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While Melbourne boasts a variety of architectural styles, there is one in particular that stands out for its unique and distinguishing features – Art Deco.
So much more than simply a style of architecture, the original Art Deco era represented a time of dramatic change in society. During its emergence in the 1920’s, a brave new world was evolving following the devastation of World War 1. Enormous developments in technology, entertainment, architecture and society were taking place across Australia and the world. People were eager to begin rebuilding their lives after the horrors of the war and it was a time of great optimism.
As a result, the geometric designs, bold colours and the use of plastic and glass now readily available, were quickly embraced over the conservative and traditional architectural styles of the early 1920’s and preceding years. This bold new style represented modernity and escape and spread across the globe in an unprecedented phenomenon in everything from furniture, décor, art, textiles and fashion. New materials such as reinforced concrete facilitated the curved architectural forms so characteristic of the period along with cement rendering and terra-cotta facing.
The concept of the skyscraper coincided with the rise of Art Deco and a new scope of construction began to unfold across the Melbourne skyline. Perhaps the most well-known Art Deco building constructed in Melbourne at the time was the Manchester Unity building on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets. Built in 1932, the iconic construction was designed by renowned architect Marcus Barlow who drew inspiration from the Chicago Tribune building. Its build represented a show of optimism in a city that was grappling with the onset of the Great Depression. While Sydney halted much of its construction at the beginning of the 30’s and other Australian cities had failed to be influenced by the rising Art Deco phenomenon as Melbourne had, the Victorian capital forged ahead to produce some of the most revered examples of the style.
The Myer Department Store, Century Building, Buckley and Nunn Department Store, Mitchell House and Yuill House are just some of the worthy examples. The style was also embraced by the newly pioneered cinema experience with the Capitol, Rivoli and Astor Theatres all crafted with the unique new approach. As well as commercial buildings, new homes and apartment buildings throughout the city and suburbs embraced the new vogue.
The Art Deco era represented an age of extremes – from the boom of the Roaring Twenties to the bust of the Depression-ridden 30’s. Regrettably, the popularity of Art Deco declined in the late 1930’s with the onset of the Second World War, which saw a rise in the strictly functional and unadorned style of architecture.
While many of the original art deco masterpieces in Melbourne have been lost to developers over the years, there are still many standing whose incomparable and distinctive design and features can be appreciated. Never has there been a more pertinent time to explore and appreciate these magnificent creations and the societal changes they represented almost 100 years ago.