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What Cities Can Learn From Australia’s 20th Century Art Deco Building Boom

Almost 100 years ago Sydney was in dire peril from “the ravages of barbarians” – or so the newspaper reports would have had you believe.

The perceived danger was one that echoes the current debate raging over density, as Australia’s capital cities struggle to reconcile competing demands for affordable housing and the preservation of heritage.

“Flats rear their heads on some of [Sydney’s] noblest headlands,” Brisbane’s Courier reported in 1929. “They are invading suburbs which for years have been the pride of peaceful home-lovers, where the happy laughter of children has resounded in the streets.”

The art-deco Shoreham Apartments in Glenelg in 1939. Photograph: State Library of South Australia

That year, Woollahra council proposed to ban the building of flats in the suburb of Vaucluse. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, the renowned war historian Charles Bean warned that the sprouting of “mushroom flats” in the area was a “danger to our future citizens”, forcing children to play on the streets and posing a risk to national welfare.

Apartments in Elizabeth Bay, 1940. Photograph: City of Sydney

Now those same areas in Sydney’s inner city and eastern suburbs, and their counterparts in Melbourne and elsewhere, boast some of the most desirable apartments in Australia, built to high standards and prized for their art deco aesthetic.

Today’s housing debate may be couched in different terms, but Australia’s first apartment boom suggests that opponents of rapid change in housing stock should tread carefully before making doom-laden prophecies.

A new way of living

The kind of apartments those in Vaucluse feared at the close of the 1920s were four, five or six-storey blocks housing affordable one-bedroom and studio apartments for rent. They provided a new style of living for single people and childless couples, with larger apartments also allowing groups of people to share.

A circa 1930s art deco and ocean liner-style low-rise in North Sydney. Once demonised, art deco apartments are now considered heritage parts of Australian cities. Photograph: Stephen Dwyer/Alamy

The rising popularity of company title in the 1920s and 1930s – which allowed individuals to buy a company share to occupy a flat– attracted well-off citizens to move into the city from the suburbs. Large common areas, “mod cons” and services like florists and cobblers on the ground floor catered to residents in the more grandiose developments.

Peter Sheridan, an art deco specialist and photographer, singles out the eastern suburbs of Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay as the “best template in Sydney” for the low-rise, high-density living that sprang up in the 1920s and early 1930s. Kingsley Hall (1929) in Potts Point was one of the first apartment blocks in Sydney with clearly defined deco features.

“These were for people who came back from the war, single people, people from the country, people who worked in the city,” Sheridan says.

The “promiscuous erection” of deco flats drew concerns over ventilation and the size of kitchenettes and demands for more garden space. By 1934, while still described as “unusual” they were also seen as “modern architectural designs” boasting improvements such as soundproofed walls and hot water – an improvement on the crowded terraces and lodging houses that dominated the landscape in inner Sydney and Melbourne in the early 1900s.

Art deco emerged in France around 1912, with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. But it was not until the city’s World Fair in 1925 that the term was coined and began to attract global attention,

The style took advantage of advances in building technology, adopting curved features and elaborate “dressing.” New materials such as Vitrolite (coloured structural glass), reinforced concrete and geometric brickwork came into fashion, though internally many apartments still had features that drew on earlier federation fashions. More streamlined interpretations of elaborate facades, ceilings, architraves, staircases and grand common areas became hallmarks of the art deco style.

The facade of the Wychbury residential building in Potts Point, Sydney. Photograph: gionnixxx/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The influence of functionalism in the interwar years brought north-facing orientation and connected living, dining and kitchen spaces to art deco designs.

Thanks to height restrictions of 150 feet (45.72 metres) imposed by the City of Sydney in 1908 (and not lifted until 1957), buildings above 10 to 15 storeys were not a feature of city’s early skyline.

Sheridan says the eastern suburbs are home to about 60% of the art deco apartments in Sydney, with others in the inner west.

An apartment block in Bondi Beach, Sydney. Photograph: The Guardian

On the north shore, he says, art deco was expressed more prominently in houses than apartments, but as these typically required more money and an architect willing to build “in the modern vein”, their numbers were limited.

“All the [houses] on the leafy north shore from Willoughby to Killara are all brick and many two storeys,” says Sheridan.

“When you get up to places like Manly and Balgowlah, they’re all that functional, modernist style of art deco, with curved walls and rendered white on the outside.”

‘People didn’t buy them to sell them off’

Robin Grow, an architect, long-term president of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia and author of Melbourne Art Deco, says apartments in the Victorian capital were similarly successful for their character and proximity to the city. They were popular with families who found they could no longer afford servants or run larger homes, he says.

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Most are found in beachside suburbs including St Kilda, Elwood and South Yarra. Predominantly walk-ups, they feature large balconies and relatively plain facades.

Apartments in St Leonards Avenue, St Kilda, Melbourne. Researchers say the design detail and construction quality has saved many art deco apartments from redevelopment. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“They were close to entertainment – the picture theatres and the dance halls … and they were popular for different society groups,” Grow says.

“They were criticised by people who said, ‘Oh, you can’t raise children there and you can’t have a garden’, but the people who moved in there didn’t necessarily want those things … they wanted a place that’s stylish and close to facilities.”

Art deco reached its height in 1935 in Melbourne, a year after the city’s centenary. Grow says more pride was taken in building then, and the apartments were primarily owner-occupied rather than the money-making propositions that many are today.

“People didn’t buy them to sell off quickly,” Sheridan says.

Michael Fotheringham, the managing director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, says the design detail and construction quality of Australia’s art deco stock has saved much of it from redevelopment.

“When people purchase those properties, they often like that retro style of art deco, so they keep it rather than do a knockdown and rebuild,” he says.

“Perhaps a more modestly designed property in just as good condition might suffer the fate of being knocked down in favour of a larger house.”

But now the art deco apartments, seen as dangerous interlopers by some a century ago, have themselves become the focus of groups anxious to preserve elements of the existing housing mix.

Art deco era apartments in Potts Point, Sydney. Of 36 state heritage buildings listed in the area, only three are from the 20th century. Photograph: Peter Sheridan

Sheridan, the chairman of the newly formed Potts Point Preservation Group, says he is staggered by the lack of protection for 20th-century architecture, with yimbys and nimbys fighting over how much built history we can afford to keep. With 120 apartments expected to be lost due to five planned redevelopments in the area, Sheridan says the loss of one-bedroom apartments and studios will push long-term residents out.

Of 16 state heritage buildings listed in Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, only three are from the 20th century: the private house and garden Boomerang, El Alamein memorial fountain and the Metro Theatre, which is set to be redeveloped as a $69m boutique hotel.

Prominent art deco apartment blocks including the Macleay Regis (1939) and Birtley Towers (1934) – which remains entirely owner-occupied under company title – are listed only on the local environmental plan, which recognises their significance to the community and local government area.

“We are currently being given some sort of idea that we need new affordable housing, at the expense of whatever’s there,” says Sheridan.

“I’m not convinced that that argument holds any water at all, particularly if heritage is being used as an excuse to pull down old buildings.”

Some modern high-rise apartments with complex engineering have drawn unfavourable headlines for poor construction standards and tiny living spaces, but Fotheringham says Australia still has “incredibly good” apartment living.

“Whether or not those high-rises – defective ones aside – stand the test of time, well, it’s too soon to say,” he says.

“In 50 years, my replacement may well be having this conversation about apartments built in the 2020s.”

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