Neighbourhood Houses – The Heart Of Our Community

NH display 3
Chelsea Heights Community Centre captures the essence of neighbourhood houses!

On Monday, under the auspices of Longbeach Place where I teach, I did a creative writing workshop at the Kingston Arts Centre as part of a month-long promotion of community houses in the City of Kingston. This was open to the public for free.

Nine community/neighbourhood houses in the City of Kingston were given display space in the galleries to promote activities under the theme  ‘the heart of the community‘.

The promotion also coincided with Volunteer Week. The Council is always keen to encourage people to volunteer and neighbourhood houses are a great place to start a fulfilling journey!

If you are keen to help others, want to share or learn a skill, meet people and help curb your own or their isolation,  contribute to the wellbeing and social capital of the community, then there is no better place to start than a neighbourhood house!

What is a Neighbourhood House?

A Neighbourhood House is a not-for-profit local organisation set up to provide social, educational, and recreational activities for a community, in a welcoming, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Managed by a volunteer committee and some paid administrative staff, it operates with the assistance of volunteers. There is a wealth of accredited and non-accredited courses provided by teachers like myself, but also niche groups set up such as Longbeach Place’s Yarn Art & Craft Storybook Trail, or groups for carers to have time-out, family history buffs, knitting and art enthusiasts… the list is endless.

Neighbourhood Houses have space to host morning teas, conferences, annual general meetings – regular meetings for almost any community group you can imagine. My Mordialloc Writers’ Group met at a neighbourhood house for over 20 years.

Some of the houses are Registered Training Organisations and many are Learn Locals like Longbeach Place, offering VET courses.

Neighbourhood Houses receive some funding from State and Local Governments and donations or partnerships with private enterprises and philanthropists.

Longbeach display Arts Centre

Each paper heart on the display board celebrating Longbeach Place was written by a student. In a word or phrase, they described what the neighbourhood house meant to them:

The contributions from the other houses who also used hearts, echoed the recurring sentiments of a safe, friendly environment, nurturing learning and creativity with lots of fun and educational activities.

When Did Neighbourhood Houses Start?

The Neighbourhood House movement began in Victoria in 1973 with the aim of offering people a supportive, non-threatening environment to share skills and mix socially within local communities.

Neighbourhood Houses represent and serve their community. They are accessible drop-in centres that care about social wellbeing, personal and community growth. They often attract and welcome those who feel isolated, neglected, lonely and forgotten or those who have just arrived and want to “fit in”… they provide a learning environment like no other.

The people who attend usually live, study or work within the local area, and courses and activities offered are dictated by the local community and their needs.

This makes each place unique and some develop particular strengths.

Many Houses started with specific groups in mind depending on their locality.

The 1970s – A Time Of Social Change

It was the 70s and the Women’s Liberation Movement was growing. Most community houses grew from women’s involvement and demands. They saw the need for programmes for people with disability, victims of domestic violence, new migrants and multicultural groups,  and Aboriginal/ Torres Strait Islanders, women who needed confidence in returning to study or retraining.

Women wanted childcare and playgroups for ‘stay-at-home mums’ and a place for all people to be treated equally regardless of race, religion, gender or ability. They may have left the workforce to have children but still wanted to share their skills or learn new ones as they adapted to motherhood and parenting.

1972 was a watershed in Australian political history – the Federal Labor Government of Gough Whitlam had a strong commitment to community programmes, to women and to children. State Governments followed their lead – times and our culture a’changing.

Federal money released for the first time to fund programs that actively encouraged women back to study and into the workforce by making higher education and training courses free. There were funds for women’s refuges, programs to assist families, and for childcare.

Many women ‘went back to school’ via courses at neighbourhood houses first and gained the confidence and qualifications to enter tertiary studies. Older women whose families were almost grown up returned to study and used the neighbourhood houses to fill gaps in their education but also to develop courses and activities to help others.

Wellbeing And Creativity

Neighbourhood houses help manage social change and prevent social isolation.

The last few years the Men’s Shed Movement has grown out of community houses. The benefits of men having somewhere to go to cope with adjusting to being alone, coping with health issues, retrenchments, early retirement and adjusting to years of extra life expectancy are universally accepted now.

People often discover and develop creative talents in arts and crafts suppressed at school or never given a chance to grow. Creative courses in neighbourhood houses are often the first step for people, at last, being able to show their artistic or writing talents.

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria

Neighbourhood Houses Victoria (NHV) was established in the early 1970s as the peak body for Victorian Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres.

