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Melbourne then & now

The best picture-book I have bought all year is Melbourne, Then and Now by Heather Chapman and Judith Stillman. This is a set of photographs of Melbourne as it was in the horse-and-buggy era and of the same scenes photographed today. A deficiency – the old pictures are not dated – you only know from appended descriptions that the ‘then’ shot was taken quite a while ago.

Some of Melbourne’s architecture has improved with time, some has got worse and a surprisingly large amount is pretty much the same. An obvious question is why we could generally manage to produce such beautifully elegant buildings in 1850 but so many objects of ugliness today. It is not just pursuit of functionality – some modern architects should be cooked down into decorticated canine preparations for their foolishness – their attempts to be ‘contemporary’ leave us too often with Federation Square-type ugliness.

Many beautiful buildings of Melbourne have stood the test of time. It’s a great city to live in and a book like this one forces you to look twice at attractive features of the city you come to take for granted. Certainly the majestic and beautiful Flinders St Station is an instance of this – most train trips into the city end up here. Across the street from it St Paul’s Cathedral is another instance of great architecture – it is currently being renovated. On another corner is the much loved Young and Jackson’s pub with its beautiful Chloe painting. The final corner features – yes – that dog’s breakfast of design, Federation Square – Melbourne’s so-called ‘landmark attraction’!

An outstanding building not far down Flinders Street is the former Customs House – this took 20 years to build after 1850. It is now almost unchanged as the Immigration Museum – one of my favorite Melbourne landmarks. Or the Old Treasury Building which is almost as it was in 1862. Or the Victorian State Parliament – completed in 1882 – it still stands today as an expression of the wealth and optimism of the early Victorian colony – it still has a dungeon used as a cleaner’s tea room!

Despite its presumed functionality the more recent architecture of Melbourne has a lack of elegance that cannot be denied. The AXA Building displaced the magnificent old Western Market Building built in 1841 only 6 years after Melbourne’s settlement. This demolition was presumably inevitable ‘progress’ but it is unattractive. One of Melbourne’s finest old buildings, the Federal Coffee Palace, a ‘temperance hotel’ built in the 1880s, was demolished in 1973 to make way for an anonymous government building. You can get an idea of the attractiveness of these old ‘temperance’ hotels by looking at the modern Windsor Hotel (formerly the Grand and completed in 1888). The Windsor is my favorite hotel in Melbourne – a great place to have a coffee although I have never managed to stay there.

What parts of Melbourne have obviously improved with time? Well definitely the Chinese restaurant area in Little Bourke Street (this hyperlink is interesting!) which didn’t amount to much in the 1850s. The facades on some of the buildings in this street remain the same as in much earlier times though you do have to look hard. The Melbourne Public Library that was completed in 1854 – with its huge domed La Trobe Reading Room that was added in 1913 – looks improved as the trees around it have grown and it has become the State Library of Victoria. Cook’s Cottage, built in 1755 in Yorkshire, and reconstructed in Australia in 1934 in the Fitzroy Gardens, looks better than ever. And St Patrick’s Cathedral which began construction in 1858, and which had spires and so on added to it for 90 years, looks as good as it ever did –a significant cathedral by world standards. Some buildings like the Princess Theatre which opened in 1886 and which was tastelessly renovated in the 1920s have been restored to its former glory in recent years.

There are a dozen more interesting comparisons in this marvelous study but the one I want to single out is Lygon Street Carlton that still has the much of look today that it had in 1900. It was then home to artisans, workmen and small industry and now has the biggest selection of Italian restaurants and cafés in Australia.

The Chapman-Stillman book reminds me of how lucky I am to live in a beautiful, historic city. I’d be interested in looking at a similar type of photographic study of Sydney if one exists.

8 comments to Melbourne then & now

  • taust

    It was convenient for Melbourne that it did not experience a boom between the Victorian goldrush and 1980s.

    Adelaide faired even better. Arguably it has not experienced a serious boom since the Burra et al copper discoveries.

    Perth shows the other end of the scale it did not experience a boom until 1980 and with up and downs has been in boom times ever since.

    I leave the national capital to someone who can sum up a fantasy city surrounded by reality adequately.

  • lucy tartan

    A few more?

    Royal Arcade and the Block Arcade, Victoria Market, Trades Hall and Horti Hall, and they’re not nineteenth century buildings, but the Forum and the Capitol.

    I love Melbourne. I don’t hate Federation Square all that much, not the outside, anyway.

  • russ

    Harry, be careful judging architectural eras by what remains to be seen of them. It is relatively rare, albeit not always rare enough, that someone knocks down a good building to replace it with a bad one. The opposite is not true, nor are bad buildings left unimproved over many years. In a book like this you’ll tend to see the best examples of previous eras, whereas walking the streets you see the good and the downright awful.

    For what its worth I quite like — or at least enjoy photographing — the Melbourne Museum, 101 Collins, the Rialto Towers, Melbourne Central, Casselden Place, the Arts Centre and Gallery and particularly the dome roofed 333 Collins. Storey Hall too, although that took a while.

  • hc

    Lucy, Many of the places you mention are also featured in this study. Yes the Trades Hall Building a great design And Vic Market has sections very unchanged in yonks. I’ll look again at the places you mention. (BTW this book at LTU bookshop – a great Xmas present!)

    Russ, Of course you are right. You only see the survivor buildings and that is a biased sample which is further biased by the selection process itself for a book like this.

    But still walking down Collins St from you do see the good and the bad alongside each other. The older architectural styles seem easier on the eye to me. They have elegance and a sense of style. Many of the more modern stuff looks cheap even if functional.

    I like Rialto but not the Arts Centre and definitely not Federation Square. When I am next in the city I’ll look again at all the places you mention.

  • James Dudek

    Federation Square is so aweful, what a waste of potential. So is the RMIT building. Many, many of the Melbourne Uni buildings are horrific reminders of the 1950s and 60s concrete architecture.

  • Morteza Mirgholami

    Hi,
    I have bought this book recently and it’s quite informative for me as an international student. It was also interesting to see someone from economic background being interested in environmental issues. I was reading a book by Robert Nosick that you may know him, Anarchy, State, And Utopia and it was difficult for me to understand how environmental or collective issues can be ifnored in favour of what Nosick calls “personal freedom”. Is he still popular?

  • hc

    He is an extreme libertarian. I just think he is wrong – there are environmental externalities everywhere that cannot be resolved by individual contracting.

  • […] few hundred metres from the Federation Square monstrosity.  This is directly opposite it. Here is an earlier post I made on Melbourne that is more positive. April 3rd, 2012 | Category: […]