to some world class galleries, museums, theatres and music venues. It is also home to a large number of well maintained, visually striking art deco and modernist buildings. The compact nature of the centre makes it possible to see several of them in one day.  In this post, I will explore some of my personal favourites, but there are many more to enjoy.

Bourke Street has many art deco buildings. Its one of those streets where you need to look up to see  the most interesting things as in some cases ground floors can appear fairly non descript due to their current use whilst the original features are still visible further up. One of the most striking is the former Norman's department store remodelled in 1935 to designs by Marcus Barlow. Outstanding for its decorative roofline and pink facade, it is now home to a branch of fast food chain Hungry Jacks but still retains an air of grandeur, guarding a prominent corner spot. Barlow was a bit of a trail blazer being the first to incorporate an escalator and air conditioning in his buildings. He also had a social conscience and was appointed to the Housing Investigation and Slum Abolition Board in 1936. His work is prominent in the city centre as he was also the architect for the landmark Century and Manchester Unity buildings.

Norman's Department Store, Bourke Street. Remodelled 1935, Marcus Barlow.
Yule House is tucked away in Little Collins Street behind the Royal Arcade, which is itself well worth a look and has a great coffee and cake stop at Caffe e Torta, an old style Italian cafe with great patisserie, snacks and atmosphere. The original building on the site was destroyed by fire in 1931 and the current Yule House, complete with fire proofing, was completed in 1932 to a design produced by Melbourne architects Oakley and Parkes who were also responsible for Kodak House in Collins Street. The House takes its name from one William Yule who owned the land from the early 1900's onwards. 

The building was one of Melbourne's earliest to exhibit streamline moderne features. The facade is covered in terracotta faience tiles with thin recessed strips of green tile defining the five floor levels. Large steel framed windows running the width of the building at each level maximise the light in this dark street and there is an asymmetrical parapet on the roof. Both the building's name and the year of its completion are displayed prominently on the facade in extremely elegant sans-serif typeface. Today there is retail space on the ground floor with offices above. Yule House was added to the Victorian State Heritage Register in 2010 at the suggestion of the Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society. It is a difficult building to photograph due to the very narrow street and the almost constant shadows. However, there is an upside to this, as the many detailed features are interesting to focus on. For fans of Dame Edna Everage, the alley to the side of Yule House has been named Dame Edna Place!

Yule House, Little Collins Street, 1932, Oakley and Parkes.
Yule House, Little Collins Street, 1932, Oakley and Parkes.
Alkira House in Queen Street was built in 1937 and was designed by James Wardrop. It was commissioned by soldier, lawyer, politician and businessman Harry Cohen and his mother Annie. Born in St. Kilda, Cohen was the first Jewish boy to attend St. Xavier's College, going on to be wounded twice during the First World War and to develop a successful business career before being elected to Parliament in 1929, representing Melbourne South. He twice served in a ministerial capacity before narrowly losing his seat in 1943.

But back to Alkira House. Despite being obscured by an extremely large tree (and therefore difficult to photograph), this is one of Melbourne's most attractive buildings from the 1930's. The facade features grey, green and black terracotta faience tiles as well as an imposing panel of glass bricks covering the stairway. It displays influences from the Netherlands and Germany where experimentation with glass, vitrolite and terracotta was taking place at the time the House was built. Despite the presence of the tree, Alkira House is an extremely flamboyant building with its contrasting colours, stylish lettering, a curved canopy above the ground floor and fins rolling back over the parapet. The facade carries a plaque noting the historical significance of the building and its inclusion on the State Heritage Register.

Alkira House, Queen Street. 1937, James Wardrop
Alkira House, Queen Street. 1937, James Wardrop
I love Mitchell House. Dominating the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets, I can't resist those columnless curves at the corners, crisp white exterior and the gold lettering at the roofline, announcing the name of this glorious building. Designed by Harry Norris and built in 1936 as an office block it still has a commercial function with a number of small businesses based on the upper floors and retail on the ground floor.