  • It currently has a membership of over 380 organisations – 90% of the 390 Houses and Centres in the state.
  • The mission of the organisation is to support and develop the movement of Neighbourhood Houses and Learning Centres as individual organisations and as a collective.
  • This past year they spearheaded a campaign to have the State Government boost funding for the sector.
neighbourhood house poster
And the Andrews Labor Government did deliver by boosting investment in the neighbourhood house network by $21.8 million over the next four years.
I received a letter from Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos MP in response to a postcard I sent as part of the campaign where she confirmed:

The Andrews Labor Government is backing our neighbourhood houses as we want to ensure more Victorians have access to the vital employment, training and volunteering services that many neighbourhood houses provide in our local communities across Victoria.

 Well done to everyone who campaigned for such a great result.

It is always a relief to have guaranteed funding so that courses can be planned – and with rapidly changing and increasing demographics neighbourhood house managers and committees are kept on their toes!

Writing Creatively At Kingston Arts Centre

I transplanted my usual Monday Class at Longbeach to Moorabbin along with an open invitation to the public.

At one stage, when five of the regulars sent apologies and I was struck by a dreaded winter bug I toyed with following the line of the old song, “let’s call the whole thing off…”

I had no idea what awaited me on Monday but how thrilling to greet three regular students plus some past students and friends – and a lady who said,

“I’ve never written creatively before.”

The two hours disappeared fast along with the chocolate biscuits I brought and the tea and coffee the Arts Centre provided!  Yet, we were too busy to have a designated break.

After brief introductions, we did some productive brainstorming and then with heads down the writing began.  After each exercise people shared completed sentences, paragraphs, even vignettes to the prompts. Fascinating and vastly different pieces of writing.

I targeted “the senses.” These are often neglected but improve our writing when included. The variety of responses rich and rewarding.

I love writing workshops!

At the conclusion of the exercise on the sense of smell, one participant concluded, ‘I realise I have a limited vocabulary when it comes to describing smells.’

She continued to suggest others do what she does, “when reading I write unusual and interesting words I discover in a notebook.  It helps improve my writing. Now,  I’ll watch out for how other writers describe smells.’

This is a perfect example of the wonderful feedback and help fellow writers give each other and how writing exercises and sharing in class can improve our writing.

A Personal Story

A few weeks ago, one of my past students from my 2016 class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House emailed me. English was not her first language and she needed help with a private matter.

It was great to catch up for a coffee and fortunately, I was able to help her. She is an educated, enterprising woman who had been a journalist in Japan but like many who write facts for a living, she wanted to explore creative writing.

She lacked confidence in her own ability and struggled with the nuances of English. In the class, I encouraged her to express herself through poetry.

Her perceptions about adjusting to life in Melbourne and being able to express her feelings about other aspects of her life was a great healing journey but also led to valuable discussions in class.

She blossomed but I’ll let her tell you in her own words what attending a class at a community house meant:

My Writing Class

I’ve never really liked classes
I’m often less enthusiastic
preferring to study on my own
I was not a good student in writing class

Yet there are good memories
reminiscent of days visiting relatives –
a bit awkward but feeling secure

In class I remembered the joy of writing
I was accepted for who I was
I made an inspiring Turkish friend
I learned authenticity is the essence of writing
I got to know each classmate’s story
From warm words of condolence
I was encouraged to keep my head high
No matter what I faced

I will take home these great gifts I received
From my writing class at Mordialloc beach

And looking at the past I regret
that I have missed the beauties of life
from being arrogant in classes

I only loved my Mum when I was a kid
And growing up into adulthood
I tended to only love one person at a time
I regret now that I may have missed
the beauties of other people
by being narrow-minded on some occasions

I will take home great gifts about life
received from my writing teacher at Mordialloc beach.

When she left for an extended trip to Japan, Naoko gifted me her poem and a beautiful watercolour she had painted. Gifts I will treasure along with her work published in the class anthology.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voice, imagine them in class… memories I value. Another of my students who has been attending my classes for a long time said exactly the same thing – she reads the anthologies and remembers.

Write your stories – leave a legacy – leave an impression for someone to remember!

Writing In the 21st Century

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books – all read on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach readers our methods must change – how you adapt is your choice. For many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

There is room for both traditional and digital publishing and whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing.

Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published. More importantly, they can keep you motivated.

Writing courses proliferate online and in bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are worth a look.  We throw in ambience, friendship and sharing of stories and ideas.  We learn from each other and the weekly sessions eliminate the isolation and loneliness many writers suffer.

Community houses provide computer classes too – an introduction and welcome to the digital age that is usually self-paced – again the ambience and friendship are free!

The two places I work have several courses and I can vouch for their excellence at Godfrey Street and Longbeach Place.

And if you want or see a need for a specialised course, put in a suggestion or offer to run it – that’s the beauty of neighbourhood houses! The community owns it and the community is you!

What are you waiting for?

Student, teacher, volunteer, participant – whatever your label there is a place for you in a neighbourhood house – drop in soon!




