The walk continued from the intersection of Union Street and Epsom Road in Ascot Vale, heading east and south into Flemington. Flemington has a plethora of buildings of all eras, from the fading Victorian shops of Racecourse Road to the rather totalitarian Melbourne Gateway created in the 1990s. But two starkly contrasting bits of architecture particularly interested me as I walked through it.
Between Union and Ascot Vale Roads stands the Ascot Estate, built in the late 1940s-1950s by the Housing Commission on land that was formerly the Ascot Racecourse. The area must have had racecourse overload: there were others at Flemington and Moonee Ponds. It seems odd that there should have been a third racecourse so close to Flemington, and local residents were complaining for years that the land could be put to better use. (For more detail see this historical account of Ascot racecourse).
After the war, facing a housing crisis, the state government compulsorily acquired the land from its owner, the tycoon and political powerbroker John Wren famously the subject of Frank Hardy’s novel Power Without Glory, but that’s a whole other story too long to tell here. The racecourse land became the site of an interesting experiment in public housing. To see how the landscape was transformed, I recommend you check out these wonderful contrasting aerial photos of Melbourne in 1945 and 2015.
The words ‘Housing Commission flats’ bring to mind the massive towers built in the 1960s, but the Ascot Estate is made up mainly of small brick blocks of two or three storeys. The architect, Best Overend, was an advocate and pioneer of flat-building in Australia. According to Philip Goad’s Melbourne Architecture, the Ascot estate shows “Overend’s interest in finding a humanistic basis” to communal housing. Certainly the scale of these flats looks more humane than the concrete towers of a few years later.
Wandering around the estate today, along those streets with names evocative of war heroes – Churchill, Blamey, Dunlop etc – it still looks much as it must have done 60 years ago, with the addition of a few satellite dishes. There are plenty of green areas and trees, a community centre and legal service, playgrounds and a skate park, and forests of that peculiarly Australian icon, the Hills Hoist. The Hills Hoist was first manufactured in 1945 and evidently a lot of them made their way here. They may not look like anything special, but they work. They even appear on roofs, some bare and autumnal, others blooming with multicoloured garments, a man-made roof garden.
I walked through the estate on a Sunday afternoon and it’s a quiet, tranquil environment – so quiet, in fact, that it’s good to hear a few kids playing on balconies, a guy kicking a football against a wall, a family farewelling visitors, a bloke pushing an aircon unit outside. I wonder, though, what the people who live here – many of them from parts of the world with a lively outdoor culture – make of the quietness. I would like to have seen senates of old folk debating the state of the world, teenagers shooting hoops, parents and kids making the most of the playground. I imagine these trees and gardens were put here by Overend and the planners because they wanted stuff like that to happen. But there’s precious few people about, even though hundreds of families live here.
That said, it feels like a safe and peaceful place, which would be good enough for many, especially if you have come from a war zone. And the flats still look good after 60 years. They may appear plain and functional but the architects had a clear vision and it worked.
The same can’t be said of one of the noted Victorian buildings found on Wellington Road, the famous Flemington post office, completed in 1890. This is apparently one of Barry Humphries’ favourite buildings in Melbourne and, like Humphries and his on-stage persona, it’s over the top but memorable. The architecture is of a type known as “stylistic eclecticism”, i.e. it’s a hodge podge. It’s certainly not the only building of that type around Melbourne, many of them built in the 1880s-90s during an era known as ‘the Battle of the styles’.
I’m sure lots of people besides Barry love this building but when you look at this Dame Edna of architecture you can’t help thinking that its creator, public works architect JR Brown, had no vision beyond grabbing the eye of the beholder with whatever features took his fancy. There’s a clock-tower. Ornamental brickwork. Stained glass windows with Australian flora and fauna. You might expect that sort of thing in one of the mansions built by some nouveau riche businessman, but this was a public building. Why did a post office need to look like a Venetian palace?
It’s the opposite of the housing commission flats designed by Overend, not just stylistically but philosophically. Overend had a practical function in mind and the flats seem to be good places to live, even if they slip past the eye rather than catching it. In contrast, there’s no reason to stick a tower on top of the place where you buy your stamps, except to show off. I suppose civic pride had something to do with it – that ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ mentality that made the Victorians so determined to prove they were living in a great metropolis. Meanwhile, they didn’t get around to building a sewage system until the late 1890s.
