Homes in the sky on the rise in Australia
[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 1, No. 13
3 - 17 September 2007 ]
By Dr Kate Shaw
Homes in the Sky, Apartment Living in Australia claims to be ‘the first history of apartment buildings in Australia’, though its authors confess it is not comprehensive, and draw on many histories of Australian apartment buildings. But the book is no less impressive for that. It is indeed very well-referenced and up-to-date, the photographs are beautiful, and the story it tells is complex and interesting.
The book, by Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Charles Pickett, with photography by Max Dupain and Eric Sierins, is published by the Miegunyah Press with the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2007.
The theme of the book is clear from the start: “Today more flats than houses are being built in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. A third of Sydney households live in medium and high density housing, and apartments form significant minorities of Melbourne’s and Brisbane’s dwellings.”
While flats for most of the 20th century have been a popular alternative to suburban cottages, they have been demonised for just as long. The counter-tone is established by Robin Boyd: “Australia is the small house … The suburban way of life and the aspiration to own and occupy a detached house have long been Australian characteristics.”
The authors paint an amusing history of the moral panics surrounding the building of flats: in the early 1900s they were a ‘national danger’, tending to destroy family life and ‘not conducive to morality’. Government responses to the 1930s housing shortage encouraged home-ownership in the suburbs, contributing of course to disinvestment in the inner-cities and to concentrations of renters, which led to the branding of these areas as ‘slums’.
A dilemma is exposed: the social problems of the slums that so exercised reformers and became the basis for the 1950s reclamation schemes were the very same problems associated with flat living. The argument became dire before its resolution with the slums of the past being replaced by the ‘slums of the future’.
There is an entire section on housing for workers and it is sobering to reflect on how much care and attention was paid to public housing in the early part of last century. Indeed Strickland flats in Sydney, the first large public housing apartment building in Australia, completed in 1914, are delightful. But the counter-narrative continues: whether for their impact on the occupants or, later, their middle-class neighbours, flats for low-income workers continued to inflame ‘political and social anxieties’.
If flats for the poor were the worst, flats for the wealthy – which comprised the majority of purpose-built blocks before the 1950s – were viewed with suspicion. They lacked the virtues of privacy and space for unconfined procreation, and encouraged fast and bohemian behaviours.
Even early gentrification passed flats by, associated as it was in the 1970s and ’80s with the renovation of terraces and cottages. The book argues indeed that gentrifiers are still some of the most vociferous critics of apartment blocks, as it swings into the 21st century with the resident campaign in Fitzroy against the ‘cheese grater’, the Save Our Suburbs movement, and the battle in St Kilda over the 38-storey tower block next to the Esplanade Hotel.
The authors resist over-simplifying the nature of the opposition – pointing out, to their credit, that the Esplanade Alliance was more concerned with the fate of the music venue than the fact of the apartment block – and allow that the nature of the debates has changed. These now question less the ‘consequences of apartments’ and more ‘their location, quantity, type and quality’, especially in the context of urban consolidation and a growing crisis of housing affordability.
Throughout the book are lavish photographs and illustrations of some of the most lovely architecture in Australia, medium and high-density apartment buildings all. That the publishers have managed to keep the price of the book relatively low is a triumph – $59.95 for a 28cm square hardback. The accessibility and content combined will pose a challenge to the most ardent devotee of the quarter-acre block.
Dr Kate Shaw is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.