Art Deco flourished in the optimism of the 1920s, and diminished in the economic downturn and political turmoil of the following decades. The short-lived style, nonetheless, is one of the most recognisable architectural and design movements today.
Buildings were made to look like steam-liner ships. Ships were made to look like futuristic palaces. Traditional shapes were abstracted into geometric and angular patterns. Everything was a motif for modernity and developments in technology.
The rapid expansion of Melbourne in the 1920s and 30s called for the construction of new buildings for public use. For a short few years, Art Deco became the preferred architectural style for places of political or cultural significance.
Here are our Top 5 favourite Art Deco buildings in Melbourne:
Astor Theatre (1936)
The Astor Theatre is one of many Art Deco cinemas built to screen the new ‘talkies’ and keep up with the subsequent popularisation of movies.
Architect Ron Morton Taylor designed the building as three rectangle blocks stacked next to each other with a short tower in the middle-left, where The Astor sign hangs. Owing to its purpose there are no decorative windows in the facade, but it does have a vertical sign in classic Art Deco font. Stars adorn either side of the sign and a huge star is titled in the entrance hall.
Art Deco elements are carried through interior design including decorative fanned mirrors and wall lamps that look like stylised ships portholes. The railing of the balcony is reminiscent of ship’s railing. Patterns of coloured tiles decorate the crown moulding at the top of the walls and outline the balconies.
The Astor Theatre is possibly the best preserved of all Melbourne’s Art Deco buildings, in both its look and use. Other notable Art Deco cinemas are The Rivoli in Camberwell (opened in 1940), the Palace Theatre, Balwyn (1930) and the Sun Theatre, Yarraville (1938). The Palais Theatre, St Kilda (1927), is a grand example of mixed architectural styles; it is sometimes considered an Art Deco building for its bright, geometric appearance.
The Astor Theatre. Photo courtesy of Heritage Victoria.
Mitchell House (1937)
Mitchell House is a simplified version of Art Deco architecture, suitable for an office block. The building was completed for brush company, Thomas Mitchell & Co. Located on South-West corner of Elizabeth Street and Lonsdale Street, it now contains offices and creative working spaces.
Architect Harry Norris drew on steam-liner references in his design of this sleek office block. The building’s facade is made up of alternating bands of steel-framed windows and white-coloured cladding between floors. Two smoke-stack-inspired towers mark the entrances on both streets. The building curves around the street corner, recalling the same reference of ship’s decking. The visual tension between the horizontal bands and vertical towers is typical of Art Deco buildings.
The building has four signs announcing its title, each marked out in a classic Art-Deco font. Inside, some of the original fittings remain, including the green-titled entrance way and foyer and one of its original lifts.
The prevailing use of white, and steel and glass instead of brick make the block an excellent example of the style now known as ‘Streamlined Moderne’ – the simplified version of Art Deco that emerged in the late-1930s.
Mitchell House. Photo courtesy of Heritage Victoria.
The Manchester Unity Building (1932)
The design of the Manchester Unity Building combines Art-Deco and Neo-Gothic styles. It was built slightly before the apex of Art Deco and shows
The office blocks stand on the North-West corner of Swanston Street and Collin Street. The building was designed by Melbourne architect Marcus Barlow and commissioned by charitable organisation Manchester Unity Society of Odd Fellows. The building was completed in 1932, during the Great Depression. Despite economic decline, the owners decided to continue to build the lavish building as a show of optimism during the economic decline.
Barlow’s design for the building was heavily influenced by Raymond Hood’s 1922 Chicago Tribune Building, which the corner tower directly references in its shape and flying buttresses. The facade is decorated with vertical ribbing of red brick and ornamental half-hexagon windows that protrude on the third floor. The original interior included polished wooded floor boards, marble walls and bronze plaque lettering.
Manchester Unity Building. Photo: Alan Lam.
The Former United Kingdom Hotel, Clifton Hill MacDonald’s (1938)
United Kingdom Hotel was given an Art Deco renovation in 1938. The hotel on the corner of Heidelberg Road and Queen’s Parade, Clifton Hill was built for Carlton & United Breweries and designed by architect James Wardrop. It is now best known as possibly the most beautiful MacDonald’s in Melbourne.
The three-story brick hotel has a semi-circle front and squared rear, conforming to the triangular corner block. It features a stylised steam-liner tower in the middle of the front facade. Cantilevered balconies on the second floor curve around the building, away from the tower, giving the appearance of horizontal bands radiating outwards from a central vertical. The facade is highly decorated with glazed tiles in pale yellow, red and brown.
The lower floor was originally the public bar, with an island bar in the middle of the room. The upper floors were private bars, lounges and parlours with balcony access. This points to enough wealthy patrons to require classier rooms. The hotel operated for fifty years until its closure in 1988.
Former United Kingdom Hotel. Photo courtesy of Heritage Victoria
Heidelberg Town Hall.
The Heidelberg Town Hall was built in 1937 to service the rapidly urbanising suburb of Heidelberg in the North-East of Melbourne. The building stands on Upper Heidelberg Road, Ivanhoe – some 20 minutes further down the same road as the Former United Kingdom Hotel. The Town Hall is modelled after the Hilversum Town Hall in the Netherlands, which inspired architects Peck & Kemter and A.C. Leith & Bartlett.
Heidelberg Town Hall is an example of square and angular Art Deco style. The shape of the building resembles rectangular blocks of different heights stacked next to each other. The facade is buff red brick formal with minimal external decoration. Long, almost warehouse-style, windows set at intervals down all sides emphasising the rectangle motif. The original effect has been softened, or obscured, by a white portico was added in the 1990s. The main feature is an iconic 28-metre clock tower with clocks on all sides. The clock tower is visible from neighbouring suburbs, which offers an insight into the intended importance of the local government building.
Inside, the main entrance opens on to foyer and then through to a grand auditorium. Government offices are on either side of the foyer and on the second level. The decorative detail is in the rooms for performative and public aspects of local government, while the offices are intentionally hidden from view.
The Heidelberg Town Hall is still used by local government, now Banyule City Council, who renamed the hall The Centre. Other notable civic buildings in Art Deco style are the Richmond Town Hall, renovated in 1930s and the Ballarat Town Hall.
Heidelberg Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Heritage Victoria.
Words: Amelia Willis