Does this romantic, impractical, ornate edifice really work as a building? If so, is that because of its indifference to function, or in spite of it? I’m not sure. But whatever Barry’s opinion, although I admit the post office’s strange charm, I think Overend’s is the more significant achievement.
I use the post office and it seems to work fine, mostly because there are very few people in its very small space! I guess we’ve come full circle on that one. Interestingly the Debney’s Park towers did manage to achieve the social vibrancy that Ascot Estate lacks. I walk and cycle through there often and it’s always full of kids and families playing sport, riding bikes and scooters and skateboards, and having barbecues and picnics. I don’t know how much of that is due to the character and culture of the ethnic communities there or just sheer density.
Hi Daniel. I’m sure the post office does work fine, I mean no disrespect to the good folk of Australia Post :-). I’m more curious about the architect’s intentions, really. So much ornament seems, well, unnecessary, but of course there are examples of Victoriana in Melbourne that are even more extreme, and good on JR Brown I guess for designing a building that is still used and discussed more than a century later. Thanks for reading and commenting.
if you think this post office is over-cooked, have a look at the (former) collingwood one! A facade gut fir a baroque church, and a clocktower (though clock never installed). Yes it was all about civic pride, since post offices were extremely important public facilities. And late Victorian taste demanded it delight the eye – the first design for the lands department was rejected as too plain! As to the low rise estates, I’ve noticed they are very quiet, not sure if perhaps they have more elderly rather than recent migrants, but they also are set within half-hearted park-like space, with few obvious gathering points for just hanging around. Maybe they just need some park-like gathering space on the street.
Thanks for those comments, good points all. I jump about on Victorian taste – some of it I like, when there is a coherence to the design (as in some of the beautiful terraces with cast iron balconies) – it’s when there’s a crazy assortment of eclectic features that I find it over the top.
I love the over the top stuff ! Like the Rialto group of buildings, the wonderful, spooky City of Melbourne Building in Elizabeth Street, and the aforementioned Collingwood Post Office. All Victorian architecture the world over is eclectic to some extent, combining Renaissance, French Renaissance, Baroque, Flemish medieval, Venetian Gothic, etc etc though usually either classical or gothic (but they would quite happily combine both eg. the Exhibition Buildings part sort of Romanesque part sort of Renaissance). The Flemington PO perhaps looks more crazy than others to our eyes because it uses elements not often seen in Melbourne, like that double level drippy cornice and the double-curved window shape, which are both Venetian Gothic in inspiration I think. The Public Works Department in Victoria in the 1890s has been noted for being especially adventurous, this being one of the most notable, along with the Scottish Baronial Sth Yarra PO, the Romanesque Bairnsdale Court House, and the Court of Appeal in Lonsdale St (which starts off normal Victorian, then goes all Dutch at the top). But thats probably more than you wanted to know about our architectural history…..
On the contrary, I love hearing from people who know and are passionate about this stuff! You’ve given me a bunch of buildings to look at with new eyes – many thanks. I know what you mean about that spooky City of Melbourne building, it does have a creepy charm all of its own, it’s like the setting for a horror film. Have you ever had a look inside?
PS Im here because I was very impressed by your piece for the Guardian about the REB – so few people get it right about the land boom and crash, most people think Marvellous Melbourne was all due to the gold rush.
Many thanks, I enjoyed writing that story and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes Melbourne had a complex economy during the boom, and the great exhibitions really kicked it along. Though of course we all got far too excited about real estate – not for the last time! (Here’s the link to the story if others are interested: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/06/the-royal-exhibition-building-of-marvellous-melbourne-a-history-of-cities-in-50-buildings-day-10 )
Yes you can just wander inside the City of Melbourne building anytime, just ignore the signs that say ‘official visitors only’…..theres nothing grand up there though, its been even more subdivided than it was originally, with a half arch here and there; the mens toilets are the best bit, pretty sure they’re original, like a timber outhouse, but on the top floor (to let the smells waft away since this was before Melbourne got its sewer system). Ive got some pics on my Instagram, look for Tallstorey and hashtag #cityofmelbournebuilding.
Thanks, I’ll check out the building and your Instagram.