High Rise Housing in Melbourne
Melbourne embarked on an ambitious program of public housing following World War Two, led by the Housing Commission of Victoria. The Housing Commission had been established in 1938, following a campaign by social reformer Oswald Barnett that highlighted the poverty and living conditions in parts of the inner suburbs.
After the war, the Housing Commission built estates for low-income families on the suburban fringes of Melbourne, many using innovative construction techniques with precast concrete. It also instituted many slum reclamation projects in the inner city in the 1960s and early 1970s, demolishing ‘slum’ areas across Melbourne’s inner suburbs.
These run-down areas were replaced with 21 high-rise housing estates dotted around suburbs such as Fitzroy, Richmond, South Melbourne and Carlton. Critics argued that ‘suburbs in the sky’ were hardly an improvement on the neighbourhoods they replaced. Local community resistance to further clearances in the 1970s brought an end to the high-rise program.
The 45 high rise towers on Melbourne’s Housing Commission estates are familiar to many, yet their history is little known. A model of the Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy and a short video about the impact of high rise estates feature in The Melbourne Story exhibition at Melbourne Museum, and offer new understandings of Melbourne’s ‘suburbs in the sky’. They explore how high rise housing has radically transformed Melbourne’s inner city skyline and how local communities have been affected.
Atherton Street Fitzroy: A vanished neighbourhood
The Atherton Gardens high-rise estate in Fitzroy was built between the mid 1960s and 1971, and replaced an entire neighbourhood made up of over 250 buildings, spread across eight streets. This neighbourhood was located between Brunswick, Gertrude, Napier, King William and Condell Streets in Fitzroy. About 180 homes lined the streets, most inhabited since the 19th century. The locals were mainly struggling families, including European migrants and Aboriginal people. Although many of their homes were in poor repair, not all were the ‘slums’ that the authorities claimed. Some migrants became home-owners and renovated their houses, putting in plumbing and other improvements. When the bulldozers moved through, many residents left the area, never to return.
Atherton Street looking south towards Gertrude Street, from Webb Street, Fitzroy, late 1950s.
Source: JL O'Brien Collection, University of Melbourne Archives
Atherton Gardens Estate: A Suburb in the Sky
The Atherton Gardens estate in Fitzroy was built by the Housing Commission of Victoria between the mid 1960s and 1971. It consists of 800 flats in four high rise towers, each 20 storeys high, surrounded by landscaped gardens, playgrounds and carparks, spread over eight hectares of land. The towers were assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels made by the Housing Commission’s concrete factory in Holmesglen. The flats are designed mainly for families, and are made up of two and three bedroom configurations. Two lifts are included in each tower, and communal laundry facilities are available on each floor.
Atherton Gardens, like many other public housing estates, has experienced some of the problems that the social planners had hoped to eradicate. Many who live there still suffer social disadvantages: poverty, unemployment, illness.
Despite this, Atherton Gardens has become a cherished home for many.
Atherton Gardens Estate Model
The Atherton Gardens estate model shows a section of the original neighbourhood demolished in the 1960s, and part of the new Atherton Gardens estate after construction was completed in 1971. It illustrates the impact of ‘slum clearance’ and high-rise public housing in Fitzroy. The model replicates the neighbourhood as accurately as possible, but records are incomplete. The Museum welcomes further information about the area and the people who lived there.
Model showing the Atherton Street neighbourhood as it would have appeared in 1960, and Atherton Gardens Estate as it would have appeared in 1971.
Photographer: Rodney Start, Source: Museum Victoria
About fifty shops were clustered along Brunswick, Gertrude, Webb and Condell Streets. People could buy fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, and groceries. They could also do their banking,banking and drycleandry-clean and repair their clothes. A Methodist Church provided a place of worship. A range of industries could be found too, squeezed in alongside houses and businesses. They ranged from clothing and furniture manufacturers to mechanics, electroplaters and a large timber yard.
There was a thriving, albeit notorious, social culture in the local hotels, cafes and clubs, some of which also illicitly operated as sly-grog shops and gambling dens. These were located on Gertrude, Condell, Brunswick and Napier Streets. Some cafes and clubs became important community hubs for recently arrived European migrants.