Open House At Abbotsford Convent

Magpie and bench abbotsford convent.jpg

On Sunday, for the sixth year, I volunteered for Open House Melbourne and spent the day at Abbotsford Convent sharing the welcoming duties with Shirley, another volunteer. It was a gorgeous, sunny day for winter and the sun had a sting for my Celtic pelt. Although still officially winter, I regretted not having a sun hat.

Shirley and me

It had been several years since I’d been to the complex and although I didn’t get much of an opportunity to explore the inside of the buildings, the changes to the gardens, grounds, and renovated buildings was a pleasant surprise.

I just had to block from memory the chequered history of the institution and not dwell on the sadness when the convent was a home for “wayward girls”. Instead, I enjoyed the ambience of the grounds and chatted with the 1000 plus visitors I recorded during my 4-hour shift!

A stream of musicians and singers as people arrived to practice for concerts and the opera. Locals who walked their dogs;  met up with friends or attended regular classes in art, writing and other endeavours.

The tiny, grey-haired and softly spoken ‘sister’ in her mid-80s, now retired, but who had come to revisit the place where she worked with ‘so many happy memories’. My writer’s mind had difficulty not flying off at a tangent and recreating a different scenario!

An article in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 34 (2013), 70-90 can be read here: Abbotsford convent nuns treatment of girls with details of when it was still functioning in the Catholic network.

Established in 1863, the former Convent of the Good Shepherd was the most important Catholic institutional complex constructed in Victoria. Some outstanding features include the medieval French ecclesiastic architecture, the historical importance of the Industrial School and the Magdalen Asylum, the  grandeur of the Convent building and heritage gardens and the aesthetic qualities of the surrounding farmland and rural setting.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Abbotsford Convent sign.jpg
at the entrance gate


In April of 2004, the Abbotsford Convent Coalition and the public finally won the fight to save the Convent. The State Government of Victoria gifted the site to the public; with $4 million to commence the restoration works and the City of Yarra contributed $1 million. With this, the Abbotsford Convent Foundation was born as the custodian of the site to own and manage it on behalf of the people, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. A strong team was built to implement the strategy and vision and the restoration works commenced. With many of the buildings left for years to become derelict and overgrown gardens beyond belief, the job ahead was monumental.

2014)… Ten years on, 60 per cent of the buildings have been restored, hundreds of tenants fill studio and office spaces, the venues are filled with performances, workshops, rehearsals, conferences and meetings, and there is an extensive program of events staged throughout the year. As a community hub and an accessible cultural platform and creative cluster, the Convent hosts a valuable confluence of connectivity, inspiration and ideas. With close to a million annual visitors, the Convent is now one of Australia’s most popular cultural icons.



Wurrundjeri sign abbotsford.jpg
First People acknowledged


Pre 1838 

The Abbotsford Convent is located on part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. The nearby junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River at Dights Falls continues to be an important meeting place for the Central Victorian Tribes, who are also known as the Kulin Nation. The site is enclosed in a natural amphitheatre that for centuries provided the Wurundjeri people with a sheltered and resource-rich camping area. The river flats and deep fresh water also provided plentiful opportunities for hunting and fishing. The Wurundjeri have maintained their connection to the site, with their office located in the Convent’s Providence building.

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Ningla a-Na! This our land
Indigenous and immigrant
Now sharing history

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Memory Lane

Of course, further down the street, and visited by most of the people who came with children was the Collingwood Children’s Farm. This brought back happy memories of when the girls and I visited with their primary school and we actually milked a cow!

Not sure if they remember the experience with fondness but I know their Nana was thrilled to hear about the visit because it gave her an excuse (not that Mum ever needed that) to tell stories about her childhood years after her mother died, when she lived on her Uncle Arthur’s farm in Northern Ireland .

collingwood childrens farm

The Good Shepherd Chapel

I did manage to have a quick look inside the restored Good Shepherd Chapel. A testament to devotion and the talents of many skilled artisans. Built in 1871, it is the second oldest building at the Abbotsford Convent site and ‘has enormous cultural and historic significance for Victoria’. The original architect, Thomas Kelly, the great uncle of John Clarke, actor/comedian/writer of the ABC Clarke & Dawe duo!

(I always love the connections and six degrees of separation trivia!)

The Chapel is so much more than a church – it is a vibrant and versatile space for the community to gather, share, learn, laugh and reflect. 

Renovated in 2012, its remaining original features lovingly restored, it is now a popular venue for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. My co-volunteer, Shirley, told me her son had been married in The Chapel.

More an agnostic now than having any close relationship with my Protestant upbringing, I’ve been inside many Catholic churches all over the world and usually find the statues of the crucified Christ and much of the art confronting.  Sunday was no exception and the large sculpture in the foyer didn’t disappoint!

jesus crucified

The Crucifix at the end of the Chapel, in a space called the Avant Choir, was made by Max Kreitmayer who was one of the waxworks owners in Melbourne. He came from Germany where he studied anatomy. The house he lived in across, and down the road from the Chapel near the farm is now a cafe.

