“One of the great but often unmentioned causes of both happiness and misery is the quality of our environment: the kinds of walls, chairs, buildings, and streets that surround us.”
Alain de Botton – The Architecture of Happiness
Yesterday was my fifth year volunteering for Open House Melbourne and I took the afternoon shift at thirteen storey Edgewater Towers, 12 Marine Parade, St Kilda, which can be seen in the pictures below as I approached the building from Acland Street.
For anyone seeking to move location, buy a house, redecorate a room or choose a hotel while on holiday, there is little doubt to discerning people that aesthetics, shape, size, colour, cleanliness and convenience are considerations as well as economics. We know that access to light, colour choice and design of buildings and furniture all affect our moods. Moving from interior to exterior, the quality of our surroundings important in a social context and our understanding of community.
Architecture is a very good test of the true strength of a society, for the most valuable things in a human state are the irrevocable things—marriage, for instance. And architecture approaches nearer than any other art to being irrevocable, because it is so difficult to get rid of. You can turn a picture with its face to the wall; it would be a nuisance to turn that Roman cathedral with its face to the wall. You can tear a poem to pieces; it is only in moments of very sincere emotion that you tear a town-hall to pieces.
G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 1909
Edgewater Towers was completed in 1961, and can claim to be Melbourne’s first, privately developed high rise apartment block. It was the tallest until the completion of Robin Boyd’s twenty-storey Domain Park Flats the following year, 1962.
When I arrived in Australia, December 1962, our ship docked at Station Pier, easily seen from the balconies of Edgewater Towers. The building landscape of Melbourne proper and the surrounds of St Kilda quite flat in comparison to today and for commuters, immigrants and tourists for many years Edgewater Towers would have been the tallest building they’d ever seen.
Yesterday several residents at Edgewater Towers offered a guided tour including a talk about the building’s history. Stories of the Architect, Mordechai Benshemesh and past notable residents delighted visitors and the writer in me.
Two flats were opened for inspection, a two bedroom on the third floor and a one bedroom on the tenth floor. Their balconies provided a birds eye view of Luna Park and the bay, highlights for photographers. There was also access to the roof and its fabulous panoramic views, although a bit of a logistic nightmare because it was undergoing renovations and had been blocked to residents for several months for safety reasons. When they decided to join the tours, numbers got rather confusing – each tour supposedly limited to ten people!
Last year access to this residential building was by ballot and 60 people were shown through. This year no ballots and tours designed to run every 30 minutes with 10 people per tour. It was so popular more than 200 people joined tours, and the volunteer I relieved told me there was a queue of fifteen people waiting at 9.30am and Open House wasn’t due to start until 10.00am.
As the day progressed some people were turned away or left because the waiting time deemed too long when tour times stretched to 45 minutes and more. At one stage, I wondered if some visitors had decided to take up residence.
The residents who gave up their time to show people around and talk about the history of the building were exhausted by the end of the day – I felt a bit tired myself! There was never a moment when the queue was empty. Residents had pasted a lot of interesting information on the walls in the foyer, but it was the curiosity about the interior of flats and the rooftop view that drew people to visit. ‘I’ve driven past this building on the way to work for 20 years,’ one man said, ‘at last my curiosity satisfied.’
Another young man was quite emotional. He had just discovered his estranged grandfather had lived in the flats for decades. Sadly, his grandfather had died, but the young man and his girlfriend soaked in the ambience and imagined what his grandfather’s home would have been like as they pieced together the history of a man they didn’t know. Several architectural and design students were thrilled to examine the building as an icon from an era so different from current designs and building material. They were also curious to see how renovations had managed not to spoil the building as residents complied with new fire and health and safety regulations.
When you read the story of the émigré architect, it was fitting the building was opened by Sir Horace Rostill Petty, the Minister of Housing and Immigration an in ‘Australian Architecture’, Harriet Edquist writes: ‘Thirteen storeys high, with great views across the bay, Edgewater Towers was a confident expression of progress and, after a period of neglect, has re-emerged as an iconic expression of post-war modernism.’
