Paling in comparison to the prolific apartment history of Europe, which dates back all the way back to ancient Rome, apartment living in Melbourne has been happening for around the last century. It started to really get going during the 1930s, a time when Art Deco architecture was in full flight, and modernist movements created a shift and an embrace to live in more compact and urban spaces. Having grown in different phases throughout the decades of the 20th century, apartment living has never been more prolific than it is today in Melbourne. The urbanization of the city and the sheer growth of population will continue to drive the shift towards apartment living in years to come.
The First Builds
Although apartment living didn’t become a regular occurrence until the inter-war period, the first purpose built apartment block was constructed around the year of 1900, according to Charles Pickett, co-author of Homes in the Sky: Apartment Living in Australia. The apartment building was a ‘walk-up’ building, meaning residents would literally walk up the stairs in the building to their apartment. These ‘walk up’ buildings were typically around three to four levels in height, so they were relatively accessible for residents. The first high rise built is widely believed to be the 1920 built ‘The Astor’, which was 20 stories high. Pickett said, ‘that’s when high-rise in Australia really started’.
The Prosperous Period
When apartments first started to appear in Melbourne, they were most significantly larger residences along Collins Street, which meant they were mainly resided in by the upper class. At this time, the wealthy were struggling to get servants to maintain their substantial houses, yet apartment buildings offered the attraction of common servants, who would maintain all of the individual residences. This service was a significant factor as the affluents of Melbourne converged upon this new style of living.
The Apartment Acceptance
When more affordable apartments started to emerge in the 1920s and 1930s, the move to apartment living was seen as particularly unconventional. Pickett described the situation, ‘people moving into flats was a considerably weird thing to do’. Although these initial impressions, the popularity of the apartment lifestyle started to quickly grow, particularly among the middle class. Although many of the initial apartment buildings constructed were those large in stature built for the wealthy, a shift occurred during the 1930s and 1940s caused by the modernist movement. There was an overall embrace of compact living spaces which meant the creation of many smaller studio and one-bedroom apartments.
The Deco Phase
During this time in the 20s, 30s and 40s when apartment living swiftly grew, it was the time of the enchanting and globally loved Art Deco period (1915-1945). It was a time of great technological advancement in building and design, which allowed for an exciting newness in architecture and building. European and American influences would inspire local architects to utilize cutting edge resources such as steel reinforced concrete, terrazzo flooring and white metals to create buildings of pure distinction. Lifts had become available during this time, and were utilized to speed up the construction process, although they were generally seen as too expensive to install in apartment buildings, so nearly all were ‘walk-up’ buildings. There was a strong desire to construct the apartment building close to the bay in this era, so Elwood and St Kilda became some of the richest locales in terms of Art Deco apartment building, as they still are to this day.
The Commission Flats
During the 1950s and 1960s, Australia started to realise a housing shortage. It was decided that the construction of apartment buildings would help to arrest the issue, as the Commonwealth Housing Commission announced that ‘multi-storey dwellings would need to make up part of the shortfall’. The buildings constructed in the following years would often be 20 and 30 storeys high, these were typically what’s known as housing commission flats. These apartments were usually two or three bedrooms, built to an average quality and have dated over time without a great infusion of funds to update them. There were many other lower rise buildings erected, which were much easier to build than in previous times, as they were able to be designed with only minor or without any assistance from architects.
The Apartment Pause
Following the Housing Commission of Victoria’s Slum Reclamation Program, concerns were voiced in the community which led to a significant amendment of the program in 1971 that would have a huge impact on apartment building. It would push a focus on building detached dwellings around the city fringe and discourage the construction of apartment blocks. This period made up most of the 1970s and 1980s.
The City Converge
Towards the turn of the century, the move to inner city apartment living was given quite the push. The City of Melbourne’s Postcode 3000 policy of 1992 was a huge encourager to residential development within the city. This progressed into towering developments in previously untapped areas such as the industrial suburb of Southbank. The larger of the city developments would often offer resort like amenities such as swimming pools, gymnasiums, dining rooms and concierge services as an extra aspect of attraction for buyers and renters.
Today & Tomorrow
As the population growth and urban sprawl challenges Melbourne today, the development of apartment buildings continues to reach new heights, literally. The Eureka Tower took the mantel through from 2006-2019, until Australia 108 came to the party. The latter still holds the record for now although construction is already underway for another local tower, STH BNK by Beulah, to rise above by 2028. Developments continue to reach new heights, offer greater services and deliver the next level of finish, and that’ll keep progressing as we do. The apartment market in Melbourne, like all happening cities, is significantly impacted by offshore factors, that being developers, purchasers and funds. Immigration rates and international students have a sizeable impact on that market too. Although the pandemic showed us that we don’t necessarily need to be in an exact setting to work or study, the demand to live in Melbourne continues to surge.