Terse Verse by Mairi Neil

Faith isn’t logical,
neither is love
delicate… fragile…
sometimes destructive


The stained glass windows include the beautiful Rose Window above the History Centre, and the Wheel Window, behind the altar, which breathes new life after being concealed internally during the 1960s and 70s. The two traciered windows next to the Wheel Window, representing the Good Shepherd and the Immaculate Conception on the left, and St joseph and St john the Baptist on the right.



The high Altar is still in its original form and was built by Moisseron & L Andre Sculpteures in France. The beautiful marble ordered by Sister Carmel Curtain, the revered sister interred beneath the Chapel nave.

The Apse (Dome) Painting is a set of 5 paintings depicting Mary and two archangels. A visiting artist, Signor Cavallaro, painted the mural in 1899.

Asylum Seekers & Refugees – TREE OF HOPE

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd have always been outspoken on the issue of asylum seekers and many have been active and vocal demanding change in government policies. I wrote a message on a luggage tag and hung it on their Hope Tree –

I hope that all refugees and asylum seekers are released from detention and the Australian Government discovers the meaning of compassion.



Seeking Asylum by Mairi Neil

Despair and desperation in their eyes
they plan to seek a new life
as far away as possible from strife

Seeking a safe haven is the prize
perhaps leaving behind children and wife
despair and desperation in their eyes

For many, it may take several tries
this plan to seek a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes

Living on the edge of a knife
their only crime seeking a new life
despair and desperation in their eyes.

floor inscription

The Order was founded on activating the values of faith, hope, charity and compassion…

‘Charity and Zeal must be universal, that is, they should reach out and relate to everyone.’

St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier


There is also a Bell Tower with bells cast in the 1880s. The bells still ring on special occasions although the original mechanism has been decommissioned. However, Anton Hassell, maker of the Federation Bells at Birrarung Marr configured a drop hammer mechanism to allow the fickle instrument to resonate when needed, much to the delight of the Convent and neighbourhood.

Many of the buildings have been turned into artist and writer studios and I have to admit to envy – especially when the benign sun shone on Sunday, the first hints of spring budded on trees and there was a serene solidity and suspension of time as you walked on paths -whether earthen or concrete – trod by thousands of feet for thousands of years.

Inside the buildings, there may have been shadows of a dark and painful past but outside the gardens display nurturing care and love. A middle-aged man I spoke to yesterday worked as an apprentice gardener ‘many moons ago’ he said with a smile. He was returning to ‘have a look at the changes’.

I complimented him on all his hard work because the mature trees and plants are a credit to the years of care and somebody’s vision, magnificent shrubs and trees don’t just happen!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Sunlight dispels shadows
gardens nurtured with love
brighten everyone’s day.

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

tree skeleton

When it was time to go off duty, Shirley and I headed for the Bakery for a well-earned cup of coffee. So many people visit Abbotsford Convent every weekend for breakfast or lunch, the variety of eating places popular – especially Lentil As Anything. But there is also Kappaya Japanese Soul Food Cafe, Cam’s and the Convent Bakery.

The sound of children’s laughter, adult chatter and the clinking of wine glasses and coffee cups and the biggest variety of dogs I had ever seen in a public space that was not specifically a dog park, was a marvellous testimony to how lucky we are living in a place often voted the world’s most liveable city!

Haiku by Mairi Neil

Coffee for two, please
Friendship needs refills
And a regular fix

Mark your calendar now for next year – Open House Melbourne weekend is a wonderful opportunity to spend time and appreciate marvellous Melbourne.

You can experience buildings with historical, architectural and cultural significance and learn a little more of the development of the city while having fun.


Walk, Talk And Listen – While The Children Tell Their Stories

Mornington May 2016.jpg

Last week I received an email from the Arts Centre informing me that “we have another community engagement project at Arts Centre Melbourne that you might be interested in being part of called The Walking Neighbourhood.”

I was definitely interested! Especially if it turns out to be as entertaining and satisfying as Dominoes, my last community volunteering effort.

The two poetry books I published in the 1990s were inspired by my daughters and their friends, so how wonderful to see the world from the viewpoint of current young people. Primary children through to adolescents will be involved – what a privilege to hear their interests,  concerns, imagination and ideas first hand unfiltered by what the media portrays and assumes.



In The Walking Neighbourhood, young people take the lead and give you the opportunity to experience life through their eyes as they take you on a unique guided tour of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct. In a series of short walks, you will be taken on a one-of-a-kind exploration of the places and stories that they think are most important.

