‘Invading suburbs that have for years been the pride of peaceful home lovers’, … Art deco apartment blocks on Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach in Sydney.Photo: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
Almost a hundred years ago, Sydney was in great danger from ‘the ravages of barbarians’ – or so the newspaper reports would have you believe.
The perceived danger reflects the current debate over population density, as Australia’s capital cities struggle to reconcile competing demands for affordable housing and heritage conservation.
“Flats are poking their heads at some of those [Sydney’s] most noble of headlands,” reported Brisbane’s Courier in 1929. “They are suburbs that for years have been the pride of peaceful home lovers, where the merry laughter of children echoed through the streets.”
That year, Woollahra council proposed banning the construction of flats in the suburb of Vaucluse. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, famed war historian Charles Bean warned that the expansion of ‘mushroom flats’ in the area was a ‘danger to our future citizens’, forcing children to play in the streets and posing a risk to national security . welfare.
Now those same areas in Sydney’s inner city and eastern suburbs, and their counterparts in Melbourne and elsewhere, boast some of the most sought-after apartments in Australia, built to high standards and prized for their art deco aesthetic.
The current housing debate can be framed in different terms, but Australia’s first housing boom suggests that opponents of rapid changes in housing stock should be careful before making doom-laden prophecies.
A new way of life
The kind of apartments that were feared in the Vaucluse in the late 1920s were blocks of four, five or six floors housing affordable one-bedroom apartments and studios. They created a new lifestyle for singles and childless couples, with larger apartments also allowing groups of people to share.
The rising popularity of corporate titles in the 1920s and 1930s – which allowed individuals to purchase a share of the company to occupy a flat – attracted affluent citizens to move to the city from the suburbs. Large communal areas, modern comforts and services such as florists and cobblers on the ground floor were intended for the residents of the more grandiose new developments.
Peter Sheridan, an art deco specialist and photographer, cites the eastern suburbs of Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay as the “best template in Sydney” for the low-rise, high-density housing that emerged in the 1920s and early 1930s. Kingsley Hall (1929) in Potts Point was one of the first apartment buildings in Sydney to have clearly defined decorative features.
“These were for people coming back from the war, single people, people from the countryside, people who worked in the city,” says Sheridan.
The ‘promiscuous construction’ of decorative flats raised concerns about ventilation and the size of kitchenettes and the demand for more garden space. In 1934, although still described as ‘unusual’, they were also seen as ‘modern architectural designs’ with improvements such as soundproof walls and hot water – an improvement over the busy terraces and lodgings that dotted the landscape in the center of Sydney and Melbourne dominated. early 1900s.
Art deco emerged in France around 1912, with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. But it wasn’t until the 1925 World’s Fair that the term was coined and began to attract global attention.
The style took advantage of advances in construction technology, adopting curved features and elaborate ‘dressing’. New materials such as vitrolite (coloured structural glass), reinforced concrete and geometric masonry came into fashion, although many apartments still had internal features derived from earlier federated fashions. More streamlined interpretations of elaborate facades, ceilings, architraves, stairwells and large common areas became hallmarks of the Art Deco style.
The influence of functionalism in the interwar period brought a northerly orientation and connected living, dining and kitchen spaces to art deco designs.
Thanks to height restrictions of 45.72 meters (150 feet) imposed by the City of Sydney in 1908 (and not lifted until 1957), buildings above 10 to 15 floors were not a feature of the city’s early skyline.
Sheridan says the eastern suburbs are home to about 60% of Sydney’s art deco apartments, while others are in the inland west.
On the north coast, he says, Art Deco was more prominent in houses than in apartments, but because these typically required more money and an architect was willing to build “in the modern style,” their numbers were limited.
“All the [houses] on the leafy north coast from Willoughby to Killara, it’s all stone and many are two-storey,” says Sheridan.
“If you go to places like Manly and Balgowlah, there’s all that functional, modernist art deco style, with curved walls and white on the outside.”
‘People didn’t buy them to sell them’
Robin Grow, architect, long-term president of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia and author of Melbourne Art Deco, says apartments in the Victorian capital were equally successful because of their character and proximity to the city. They were popular with families who found they could no longer afford servants or run larger homes, he says.
Most are found in beachside suburbs including St Kilda, Elwood and South Yarra. They are mainly walk-ups, they have large balconies and relatively simple facades.
“They were close to entertainment – the movie theaters and the dance halls… and they were popular with different social groups,” says Grow.
“They were criticized by people who said, ‘Oh, you can’t raise children there and you can’t have a garden,’ but the people who came to live there didn’t necessarily want those things… they wanted a place that’s stylish. and close to amenities.”
Art deco reached its peak in Melbourne in 1935, a year after the city’s centenary. Grow says there was more pride in building back then, and the apartments were mainly owner-occupied rather than the money-making propositions many are today.
“People didn’t buy them to sell quickly,” Sheridan says.
Michael Fotheringham, chief executive of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, says the design details and construction quality of Australia’s art deco stock have saved much of it from redevelopment.
“When people buy these properties, they often like that retro art deco style, so they keep them rather than tearing them down and rebuilding them,” he says.
“Perhaps a more modestly designed property in equally good condition could suffer the fate of being demolished in favor of a larger house.”
But now the Art Deco apartments, seen as dangerous invaders a century or so ago, have themselves become the focus of groups keen to preserve elements of the existing housing mix.
Sheridan, the chairman of the newly formed Potts Point Preservation Group, says he is dismayed by the lack of protection for 20th-century architecture, with yimbys and nimbys fighting over how much built history we can afford to preserve. With 120 apartments expected to be lost due to five planned redevelopments in the area, Sheridan says the loss of one-bedroom apartments and studios will drive out long-term residents.
Of the sixteen state heritage buildings in Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, only three are from the 20th century: the Boomerang private house and garden, the El Alamein memorial fountain and the Metro Theater, which is about to be redeveloped into a $69 million boutique hotel .
Prominent Art Deco apartment complexes, including the Macleay Regis (1939) and Birtley Towers (1934) – which remain fully owner occupied under corporate title – are only mentioned in the Local Environmental Plan, which identifies their significance to the community and local government area recognized.
“We’re getting the sense right now that we need new, affordable housing at the expense of what’s already there,” Sheridan says.
“I’m not convinced that argument even holds water, especially when heritage is used as an excuse to demolish old buildings.”
Some modern high-rise apartments with complex engineering have made unfavorable headlines due to poor building standards and small living spaces, but Fotheringham says Australia still has “incredibly good” apartment living.
“Whether or not these high-rise buildings – apart from the defective ones – will stand the test of time, is still too early to say,” he says.
“Fifty years from now, my replacement may be having this conversation about apartments built in the 1920s.”