by Neometro
 

Stanhill: A Modern apartment for Melbourne

Architecture - by Open Journal
  • Stanhill. Photo: Tom Ross

At a time when Australians aspired to a family home on a quarter-acre block, Modernist architects designed medium-density apartments for Melbourne. It was the middle of the twentieth century and apartment living had previously only existed in residential hotels. Modern apartment blocks represented post-war optimism and offered a new way of living in medium or high density, which was not, evidently, widely taken up at the time but is now important decades later. Of the few examples from the 1940s and 1950s, Frederick Romberg’s Stanhill is the most ambitious in size and style.

Infamous entrepreneur Stanley Korman invited Swiss emigre architect Frederick Romberg to design a multi-story apartment building for prime real estate on Queens Road, overlooking Albert Park Lake. The plans were finalised by 1943 although the Second World War and Korman’s eccentric and difficult management style prevented construction until 1953. When the block was finally completed, The Argus newspaper ventured to say the design was “really up-to-date” – practically radical.

Interior of Mr. Stanley Korman’s apartment, Stanhill flats, 34 Queens Road, Melbourne. Source: The State Library of Victoria.

Romberg is best known for his collaboration with Roy Grounds and Robin Boyd, which came directly after completing Stanhill from 1953 – 1962, and dissolved around the same time Grounds was designing the National Gallery of Victoria. Romberg had migrated to Australia in 1938, part of a wave of emigre architects who shaped the face of Melbourne. He was Swiss-trained and interested in adapting his European training to the location of his projects. In 1965, he moved to Newcastle to become Professor of Architecture at University of Newcastle. He returned to Melbourne a decade later and worked on commercial factory projects and residential buildings in the outskirts of Melbourne until his death in 1992.

Stanhill flats, 34 Queens Road, Melbourne. Source: The State Library of Victoria.

In his design of Stanhill, Romberg was clearly encouraged by International Modernism and Art Deco architecture. The outline of the building recalls an ocean liner – to create this effect Romberg divided the reinforced-concrete building into four vertical stacks of apartments; each stack a floor higher than the previous giving it a tiered look. Walkways on the North of the building curve like the decks of a ship. Originally it was eight stories high, with a penthouse added in a later renovation.

Stanhill contains 31 apartments which was an impressive number for the time. Comparable multi-residence buildings usually contained 4 flats (Glenunga Flats in Armadale, 1940, designed by Romberg) or 21 flats (Moonbria in Toorak, 1943, designed by Roy Grounds). High-rise blocks weren’t common until the late 1950s when the Housing Commission invested high-density public housing.

The two-bedroom apartments are extremely well designed to maximise natural elements. Predominantly located in the first three vertical stacks, they have natural light from at least two directions, some more. Windows on the North and South sides provide cross ventilation. The studio apartments trade off less abundant natural light or cross ventilation with affordability, but quality of design is still maintained.

South-facing windows are almost floor-to-ceiling but shaded from the afternoon sun by the building’s shadow. The view would have once been park land but it is now across tennis courts and a cricket oval towards a newer apartment block at 1 Roy Street, that mimics the tiered shape of Stanhill, which is certainly no coincidence.

It would have been a luxury to own one of these apartments when they were built, but impractical if you had a family. Stanhill’s financier, Stanley Korman owned an apartment here with his wife. Photographs from 1953 show the couple in their apartment, seated on upholstered armchairs amongst an overload of decorative plates, embroidered lampshades and floral curtains. The setting is so definitively un-Modernist that the contrast is perfect.

Architecture Architecture’s Renovation of a Stanhill Apartment. Photo: Tom Ross.

Stanhill’s interiors nowadays are sleekly contemporary. Architecture Architecture’s 2012 renovation of a second-floor apartment used simple gestures to accentuate Romberg’s spatial design. In the renovation, the simple motif of a black skirting board was carried throughout the apartment, lining the archway into the kitchen and framing the base of each room. The black line guides the eye around the space, highlighting the smooth continuity from one room to the next. It brings out the innate characteristics of the original material and space, which is very true to Romberg’s vision for Stanhill. Michael Roper of Architecture Architecture describes the flow of apartment to apartment as easy and fluid, almost organic in the way each room fits together like cells in an organism.

Architecture Architecture’s Renovation of a Stanhill Apartment. Photo: Tom Ross.

Stanhill apartments are still highly sought after, and even if the physical building has aged, Romberg’s excellent design and planning has endured the sixty years.

Words: Amelia Willis

 

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