 This project is community based and is a wonderful opportunity to give children and young people a voice in sharing their ideas and perspective on their neighbourhoods and cities. Children and youth have the capacity to transform a space with their vivid imaginations, their bright and bubbly energy and their ability to think creatively approaching situations from completely different perspectives.

bringing your children up to be indpendent.jpeg

It is a sad fact that modern children, particularly those who live in the city and suburbs, don’t have the freedom I remember from childhood. Rarely do you see children playing in the street or local park like we did when there were fewer cars and before ‘stranger danger’ instilled fear into so many communities. Fear of children being molested, attacked or kidnapped prevents many families letting children explore or play independent of adults.

Fewer children walk to and from school without parental supervision and exploring unfamiliar places without an adult in attendance is rare.

This intergenerational project the Arts Centre Melbourne has arranged appealed to me because it is a unique opportunity.

Ironically, the children participating in this project will have an adult volunteer like me with them, but we will be stage managers and prop carriers if need be, to be directed by the children. We’ll help them present what they want as they lead the walk and share their stories.

Conceived during residencies with Mammalian Diving Reflex in 2 schools, Tasmania Australia and Toronto Canada, where 11 year olds shared very similar concerns about their lack of autonomy, The Walking Neighbourhood responds to the rising hysteria around children in public space and their safety.

In Melbourne, The Walking Neighbourhood will take place next weekend, Saturday June 4 and Sunday June 5 and my shifts are in the afternoon from 1pm – 4pm. It is a free event and from what I understand from attending an induction evening, there will be more than 100 children involved. This will be the most ambitious program the resident artists and local helpers have tackled since the concept’s inception in 2010.

so much craft .jpg

On Friday afternoon, I went into the Arts Centre to help make craft items for the event. A space in the Arts Centre will be the launching point for the walks but also a place where adults and children alike  can participate in making craft, interact and get to know each other.

Judy, Nalika and myself were given the task of making God’s Eyes – a simple task if any of us could remember how to do them! A quick Google search and memories were jogged.

The Internet is indeed amazing, but we could have done with a child to show us instead of searching for a strong enough signal to watch a Youtube demonstration.  For a moment we wished we were outside painting with some of the other volunteers!

I have another session this Thursday night where I’ll be working with some of the teenagers on another craft activity – let’s hope it’s one I can do!

I’ve practised at home and made a few more God’s Eyes and just hope I don’t forget the skill for the workshops on the weekend!

Practice makes perfect.

Working with the volunteers and visiting artists and having a coffee and cake together in the cafe allows us to share our stories and is one of the delightful pluses of these community projects.

I also love the opportunity of seeing the city at different times and in different seasons.

In a couple of my writing classes we have been writing Triolets again and I wrote one on the train home from the Arts Centre on Friday afternoon while thinking of being there late on Tuesday evening and reflecting on what a difference light makes and how it can effect beauty and mood.

Marvellous Melbourne
Mairi Neil

Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are
Of all the world’s cities, you are the most liveable
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Caught in your spell, my obsession not curable
Strolling Southgate’s walkways, beneath sun or star
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are

Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood
Walk Princes Bridge, there is no need to drive
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive!
Yarra River rippling, entrancing – life thrives
Stalls, dancing, busking, a variety of food
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood.


I can appreciate the beauty of this part of Melbourne regardless of the time of day – what about you?

Have you ever been inspired to capture your love of Melbourne or another city in verse?


Dominoes Down, Happiness Up


On Saturday, February 6th, we didn’t encircle the world but we linked many parts of Melbourne CBD with giant dominoes. The outcome astounding, and as one member of the public said, ‘I’ve never seen the people in the city so happy.’

There was definitely an upbeat vibe.

The development of earth art and installation art stemmed from the idea of taking art out of the galleries. Involvement in the arts engages people in their community, improves self esteem and builds creative skills.

Dominoes was the third project funded by the amazing philanthropist, Betty Amsden and her Participation Program determined to do just that – engage ordinary people in a creative pursuit and improve community wellbeing.


with betty amusden 2 copy
Betty Amsden in middle, yours truly on right and another volunteer on left.

Dominoes by Station House Opera supported by Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday 6 February, ticked all the boxes.

There was

  • excitement
  • enthusiasm
  • passion
  • wonderment
  • learning and laughter
  • fun and fandom (we all love Betty)
  • chatting and connection
  • in depth conversations
  • friendship making
  • and even some dancing…

At the afterparty, a new friend Rhonda found just enough energy to do a bit of rock and roll with me when I decided to take my weary body and sore feet home! Below she greets a very hot and sweaty me at the end of the line where the last structure was being dismantled outside the Arts Centre.


Conceived and directed by UK-based Station House Opera, Dominoes was first created as a celebration to link the five host boroughs for the London Olympics Arts Festival. Dominoes takes as its starting point the simplest of ideas – a line of dominoes – and will transform the rhythm of the city for one special day.

Thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs through the city, unfolding over the course of the day. Occasionally disappearing from sight and then resurfacing, sometimes pausing for sculptural performances, the line of dominoes will thread its way through historic and everyday parts of Melbourne.

