The best picture-book I have bought all year is Melbourne, Then and Now by Heather Chapman and Judith Stillman. This is a set of photographs of Melbourne as it was in the horse-and-buggy era and of the same scenes photographed today. A deficiency – the old pictures are not dated – you only know from appended descriptions that the ‘then’ shot was taken quite a while ago.
Some of Melbourne’s architecture has improved with time, some has got worse and a surprisingly large amount is pretty much the same. An obvious question is why we could generally manage to produce such beautifully elegant buildings in 1850 but so many objects of ugliness today. It is not just pursuit of functionality – some modern architects should be cooked down into decorticated canine preparations for their foolishness – their attempts to be ‘contemporary’ leave us too often with Federation Square-type ugliness.
Many beautiful buildings of Melbourne have stood the test of time. It’s a great city to live in and a book like this one forces you to look twice at attractive features of the city you come to take for granted. Certainly the majestic and beautiful Flinders St Station is an instance of this – most train trips into the city end up here. Across the street from it St Paul’s Cathedral is another instance of great architecture – it is currently being renovated. On another corner is the much loved Young and Jackson’s pub with its beautiful Chloe painting. The final corner features – yes – that dog’s breakfast of design, Federation Square – Melbourne’s so-called ‘landmark attraction’!
An outstanding building not far down Flinders Street is the former Customs House – this took 20 years to build after 1850. It is now almost unchanged as the Immigration Museum - one of my favorite Melbourne landmarks. Or the Old Treasury Building which is almost as it was in 1862. Or the Victorian State Parliament – completed in 1882 – it still stands today as an expression of the wealth and optimism of the early Victorian colony – it still has a dungeon used as a cleaner’s tea room!
Despite its presumed functionality the more recent architecture of Melbourne has a lack of elegance that cannot be denied. The AXA Building displaced the magnificent old Western Market Building built in 1841 only 6 years after Melbourne’s settlement. This demolition was presumably inevitable ‘progress’ but it is unattractive. One of Melbourne’s finest old buildings, the Federal Coffee Palace, a ‘temperance hotel’ built in the 1880s, was demolished in 1973 to make way for an anonymous government building. You can get an idea of the attractiveness of these old ‘temperance’ hotels by looking at the modern Windsor Hotel (formerly the Grand and completed in 1888). The Windsor is my favorite hotel in Melbourne – a great place to have a coffee although I have never managed to stay there.
What parts of Melbourne have obviously improved with time? Well definitely the Chinese restaurant area in Little Bourke Street (this hyperlink is interesting!) which didn’t amount to much in the 1850s. The facades on some of the buildings in this street remain the same as in much earlier times though you do have to look hard. The Melbourne Public Library that was completed in 1854 – with its huge domed La Trobe Reading Room that was added in 1913 - looks improved as the trees around it have grown and it has become the State Library of Victoria. Cook’s Cottage, built in 1755 in Yorkshire, and reconstructed in Australia in 1934 in the Fitzroy Gardens, looks better than ever. And St Patrick’s Cathedral which began construction in 1858, and which had spires and so on added to it for 90 years, looks as good as it ever did –a significant cathedral by world standards. Some buildings like the Princess Theatre which opened in 1886 and which was tastelessly renovated in the 1920s have been restored to its former glory in recent years.
There are a dozen more interesting comparisons in this marvelous study but the one I want to single out is Lygon Street Carlton that still has the much of look today that it had in 1900. It was then home to artisans, workmen and small industry and now has the biggest selection of Italian restaurants and cafés in Australia.
The Chapman-Stillman book reminds me of how lucky I am to live in a beautiful, historic city. I’d be interested in looking at a similar type of photographic study of Sydney if one exists.