Melbourne was once a global icon of Victorian architecture…then came the ‘perfect storm’

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Zachary Sanderson Lyrics
Photo: State Library of Victoria

‘The Lost City of Melbourne’ director and producer Gus Berger reveals the massive demolitions of Melbourne’s heritage buildings that began in the 1950s.

During the 1850s Melbourne was the fastest growing city in the world and during the 1880s it was the wealthiest city in the world – a story now largely forgotten.

The rapid influx of migrants during Victoria’s gold rush meant that Australia’s largest port city was in dire need of civil infrastructure. As a result, elegant Victorian buildings filled the town. Almost every corner of early Melbourne was outfitted with the craftsmanship of architectural visionaries.

So why were these structures the victims of massive demolitions a hundred years later? This is the question that Berger asks in his documentary, The Lost City of Melbourne.

“There was this perfect storm, really, that was happening in Melbourne in the mid-1950s,” Berger says. “I think it was really a whole combination of factors that really had an impact on the mindset (of) not just the people of Melbourne, but the government.”

The perfect storm that Berger talks about are the main factors that led to Victoria’s idea of ​​a modern city. The 1950s meant the Queen’s first visit and the 1956 Olympics, placing the city and its politicians under unprecedented scrutiny – not only by the judgment of monarchical standards, but also by the whole world.

“I think when the Queen came for the Olympics in 1956, it was just this catalyst for ‘Wait a minute,'” Berger continues, “you know, suddenly we have the Queen coming to visit – I’ I’m sure we were probably 95% a monarchy at that time, so at that time it was a big deal.

Berger also links the lack of heritage protection to change.

“I think it was just this real perfect storm and it was allowed because one, there was no heritage protection. But two, there wasn’t a lot of heritage awareness either. .

Berger’s movie The Lost City of Melbourne is more than just mourning, however, it is filled with testifying footage. While the images of the demolitions are undoubtedly projected against a harsh background, there are also many rare and redeveloped images of the city that once was that do it justice. Its narrative and historical point of view summarizes all the facets and issues of this period, but also the ancient beauty of Melbourne.

The Victorian government at the time did not view these architectural styles as history, but as a way to operate. Many interiors of these buildings did not support various workplaces and needed to be completely renovated to support a myriad of different industries.

Unlike today, where heritage protection extends only to the exterior of buildings and interiors can be largely changed at will, interior-only alterations were not considered practical in the 1950s. A rapid expansion began and, consequently, a rapid demolition.

However, not everyone felt the change was necessary. “There were a lot of people who were appalled at what was happening to all these old buildings, they saw value in it, but I just don’t think they thought they had a voice, and there isn’t probably wasn’t enough to stop this juggernaut that was performing, saying, ‘We have to be modern,'” Berger says.

Could we have kept these buildings intact and adequately renovated them to meet modern standards? For many of these buildings there were disappointing heating systems, a limited number of toilets and other amenities, and little regard for fire hazards and other safety precautions. However, Berger argues that some of these shortcomings could have been worked around, using the GPO as an example.

“In the GPO building on the corner of the Bourke Street Mall on Elizabeth Street, the shops, restaurants and cafes inside this building seem to be really functional and they look great,” says Berger.

The GPO building was constructed in 1861 and stood in the way of demolitions in the 1950s, but as it was the headquarters of the Australia Post it remained standing. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Australia Post decided to open smaller storefronts, that it emptied out. At that time, the developers saw it not as an opportunity to destroy, but to reinvent.

Victorian architecture

“You wouldn’t know it from the outside, it looks like it’s still pretty much intact,” Berger continues. “With smart architects, smart architecture, good builders and good city planning, you can have both.”

Although heritage listings were widely implemented at certain stages in Australia’s history, buildings that have extremely rich histories are still being demolished today, relics of Melbourne’s architecture experiencing a slow decline as population growth and house prices soared in previous decades. .

“There are certainly a lot of buildings that seem to be demolished because they don’t have that level of heritage value significance,” Berger says. “It’s a shame, because I think there are things that just don’t have that level of protection, and they just aren’t immune to development.”

Head toward The Lost City of Melbourne site here for the latest screenings.

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