To make an extraordinary event like this,  Arts Centre Melbourne needs literally hundreds of volunteers to help build the 2km line of dominoes with more than 7000 breezeblocks. Arts Centre Melbourne’s team is looking for about three hundred volunteers!

Press Release : Planet Arts Melbourne, December 2015


The day to participate arrived and the weather forecast said the day would be HOT – 32 degrees hot!  Despite my Celtic pelt, menopausal weight gain, and propensity to perspire profusely once the temperature hits 30 degrees, I set off for the city with hat, sunscreen and the fervent hope I’d be assigned somewhere with shade.

Melbourne hadn’t sweltered for days like Perth, WA, but by the time I reached Flinders Street Station and commenced the short walk to the Arts Centre, the concrete pavement and city buildings oozed heat.

Tingles of trepidation building in my stomach exploded with joy when I discovered my assigned section for the day was Hamer Hall. Hurray! It was ‘next door’ to the Arts Centre, there would be easy access to toilet facilities and bliss, oh bliss, air conditioning.

I sat down with my Section 10 to hear the last minute pep and the all-important risk management talks feeling I’d won Tattslotto. I introduce myself to others: Alison, Jenny, Wei,Rhonda, Jeff, Ian, Colin …another Jeff…

Unfortunately, some volunteers did not turn up on the day. Perhaps the weather played a big part in this because the whisper said almost 20% failed to report, an unusually high number.(Organisers usually plan for 10% of volunteers failing to show.)

Regardless of the reasons, we were delayed setting off to allow a reshuffling of numbers. We lost 5 members to another section. I felt guilty not putting my hand up to swap sections but decided to be selfish – Fate had dealt me a good venue and I don’t tempt Fate.

At last, wearing  our distinctive  t-shirts and orange backpacks, we followed our leader Stacey to Hamer Hall where she walked us through our route and explained various roles.

2016 pics and videos 032.jpg

The venue would be open to the public at 1.00pm so there was no time to waste unpacking the blocks from several pallets and placing them in strategic spots for the set up.

The domino line would come in from Southbank and move up the stairs towards street level. The route is explained here.

hamer hall 1 copy.jpg
The entrance point with our orange kit bags : water, gloves,poncho in case it rained – fat chance!- and brochures of the route.

A reality check altered the picture I had of the task ahead. Our dominoes would start at the door but after moving through the building we had to build a considerable number outside to link up with those heading for the grand finale at the Arts Centre.

I wasn’t going to escape the heat entirely. And there’d be mega crowds because we were so close to the finish line. Thank goodness volunteers had distinctive T-shirts and Stacey and Lachlan, the section leaders had bright red tops.

I looked around at my fellow volunteers – mostly  in their 60s like me – thank goodness we had several younger men and women too. Whoever organised the groups did well.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

From the moment we started work I appreciated our friendly team and the display of commonsense, cooperation and congeniality. Although none of us had been involved in something as daring as Dominoes, most had volunteered in some capacity before. We were an eager team!

We had a lovely family with two young children. The youngest, Eliza, drowning in a much too big t-shirt while she helped me clean up the considerable amount of concrete dust that fell off each block as we manhandled them into position. Eliza held the rubbish bag open for me and was most diligent throughout the day. My little friendly shadow.

The gloves in our kits earned their keep protecting hands because with several hundred blocks to shift bare skin would have suffered. The gloves also helped our grip and although there’d been an allowance for breakages we didn’t drop one. Go team!

hamer hall 4 copy.jpg
The first flight of stairs
hamer hall 3 copy.jpg
Marble and mirrors – extra care needed!

We emptied the first pallet of dominoes with a speed that surprised ourselves. Stacey beamed, “The way to go, Team!”

Organisation the key as we spread in even distances  up the stairs and played pass the parcel with the blocks. Every 10th or 15th block left lying down just in case anyone knocked the dominoes accidentally.

Later in the afternoon outside, a little boy tested the domino theory much to his parents’ embarrassment. Jeff and Jenny fixed it in a trice.  We tried to comfort the family that no harm had been done; it was all part of the unexpected fun of the day.  However, we were glad only a few blocks had to be set up again.

Indoors required patience and persistence too. There were two flights of stairs, several general areas, plus the foyer. Surfaces varied:

  • tiles
  • marble
  • polished wood
  • carpet

And of course those fragile mirror walls!

hamer hall 2 copy


2016 pics and videos 035


The females in the group more conscious of the mess and the danger of scratching the beautiful interior surfaces. I had flashbacks to childhood:

Careful you’ll scratch that!                   Watch you don’t break that!

We carried the 8kilo blocks and manoeuvred them into position mindful of workplace health and safety rules and protected each other:

Lift one block at a time!     Bend your knees.       Mind your back!    Have a rest.         Let me help.