As I supervised the queue, and acted as a liaison officer with residents it was fascinating to ponder the stories of some past residents – many well-known to Australians:
And from my teenage years, pop star Max Merritt – how I’d love to have been at one of the parties he was apparently famous for – although I believe the other residents were not too chuffed!
And then there was the controversial pro-Choice campaigner, Scots born, Dr Bertram Wainer who exposed a web of police corruption linked to backyard abortionists. Wainer’s medical clinic was attacked and so was he and many of the residents feared the intimidation against Wainer would put their lives in danger too. Books, films and a television mini-series have been produced about this amazingly courageous and dedicated crusader. Victorian women can thank Dr Wainer’s tireless advocacy on their behalf for the right to access safe legal abortions.
A man I had not heard of and whose story will be told in a documentary next year is Josef Ganz. An engineer, Ganz designed the Volkswagen Beetle, but because he was Jewish living under the Nazi regime, he was never credited with this feat. His story will have international appeal and will put Edgewater Towers in the spotlight.
This will not be the first time Edgewater Towers is featured on film because Homocide, one of the early dramas on 1960s Australian television, often used the flats to be the home of the criminals being chased. Long term residents of St Kilda and indeed Melbourne, aware of the seedy side of the suburb’s past will not be surprised.
Another association some will regard as seedy is Bruce Small, the developer who began the project to build Edgewater Towers. He made his money with Malvern Star Bicycles (my first bicycle in Australia – bought secondhand at a high school fete for 50cents!) but he is also credited with scandalising feminists and others when he was Mayor of the Gold Coast and introduced bikini clad meter maids.
Another couple of celebrity residents included the ex-footballer and later politician Brian Dixon who started the famous Life be In It Campaign, (1980s) which certainly led to health and fitness awareness for Victorians. Considering the spread of obesity, we could do with a similar campaign today.
Information about the building also included articles about the importance of maintenance and to the credit of residents of the 101 apartments there are enough owner/occupiers (50% plus) with active pride in the building to ensure renovations keep pace with sustainability values and the desire to remain living in such wonderful proximity to Port Phillip Bay. On the rooftop there are huge water tanks, plans for solar panels and preparation for new decking.
The current state was not always so:
Every person has a story, as does every building. Edgewater Towers has an absolute book of stories – not only famous past residents. A bit of delving will reveal some colourful ladies operated ‘massage’ parlours, there was a restaurant and a hair dressing salon. Today there is a mix of owners and renters – all will have interesting tales. I envied the view from the flats, but confess I don’t think I would write much if I lived there – the view too distracting, too beautiful for words.
One resident who was an accountant preretirement confided to me that no matter how bad his day at the office, or the traffic home, all worries disappeared with a glass of wine on the balcony watching the sun set over the water. I understand!
Since 2008, Open House Melbourne has been connecting people with good design and architecture in the city. We invite people to explore outstanding houses, buildings, infrastructure and landscapes that illustrate our rich history, reflect how we live and work, and offer insights into our future city.
Open House weekend opens doors as well as minds. You get a glimpse behind the scenes and tours of buildings you may never have the opportunity to interact with in normal day to day life.
The Weekend puts a spotlight on the unique spaces and places that form the foundation of Melbourne, providing an opportunity for you to consider what makes Melbourne unique. The Weekend showcases buildings of significance in a free and accessible format so everyone can experience the value of good design and architecture, and consider what makes a liveable city.
I hope to be chosen as a volunteer next year and look forward to insight into another building and meeting lots of new interesting people. And I know down the track I’ll use the characters I’ve met, the locations I’ve experienced and the snippets of history I’ve absorbed, in my writing – not distracted by one of the most spectacular views of Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne skyline.
Have you had a close-up and personal encounter with a building or people outside your normal routine? What stories or poems will you write?