‘Invasive suburbs that have been the pride of home lovers for many years,’ … Art Deco apartment blocks on Campbell Parade, Sydney’s Bondi Beach.Photo: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian
Almost 100 years ago Sydney was in great danger from the “ravages of the barbarians” – or so the newspaper reports would have you believe.
The perceived danger is one that reflects the current deepening debate about density, as Australia’s capital cities struggle to reconcile competing demands for affordable housing and heritage conservation.
“Flats take their heads off some of it [Sydney’s] the noblest,” reported the Brisbane Courier in 1929. “They are invading suburbs that have been the pride of home-loving people for years, where the happy laughter of children has gone wild in the streets .”
That year, Woollahra council proposed a ban on the construction of flats in the suburb of Vaucluse. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, the renowned war historian Charles Bean warned that the sprouting of “mushroom flats” in the area was a “danger to our future citizens”, forcing children to play in the streets and a danger to the nation. benefit
Now those same areas in the inner city and eastern suburbs of Sydney, and their counterparts in Melbourne and elsewhere, are now home to some of Australia’s most desirable apartments, built to a high standard and admired for their art deco aesthetic.
Today’s housing debate may be on different terms, but Australia’s first apartment boom suggests that proponents of the rapid change in housing stock should tread carefully before making weighty prophecies.
A new way of living
The types of flats that were feared in Vaucluse in the late 1920s were four, five or six storey blocks of affordable one-room and studio flats for rent. They offered a new lifestyle for singles and couples without children, with larger apartments allowing groups of people to share.
The growing popularity of company title in the 1920s and 1930s – which allowed individuals to buy a share in a company to occupy a flat – attracted wealthy citizens to move into the city from the suburbs. Large common areas, “mod cons” and services such as florists and cobblers on the ground floor catered to the residents of the larger developments.
Peter Sheridan, an art deco specialist and photographer, calls the eastern suburbs of Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay “Sydney’s best template” for the low-rise, high-density life that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. Kingsley Hall (1929) in Potts Point was one of Sydney’s first apartment blocks with clear decorative features.
“These were for people who had come back from the war, single people, people from the country, people who worked in the city,” says Sheridan.
The “obscure construction” of the decorative apartments drew concerns about ventilation and the size of kitchens and demands for more garden space. By 1934, although described as “unusual” they were still regarded as “modern architectural designs” with improvements such as soundproof walls and hot water – an improvement on the overcrowded terraces and boarding houses in dominating the landscape in inner Sydney and Melbourne in the city. early 1900s.
Art deco emerged in France around 1912, with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. But it wasn’t until the city’s World Fair in 1925 that the term was coined and that it began to attract global attention, ie.
The style benefited from advances in construction technology, adopting curved features and elaborate “dressing”. New materials such as Vitrolite (stained structural glass), reinforced concrete and geometric brickwork emerged, although many apartments still had interior features that drew on the earlier confederation fashion. Simpler interpretations of elaborate facades, ceilings, architraves, staircases and large common areas became hallmarks of the art deco style.
The influence of functionality in the years between the two wars brought a north orientation and living, dining and kitchen spaces connected to art deco designs.
Thanks to height restrictions of 150 feet (45.72 metres) imposed by the City of Sydney in 1908 (and not built until 1957), buildings over 10 to 15 storeys did not feature in the city’s early skyline.
Sheridan says about 60% of art deco apartments in Sydney are in the eastern suburbs, with others in the inner west.
On the north shore, he says, art deco was expressed more prominently in houses than apartments, but because these usually required more money and an architect who was willing to build “in the modern way”, their numbers were limited.
“All [houses] the leafy foreshore north from Willoughby to Killarney has brick and two-storey lots,” says Sheridan.
“When you come up to places like Manly and Balgowlah, they’re all in that functional, modern art deco style, with curved walls and rendered 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 have been so successful because of their character and proximity to the city. They were popular among families who found they could no longer afford servants or run larger houses, he says.
Most are found in beachside suburbs including St Kilda, Elwood and South Yarra. They are mostly promenades, with large balconies and relatively plain facades.
“They were close to entertainment – the cinemas and the dance halls … and they were very popular among 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 moved in didn’t necessarily need those things … there was a place stylish from them … and close to amenities.”
Art deco reached its height in 1935 in Melbourne, a year after the city’s centenary. Grow says there was more pride in construction back then, and the apartments were primarily owner-occupied rather than the money-making offerings many people see today.
“People didn’t buy them to sell quickly,” says Sheridan.
Michael Fotheringham, managing director 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 those properties, they often like that retro art deco style, so they keep it instead of tearing it down and rebuilding,” he says.
“A more modestly designed property may be in good condition and could be knocked down in favor of a larger home.”
But now the art deco flats, which were seen as dangerous interludes a century ago, are now the focus of groups keen to preserve aspects of the existing housing mix.
Sheridan, chairman of the newly formed Potts Point Preservation Group, says he is baffled by the lack of protection for 20th century architecture, with yimbys and nimbys fighting over how much built history we can keep. With 120 apartments expected to be lost due to five proposed redevelopments in the area, Sheridan says the loss of one-bedroom apartments and studios will put pressure on long-term residents.
Of 16 state heritage listed 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 Theatre, which is to be redeveloped as a $69m boutique hotel.
Prominent art deco apartment blocks including the Macleay Regis (1939) and Birtley Towers (1934) – still wholly owned by company title – are listed on the only local environmental plan, which recognizes their importance to the community and local government area.
“We’re kind of getting the idea right now that we need new affordable housing, at the cost of whatever it is,” says Sheridan.
“I’m not sure that argument holds any water, especially if heritage is being used as an excuse to pull down old buildings.”
Some sophisticated modern high-rise apartments have attracted unfavorable headlines for poor construction standards and tiny spaces, but Fotheringham says Australia still has “very good” apartment living.
“Whether or not those high rises – the flawed ones aside – stand the test of time, well, it’s too early to say,” he says.
“In 50 years, my representative may very well be having this conversation about apartments built in the 2020s.”