Hours disappeared as we worked ahead of schedule.

Before the expected public invasion, there was a short break for a tasty lunch delivered in brown paper carry bags by other volunteers. A salad roll, sandwiches, square of chocolate cake and an apple, plus fresh bottles of water. Volunteers from the section setting up along Southbank joined us, seeking relief in the coolness.

Outside was really hotting up. I discovered I’d missed a call from number one daughter who’d decided to pop by and say hello but couldn’t get inside the building and so went home. C’est la vie.

In the foyer, we had to leave big gaps for public access to the ticket counter. We carried on building to the bemusement of arriving staff. Anticipation and crowds building too.

We finished ahead of schedule, but knew once the signal was given we’d have little time to place the missing blocks into position. Betty Amsden‘s words rang in our ears. “Things will go wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Having fun does.”

A morale-boosting visit by Betty and Arts Centre Staff and some of the creative Station House Opera team from England reinvigorating. Lots of interesting interaction with the public and chats among volunteers fulfilled the participation aim of the project.

It was Chinese New Year, the city buzzed with visitors and locals. Some had heard of Dominoes, others were thrilled they’d chosen this day to explore Melbourne’s delights.

The Dominoes route coincided in part with the display of Chinese characters on the Crown Riverwalk:

chinese new year sign copy

After we’d packed up for the day I strolled along snapping as many pictures as I could but decided the year I was born, 1953, the Year of the Snake didn’t sound like it produced nice people. Oh, dear!

I put the categories in the same basket as horoscopes (horror-scopes) and clairvoyants. Negativity wasn’t going to spoil the wonderful day – one day I may check out if Celtic predictions are better!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the fun parts of participation was allowing young people and others to pick up the blocks and watch the surprise or glee on their faces at the weight and texture. When they were told the blocks are given away and recycled some said they’d like one, others were glad organisations were already planning to use them.

Some children were too little to pick  up the blocks, but I found a way for one family to participate by suggesting two little boys use the wood packing strips to build their own domino line. While they were amused their parents took photos and learned about the project.


There was a lull in activity once our section was completed without disrupting public access too much. Jenny and I were assigned to ‘guard’ the line, particularly from cyclists cutting through to City Road. Cyclists who were supposed to dismount and who in 99.9% cases never did – even when they saw the crowd, and the blocks. Oh, dear again! (Maybe they were all born in the Year of The Snake.)

2016 pics and videos 050.jpg

The deadline drew closer – the first domino to fall scheduled for 5.00pm, the last at 5.25pm.  I wondered how the grand finale was shaping up. It seemed an incredible task to achieve in a short timeframe.

a community like a ship.jpeg

However, not only did the jobs get done but when Stacey and Lachlan announced the line had started to fall the excitement really did reach fever pitch. In fact, it all happened so quickly the 15 or so minutes it took to reach Hamer Hall seemed like seconds.

The roar of joy and anticipation as the blocks clunked and fell up the stairs to whizz past me is a few moments of drama on my mobile. And suddenly I was surrounded by a cheering, rushing, crushing scrum following the dominoes up the hill towards the Arts Centre tower.

Wow! An unforgettable adrenalin rush and an astounding success.

But for every high there is a low, what goes up must come down. In what was probably the hottest part of the day because of the build-up of heat, we began the big clean-up.

Our A-team cleaned up Hamer Hall and then some of us helped the Southbank section. It was well after 7.00pm by the time we finished but the organisers had chosen section managers well and the arduous job went smoothly.

The thank you party was in full swing when I got there and the food and bar offerings a welcome sight. I found other members of my team and watched the quick edit of the day’s events filmed by a number of volunteer film makers and photographers.


The project and the day were awesome with cheers of the volunteers and organisers reinforcing that as people recognised themselves or their venue on the screen. The artists, organisers and volunteers did a magnificent job. Betty Amsden’s vision satisfied and the city of Melbourne the winner.

As I walked over Princes Bridge towards Flinders Street Station I breathed in the smells of the city at night: coffee and delicious food from street cafes, the pungent manure and sweat from horse drawn carriages, the brake fluid and exhaust fumes from traffic, the scent of a thousand perfumes and deodorants – and my own sweat from a hard day.

Two women called me over to their table, wine glasses in hand.

How did you do it?’


How did you keep your temper.

And you were so patient!

I couldn’t do it!

You mean building the dominoes?

And keeping the crowd from knocking them over .Some people were silly…

… And pushy.

Oh, were you at Hamer Hall? Did you enjoy it?

We loved it! Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

I’m so glad. That’s what it was all about. 

I continued on, until amidst the cacophony of traffic and revellers I heard the haunting yet uplifting sound of Indian music. Was it the Hare Krishnas? An advert for a show or other celebration?

I peeped over the bridge to Southbank and spent a few minutes absorbing the tranquillity of the River Yarra and the joy of living in multicultural Melbourne.

