Leaving Tottenham behind us, we head north up Ashley Street, making our way between warehouses, storage places, supermarkets, smash repair shops and quiet residential streets until we arrive at Ballarat Road. Here we reach the site of one of Melbourne’s best examples of modern architecture, the ETA peanut butter factory, designed by Frederick Romberg. This building, long neglected, has now been partially reconstructed.
Romberg was born in 1913, and grew up in Berlin, leaving Germany for Switzerland in 1933 when his connection with leftist political groups brought him to the attention of the Nazis. He studied architecture in Zurich at a prestigious university, and travelled to Australia in 1938 with no intention of returning to Europe.
Romberg quickly found work in Melbourne. Local architects were impressed by his grounding in modern European architecture – and no doubt also by the fact that he had met European masters such as Gropius and Le Corbusier.
Working with Mary Turner Shaw, one of Romberg’s early projects was the Newburn apartments on Queens Road, South Melbourne (1939), followed by the much larger Stanhill apartments, also on Queens Road, for the property developer Stanley Korman (completed 1950). These brilliantly stylish modernist flats are still occupied today.
In 1953, Romberg entered a partnership with Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd. The partnership lasted about a decade, until it fell apart over the National Gallery of Victoria commission in the early 1960s. While Romberg was a partner in the firm known as ‘Gromboyd’ it designed three factories: Turner Industries, Ringwood; Tip Top Paints, Port Melbourne; and ETA, Braybrook. ETA was the work of Romberg.
The post-war boom was a period of economic optimism and investment in manufacturing in Melbourne. The state government encouraged companies to move out to the edges of the city by making land available. (Perhaps the same initiative attracted the car maker James Flood, whom I wrote about in a previous post). ETA moved to Braybrook from its small factory in South Melbourne.
To prepare for the job, Romberg spent many hours in ETA facilities watching the processes of making margarine, peanut butter and other products that the ETA brand was noted for. Here’s a short clip from a documentary that shows what it was like working in a peanut butter factory in the 1950s.
And here’s a nice ghostsign advertising ETA peanut butter, on the wall of a house in Seddon a few years ago.
The ETA factory in Braybrook was a fine example of structural rationalism: a basically rectangular form, distinctive and functional. Its most striking feature was its long curtain wall along Ballarat Road. The facade had an aluminium frame with steel columns, windows with bands of black and clear glass, and diagonal gold braces forming arrows that pointed towards the huge red letters ‘ETA’, one of the first uses of supergraphics in Melbourne. (Stephen Banham’s book Characters includes Romberg’s architectural drawings which emphasise that these were a critical aspect of the design). This part of the complex formed the administration block.
At one end of the glass curtain, on Lacy Street, was a wide projecting canopy supported by steel cables over the visitors’ parking entry.
The factory itself was behind this block, separated from it by a courtyard garden designed by landscape architect John Stevens. The garden featured plantings of succulents and zigzag designs of volcanic rocks and white river stones, and a modernist fountain by sculptor Teisutis Zikaras. At the time, artworks at an industrial site were unusual in Australia.
The factory was completed in 1961, and opened by the premier, Henry Bolte in 1962. It featured in an international publication of the world’s best buildings that year, the only Australian entry. It certainly looked impressive – but was it a good place to work? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who worked there or knows someone who did.
In its heyday, the company was known for spectacular Christmas illuminations which used to draw big crowds. This remarkable picture was taken by a local in 1962, the year it opened.
I’m not sure when the factory ceased to be operational, but by the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair. In 2004 Heritage Victoria issued a permit to the car dealer Binks Ford for partial demolition and conversion of the site into a dealership. The work began, but Binks Ford lost interest.
The site was sold on to a developer in 2011. Heritage Victoria then issued another permit which entailed reuse of the structure. The permit required reconstruction and restoration of the glass curtain and front office, the visitor parking canopy, and the courtyard. This work has now (October 2014) almost been completed.
Heritage Victoria told Melbourne Circle that the developer was required to use some of the original aluminium frame, and replace other materials as far as possible to match the original. The glass is all new, but some of the frame and the stairs on the Lacy Street corner are original. What we have today is a remnant of the original building, so far without the striking gold braces and the red ETA supergraphic – although these may be added in due course, which would be great. There are plans to reconstruct the courtyard garden, and to reinstate the sculpture. The reconstructed building is smaller, but it does give a sense of what the original was like.
As of October 2014, the new building operates as a 24-hour gym called Zap. On the same site where workers once toiled on production lines, performing repetitive tasks for eight hours a day or more, people pay to pump iron and stride on walking machines. Times change.
That unfortunately placed promotional balloon doesn’t do much for the building. It looks like a clown’s nose. Take it down!
Romberg died in 1992, after a spell as Professor of Architecture in Newcastle. Harriet Edquist, Professor of Architectural History at RMIT University, summed up his career: “The pursuit of an Australian architecture within an international framework … a sympathy with Australian history and tradition, expertise with modern materials … are all hallmarks of Romberg’s practice.”*
And ETA peanut butter? These days it’s made in China.
*Frederick Romberg: The Architecture of Migration, ed. Harriet Edquist, RMIT Press 2000
You can read more about Romberg here, on the RMIT site devoted to an exhibition of his work.
Thanks to Heritage Victoria for providing information about the restoration project.