The side entrance at 358 Lonsdale Street also carries stylish lettering, and is clad in green tiles. When the main door is open its possible to see the green and orange terrazzo floor in the lobby and even to pass through the automatic doors and see the original lift entrances. Norris was also responsible for the former Coles department store - now David Jones - in Bourke Street. I understand that at one time there was a plan to demolish this treasure but fortunately this seems to have been dropped. Phew.

Mitchell House, Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets. 1936, Harry Norris.
Entrance, Mitchell House, Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets. 1936, Harry Norris
Some of the city centre's buildings are particularly interesting for their details. The exquisite mosaic mural on the facade of Newspaper House in Collins Street is perhaps the best example of this. Designed by Napier Waller for the Stephenson and Meldrum designed building in 1933, it bears the legend "I'll put a girdle around the earth". Located at first floor level and reading from left to right, it displays technological advance. Divided by two windows, the mural has retained its vibrant colours - golds, reds and greens - and continues to draw admiration from passers-by more than 80 years after its inception. When pointing my camera upwards from the road I aroused the interest of a small group of shoppers who also stopped to look at Waller's work. The building was originally home to the Herald and Weekly Times newspaper. One Theodore Fink, a director of the newspaper suggested the theme and title of the mural.

The Australian Natives Association building, in Elizabeth Street, was completed in 1939 also has an interesting decorative facade. The central panel includes four green tiled columns and images of native Australian fauna - a kangaroo and an emu. The Association was formed in Melbourne in 1871to promote national awareness. Over several decades the Association campaigned on a number of issues including women's suffrage, minimum wage, Aboriginal welfare and soil and water conservation.

Mural, Newspaper House, Collins Street. 1933, Napier Waller.
Detail, Australian Natives Association building, Elizabeth Street. 1939, Marsh and Michaelson.
The Manchester Unity building at 220-226 Collins Street has been a Melbourne landmark since it was built in 1932. It was commissioned by the unusually named Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a charity and friendly society as their new headquarters. Marcus Barlow who we met earlier was commissioned to design the building and took inspiration, in part, from the Chicago Tribune building of 1927.

Built in record time - less than one year and 50,000 pounds within budget at a total cost of 600,000 pounds it is an example of speed and efficiency rarely seen today. Fire proofed and constructed from concrete and steel, the building benefitted from ultra modern technology included lifts, an air humidifier and air cooling in the warm weather managed by a huge basement level water tank and several tons of ice. It also had its own generator able to power the building should the electricity supply fail. 40 tons of mother of pearly coloured glazed terracotta were used in construction as well as more than 40,000 panes of glass. 

There were 23 shops and 7 kiosks on the ground floor and a cafe and tearoom in the basement. Businesses that have made their home in the building over the years include florists, dance teachers, dressmakers, jewellers, watchmakers, furriers, milliners and medical practitioners of all types, as well as more exotic professions including private detectives and a banjo school. There are many decorative features, especially at ground floor level where a series of designs showing aspects of Australian life are sand blasted on to black marble panels and freezes. A number of stories, rumours and scandals have been attached to the Manchester Unity building over the years including tales of flashers, conmen and occasional suicides whilst in 1978 three jewellers were murdered on the eight floor during what appeared to be a gangland diamond robbery.

In 2005 an extensive condition survey was commissioned by the Committee of Management of the Owners Corporation and a great deal of restoration has taken place since then. The Manchester Unity continues to be a busy landmark building and a symbol of the city.


Manchester Unity Building, Collins Street. 1932, Marcus Barlow.
Detail, Manchester Unity Building, Collins Street. 1932, Marcus Barlow.
Ground floor lift entrance, Manchester Unity Building, Collins Street. 1932, Marcus Barlow.
You might also like Australian Art Deco - treasures in Melbourne's suburbs and Australian Art Deco - Glenelg and Port Adelaide. For more pictures of Melbourne's art deco buildings click here.

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