We live in a wonderful city and when I think of the many trouble spots throughout the world we are truly blessed.

Dominoes down, happiness up indeed!


And here is the finished film of the day – not just the small part I played, but the bigger picture, including footage taken before the city event.

The first half of the film shows the dominoes making their way from the Port of Melbourne through Footscray, Brighton, Toorak, Richmond, Fitzroy and laneways in the CBD to the beginning of the live route at Melbourne Town Hall. The second half features the live event on 6 February.  Logistically, they couldn’t capture footage of each and every block that fell, but the film brings back some of the thrills (and spills) of the day!

The film credit goes to:

by Station House Opera
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
Project III of the Betty Amsden Participation Program







Dominoes With a Difference – One Day, One Line – A Daring Domino Show

Domino event in Marseille France

Over nine in ten Australians, across all states and territories, are receptively engaging with the arts by attending arts events or reading… more people in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland agree that the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life. 

Report on Arts in Daily Life – Participation Across States and Territories, Australia Council for the Arts, 2014

Yesterday, I added excitement to my life by rehearsing for an engaging celebration of public participation in the arts, which will take place next Saturday.  The UK performance company, Station House Opera, will bring Melbourne to a standstill  as a 2km chain of more than 7000 giant dominoes will snake through the city. This will be the first time an interactive domino show has been held outside Europe

dominoes brochure 1.jpeg

Dominoes takes as its starting point the simplest of ideas—a line of dominoes—and will transform the rhythm of the city for one special day. Thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs through the city, unfolding over the course of the day. Occasionally disappearing from sight and then resurfacing, sometimes pausing for sculptural performances, the line of dominoes will thread its way through historic and everyday parts of Melbourne.

At the briefing today, Artistic Director, Julian Maynard Smith and his team from England, explained how the project will be set up. There have been meticulously planned shows in 10 European cities and Dominoes Copenhagen – Metropolis festival 2013 can be watched online here.

It will be fantastic to see our line of dominoes start at the Town Hall, snake and fall through iconic buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral and the Nicholas building, but also go underground at Flinders Street Station, across the Yarra River via the footbridge, and eventually end at the Arts Centre.

Enthusiastic Arts Centre staff involved with The Betty Amsden Participation Program have been planning the event for months.  Betty was there yesterday to thank the 300 volunteers and encourage us all to have fun and make new friends. The fund she has created to celebrate the creativity in us all, one of those generous gifts that keep giving.

I saw parts of the Arts Centre I didn’t know existed when we went outside to practise setting up the blocks, in an area aptly named Testing Grounds. An hour disappeared quickly as we were shown how to ‘pack’ the dominoes onto uneven surfaces, check their balance and to judge the correct distance to enable them to fall in the direction required.

A variety of structures will be built to add to the spectacle. Volunteers are divided into: builders (those who set up and dismantle the blocks), guardians (the protectors of the structure before the 5pm start) and promoters (people explaining to the public what the project is about).

The volunteers will be in groups of 20 with section managers keeping us on track. There will be members of the public annoyed at their day being disrupted, but from past experience, most will be caught up in the anticipation and joy of the event. In the cinema or engrossed in a good book we enter another world, suspend disbelief – next Saturday we want the city to embrace and participate in One Day, One Line of Dominoes.

We set up blocks twice – the second time much quicker than the first. Practice does indeed make perfect. How we cheered at achieving the ‘right’ result without any major mistakes. Everyone helping each other, chatting about the aim, aware we were part of something special – a variety of generations, cultural backgrounds, experienced volunteers and newbies.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Saturday, February 6 will be a long day, but totally worth it. I’m looking forward to being part of a once-in-a-lifetime event. I played traditional dominoes as a child, and it was one of my  Mother’s favourite games. She bought all her grandchildren a domino set and they have fond memories playing with Nana. This is a fun extension – who wouldn’t want to play with giant blocks?

I’m sure there will be inspiration and stories to write – certainly plenty of characters to note – this is Melbourne, after all.

I want to be an author.jpg

Melbourne art scene has lots of opportunities for volunteering, and participating in a project like this enriches your life.

For a smashing start to the New Year join us. Have a large dose of arts therapy and release your inner child. As the well-known song tells us, ‘the best things in life are free‘.


There’s A Story in Every Building at Open House Melbourne

“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.

St Kilda 2015Marine Parade St Kilda 2015

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.’

architect's story the architect

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:

the most fanous past resident

Sidney Nolan's mother

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!

Max Merritt & The Meteors

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.

Bertram Wainer

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.

Josef Ganz

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.

Homocide TV showjpgHomocide scenes

old stills from Homocide

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.

Bruce Small of Malvern Star

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.

Another two famous residents

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:

DSC_5091-1 DSC_5092-1

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?