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Tag Archives: Gothic Revival

Exploring Victorian Melbourne

Here are a couple of Victorian (in every sense) places that can be seen if you are wandering around Melbourne.

The dome inside 333 Collins Street

333 Collins Street is one of the best example of preserving the old architecture is the fantastic dome inside a multi-storey building at 333 Collins Street. You can go into the foyer and look up and see the old dome. Through the dome’s windows you can see, instead of seeing the sky, the inside of a new building. It is unfortunate that the architect didn’t plan public access to the roof of the dome so that the surreal sight of an old roof inside a new building is not available. You can easily imagine this site if you look at the architectural model of the new building that stands in the foyer. It is a fine example of the greed and exploitation that is quintessential to Australia. Once the dome was part of Melbourne’s banking’s “cathedrals of commerce”, yes in the 19th century Australia really did build temples to Mammon.

Another of these temples to Mammon is at 380 Collins Street. Like a cathedral there are stain glass windows, carved wood screens and stone guardians in the gothic revival style. Labelled as the ‘ANZ Banking Museum’ with an impressive brass plaque – all I saw of that were two very small display cases on the floor bank. Instead of Biblical scenes one of the stain glass windows there is a series of the motifs from the Victoria Memorial in London. It is also very modern; cast iron pillars support the roof space that includes a large skylight.

The Block Arcade of Marvellous Melbourne has becoming a home to middle-brow tourist art and ersatz culture like the Dr Suess Gallery but it still has a great mosaic floor. A neo-classical Victorian design by Craven Dunnell Pty Ltd. of the United Kingdom made from Italian tiles. (For more on Melbourne’s many mosaic’s see my post Time and Tiles.) George Sala, the man who coined the phrase ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ spent a lot of time in the arcade. Sala needed to coin phrases about Melbourne as he was the special correspondent for the Daily Telegraphy. In 1880s he wrote of Melbourne’s arcades:

“Indeed, but for the fact that prohibitions on smoking are conspicuously placarded about in the Royal, the Victoria, and the Eastern arcades, you might, without any very violent stretch of the imagination, fancy on a fine night that Bourke Street was one of the Paris boulevards instead of being a highway hewn not fifty years ago out of the trackless Bush, and that you were a flâneur from the Café du Helder who had just strolled into the nearest passage to saunter from shop to shop, the contents of which you may have seen five hundred times before, and to rub shoulders with a throng whose faces from long acquaintance should be perfectly familiar to you.” (from The Birth of Melbourne ed. Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, Australia, p.328)

When the Block Arcade’s opening in 1892 there were 15 milliners, three lace shops, a photographer and the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. Only the Hopetoun Tea Rooms survives. The prohibition on smoking in the Royal Arcade remains.

For more of my thoughts about Victorian Melbourne read my posts: Time Warp to Victoria and Melbourne’s Gothic Revival.

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Melbourne’s Gothic Revival

Gothic Revival is mostly found on Melbourne’s late nineteenth century churches, law courts and banks. “The Gothic Revival in Australia was a fabric of myths” write Robin Boyd in The Australian Ugliness (The Text Publishing Company, 2010, Melbourne p.61) Boyd goes on to note that: “Australia is full of Gothicky churches of crashing structural dullness struck about with decorative features.” Boyd maintained that the idea that the Gothic Revival was based on the northern European gothic tradition was a myth.

ANZ Bank, Collins Street

ANZ Bank, King Street and Collins Street

Gothic Revival architecture in Australia had a great appeal as it was seen as both particularly British and patriotic, as well as Catholic because of Augustus Pugin. Pugin designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster is widely regarded as the father of Gothic Revival and was a convert to Catholicism. There are a number of Catholic churches in Sydney and Brisbane designed by Pugin who was invited to Australia by the first Bishop of New South Wales.

There are many kinds of gothic revival in Australia from the decorative to the austere. The five-storey Venetian Gothic style building at 673 Bourke St that was built circa 1890 and is now known as “Donkey Wheel House”. There is the gothic revival of decorative grotesques, including an image of Jeff Kennett amongst the gargoyles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne or the austere gothic revival of peaked arches Coburg’s Methodist church. The combination of dark basalt walls and light sandstone is repeated in many of Melbourne’s older churches and cathedrals irrespective of their denomination, they all believed in the gothic revival because it referred back to their medieval heritage and created for them a hyperreal European medieval presence in a city on the other side of the planet.

