You get used to typical streetscapes in Melbourne – rows of small Victorian cottages, red brick Edwardian houses in established middle-class suburbs, clusters of oversized mansions in newer developments here and there, occasional hip architect-designed boxes, and the Housing Commission towers that punctuate the city like exclamation marks. Most of it is pretty familiar after a while. But heading east from Graham Street and south of Williamstown Road in Port Melbourne, we came across streets like nothing we had seen before – at least, not in this city. It felt as if we had stumbled through some time-and-travel machine into a British housing estate. (The fact that it was raining as we walked probably added to the illusion). In fact it was a utopian social experiment from the 1920s.
A couple of things immediately struck us about this streetscape. One was the uniformity of the houses – street after street of large two-storey semi-detached houses, with some variations but very similar in their fundamentals. The second was how un-Melbourne-like they look. Instead of the small detached workers’ cottages that we are used to, with service lanes running up the back, or the larger brick Edwardian houses favoured by the middle classes, these are all semi-detached. There’s no brick or weatherboard in sight: these houses are built of concrete blocks with cement render, and have a solid, austere look. The streets, though, are lined with trees, and there are reserves where you can wander among native trees, watch your kids on the playground or have a hit of trugo.
We had wandered into Garden City, an interwar experiment in social planning, described at the time as “the dream city of Fishermens Bend”.
The houses were built and financed by the Victorian State Savings Bank, and were always owner-occupied. At the time – construction began in 1926 – Melbourne was experiencing a severe housing shortage, and unemployment was high (soon to become even worse when the Depression hit). There was an obvious need for low-cost housing options, but rather than embark on a large-scale project of its own, the government outsourced the job to the State Bank.
It seems bizarre these days to imagine that a bank might be interested in anything other than gouging maximum profits from its customers, but the State Savings Bank of the 1920s took the job seriously. The general manager even went on a tour of Britain looking at options for low-cost housing. The plan was for a ‘garden city’ modelled on the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, author of a book titled Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Howard advocated affordable, solid housing in pleasant surroundings, amid parks and gardens, where ordinary people could enjoy healthy conditions instead of slums.
I had coincidentally just come across Howard in Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jacobs trashes Howard and his thinking as paternalist, utopian, and completely at odds with how cities actually work. Instead of diverse urban spaces, Jacobs writes, with shops and bars and factories and houses all mingled together, Howard and his disciples wanted to separate out the houses from everything else. This killed the experience of urban life, she wrote, because no one was ever on the streets.
Well, I don’t know. That criticism could probably be aimed at many Melbourne suburbs, garden cities or not. But the people who moved into these houses in Port Melbourne seemed pretty happy about them. Jean Johnson, who moved into Poolman Street in 1927, declared: “I’m so delighted with our new home! There’s no need to go outside for anything and no detail that makes for comfort and convenience has been omitted. There is even a linen press tacked under the stairs!”
In the end there was a total of 322 ‘Bank houses’ in Garden City, using six different designs, which alternate as you walk along the street. However, they were not exactly houses for the poor – in fact they cost 1000 pounds each, more expensive than the average house. The ideology of the day favoured home-ownership rather than rental and there wasn’t much chance of a working-class family buying one of these properties. Hence Garden City became known as ‘Nob’s Hill’, in contrast with the nearby Housing Commission estate that was built later on when the government got into large-scale welfare housing.
These days Garden City’s heritage value is recognised and there are strict rules about what owners can and cannot do to modify their properties. This results in a uniform streetscape quite unlike the hodge-podge that you get in many suburbs. Whether you think uniform = boring is a matter of personal taste I suppose, but the external state of these houses is quite rigorously policed, though you can do what you like on the inside. The Garden City Guidelines in 1997 warned ominously: “additions have been made including bay windows, window shutters, planter boxes, pergolas, balconies and garages … unsympathetic modifications like these are slowly but surely undermining the integrity of the area.” First they came for our planter boxes …
Garden City is an interesting pocket utopia, an attempt at social planning which does not seem to have been widely emulated (not in Melbourne, anyway). Walking around it, I liked the gardens, but wondered at the lack of shops, milk bars, pubs. But you could say the same of many parts of suburbia. And judging by current house prices, there is a lot of interest in living here – you’d need more than a million to get one of these houses now.
Leaving Garden City behind us we continued east up Williamstown Road. A little further along, on the corner of Clark and Farrell streets, we spied a cute little corner milkbar, now a private residence, whose old signage for Noon Pies, Bushells and Liptons tea has been retained in great condition.
These days, home owners tend to resist the idea that streetscapes should be uniform. Our suburbs are full of a weird and wonderful mixture of architecture, often in complete disharmony – personal choice is everything. This kind of thinking is epitomised by TV programs like Channel 9’s renovation show The Block, in which couples complete to create dream homes, and subjects like ‘voice activated bathrooms’ (don’t ask me) are debated seriously. As it happens the 2016 season was filmed nearby on Ingles Street, Port Melbourne, in a disused commercial building.
And not just any building – built in 1925, this terrific office block was the administrative home of J. Kitchen & Sons, a company with whom Melbourne Circle has a long connection. Kitchens was the manufacturer of Velvet Soap and Electrine candles, two brands whose names can still be seen on ghostsigns around the Melbourne suburbs.
I first saw these two signs together on a wall in Kensington, when I wrote about their connection to the livestock industry (candles and soap were both made of tallow, which is fat rendered from boiling down animal carcases.) There was a time before voice-activated bathrooms when practically every home in Melbourne and beyond contained Kitchen’s products, which were advertised far and wide on many a suburban wall. They have kept popping up during this circuit of Melbourne. It feels fitting, then, that as this walk draws towards a close, I come to the source.
A Velvet Soap ghostsign in Kyneton is one of very few examples of old painted signage to be listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. The sign is considered of historical significance for “its association with the company J. Kitchen & Sons, the pre-eminent soap and candle manufacturers throughout Australia.”
Kitchen & Sons was one of Port Melbourne’s most significant employers for more than 150 years, and many of its staff stayed with the company for decades. Later Unilever and finally Symex, it was one of the last of the major industrial manufacturers to leave Port Melbourne.
The transformation of the Kitchen & Sons building into apartments has attracted more attention than usual because of the involvement of The Block. One the day we walked past we met people who had been camping outside for several days, hoping to be the first allowed in for a look when it is opened to the public. Each of these new apartments has been created by a specific couple, whose individual renovation dramas have been followed by the show (“the judges are impressed by Dan and Carleen’s motion sensor shower”). Today’s home-owning utopia couldn’t get further away from the vision of Garden City, where everyone got pretty much the same house.
But at least the apartments on ‘The Block’ have preserved and restored the 1925 Kitchens building rather than demolishing it. An important aspect of the area’s history has therefore been retained. Otherwise there’s little left of the manufacturing that used to go on here: besides Kitchens offices and soap works, the 1946 Sands & McDougall directory lists Ryan packing case makers, Swanton & Barrett (makers of building products), a cotton dressings factory, a plaster board factory, Canada Cycle and Motor assembly and several others on Ingles Street. Today, while some buildings remain, other vacant blocks await the next development.
What kind of urban environment are we going to build for the next generation? Huge towers with narrow roads between them, or something more human and walkable? Will they be great places to live, or just profit-generating machines? The decisions made now will have reverberations well into the future.
If you liked this story, check out our other stories by suburb.
And here’s more about Garden City.
History of Kitchen & Sons and successor companies at ANU.
For discussion of the development of Port Melbourne and Fishermens Bend, see the blog Port Places.