ANZ Bank detail

ANZ Bank detail

As well as churches and universities Gothic Revival was favoured for banks building cathedrals of commerce. The English Scottish & Australian Bank was designed the architect was William Wardell. Boyd describes the English Scottish & Australian Bank as “probably the most Italian-looking thing in Australia until the expresso bars of the 1950s.” (p.62) The adjacent stock exchanged (both now the ANZ bank on Collins Street) was designed in the gothic revival by architect William Pitt and completed in 1883. It is an extravagant building both inside and out that is well worth a visit if you are in the city during business hours.

Interior ANZ Bank

Interior ANZ Bank

The rich sculptural ornamentation of  Gothic Revial buildings kept many sculptors and stonemasons employed. In 1888 the sculptor, Bertram Mackennal was commissioned for the spandrels of the Mercantile Chambers, Collins Street. However the borrowed ancient splendour of the gothic revival style did not protect the banks from the financial disaster of the Australian banking crisis of 1893 when several of the commercial banks and the Federal Bank collapsed.

Gothic Revival was the main alternative to neo-classical architecture in Melbourne, alternative not as a rival but another option for architects, just as Fanta is an option to drinking Coke. All of these architectural revivals, the Gothic revival, Babylonian revival and the other architectural revivals in Melbourne’s architecture is part of a Victorian revision of history. It is as if the upper class Victorians were playing an enormous game, like a strange kind of Cosplay or the Society for Creative Anarchronism, dressing up not just themselves but their buildings in ancient fashion to play at knights. And perhaps they really were, after all Queen Victoria’s favourite portrait of Alfred depicted him wearing armour (although I’m not sure which one as there are several that do).


Erehwyna Enruoblem

There is so much variety in the architecture of Melbourne, from the early colonial basic rectangular bluestone buildings to recent constructions. In one city block you might see half a dozen or more architectural styles. The mix of European and international style architecture means that Melbourne can look like any generic western city.

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Something apocalyptic happening at State Parliament when used as a film location

Melbourne does this in many b-grade films: Queen of the Damned, Ghost Rider, and I, Frankenstein, to name a few. In Queen of the Damned Melbourne is made to look like London, England, in Ghost Rider it is an American city and in I, Frankenstein it is a generic European city. None of these films are really worth watching unless you are interested in how bits of Melbourne can be cast in different roles; in I, Frankenstein the entrance of National Gallery of Victoria appears as that of the central train station.

The city has been spared major disasters, fires or earthquakes, that destroys the old architecture and consequently Melbourne’s architecture is a fascinating mix of styles from the colonial to the classical with all kinds of revivals, Gothic Revival, Venetian Revival, Spanish Revival, Romanesque Revival, etc. thrown in to this mix. Melbourne is a place where the king tide of the eclectic architectural revivals of the nineteenth century washed up. Moving into the twentieth century there are examples of early modern architectural styles: Arts and Craft, Art Nouveau and Art Deco before the International Modernist style made all cities look the same.

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Spanish Revival in Sparta Place, Brunswick

Rudyard Kipling remarked on visiting Melbourne: “This country is American, but remember it is a secondhand American, there is an American tone on the top of things, but it is not real. Dare say, by and bye, you will get a tone of your own. Still I like these American memories playing round your streets…The Americanism of this town with its square blocks and straight streets, strikes me much.” (Tim Flannery ed., The Birth of Melbourne, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, p.358)

Late nineteenth century Melbourne was frequently compared to American cities due to its cable car trams and grid of streets. Rudyard Kipling referred to Melbourne streets by their equivalent New York names: referring to Swanston Street as Fourteenth Street. Possibly Kipling made this comparison was also made because Melbourne was the about same age as many American cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Australia has a very odd relationship to America. Australian’s fear their second hand American status, yet Australia loves America as a protector. Australia swapped its loyalties to England in July 1966 for going “all the way with LBJ” as PM Harold Holt remarked at the White House. Melbourne’s own relationship with the USA is even stranger; Terry the postman told me about a letter that he delivered addressed to “Melbourne, Victoria, America”.


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