Making City Garden
The City Garden apartments (A, B & C Blocks) were designed in the early 1970s by one of Australia’s leading pioneers in Modernist architecture, Peter McIntyre. McIntyre’s signature works include famous public buildings such as the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Pool (1956) and groundbreaking Modern houses such as ‘Stargazer’ in Balwyn (1952). McIntyre developed his design for modern apartments in North Melbourne at a time of great foment in the area and as an attempt to bring new modes of modern living to a city crying out for urban reform. As he remembers, ‘it was an exciting time because so much development was going on and there was a huge movement to deal with it’.
The area around Lothian and Abbotsford Streets was once known as ‘Happy Valley’, and was a tight knit working class settlement which the Housing Commission of Victoria had labeled as ‘slum housing’. In the 1960s, the area was demolished in phases as part of the commission’s ‘slum clearance’ policy, by which working class residents were to be rehoused in new and modern public housing. The area on Haines Street was part of that compulsorily acquired by the state, but somewhat controversially this particular block was not handed over to public housing. Instead, the state placed the allotment to tender for private development. The winning bidders were Inge Brothers, real estate agents, led by Alex Inge.
McIntyre recalls that Inge Brothers provided him with a brief ‘looking at it just from the commercial point of view’, seeking to maximise their profit rather than provide good design. ‘That’s what they were wanting,’ McIntyre reflected, ‘I didn’t give it to them!’ Instead, he grasped the opportunity to put his Modernist ideas into practice and persuaded Inge Brothers that a design that was ‘more attractive to people’ would ultimately sell at a higher price.
Rather than repeat the brutal functionalist forms of the Housing Commission that were also going up around Melbourne at the time, McIntyre was inspired by an alternative vision of Modern architecture. He believed that ‘the point was how to overcome the mechanisation that Modernism had done,’ with its ‘industrial processes that were producing the same elements’ through ‘the industrial look of repetition’. Instead, McIntyre remembered that he ‘wanted to break up the levels, the facades … break it all up!’ This was the essential principle behind the split levels, staircases, and staged forms of A, B & C blocks. McIntyre also wanted to avoid the dominating car-park that surrounded all too many contemporary buildings, so this was to be placed beneath a garden.
The City Garden offered McIntyre an opportunity to put into practice at the local level some of his grander ideas about the direction Melbourne as a city should be taking. In the early 1970s, McIntyre was heavily engaged in the debate over urban planning in Melbourne. While famous local activists Ruth and Morrie Crowe were campaigning against high density and in favour of community-led linear or corridor growth for the city, in 1973 McIntyre delivered Melbourne’s first official strategic plan, which sought to limit high density development into particular areas in the west and east, while seeking to rejuvenate inner city suburbs such as North Melbourne. These developments came at a time when Australian politics was turning towards the issue of urban reform, with the Whitlam government of 1972-5 instituting its Australian Assistance Plan and seeking to transform Australian cities after a long era of suburban sprawl.
Economic downturn however not only crashed Whitlam’s dream. It also stalled the development at City Garden. McIntyre’s complete design for the whole allotment was not realised, as the money ran dry and Inge Brothers struggled to sell the apartments at the price demanded. By 1977, Alex Inge began to lease out those he could not sell, coming under pressure from ANZ Bank, which had financed the more expensive design and building and to whom Inge was said to owe a million dollars as a result. This also explained the staggered and different styles of later developments. While the builders of A, B & C blocks were Breschi Bros, according to the McIntyre design, D Block & the later townhouses were built by Alex Inge in later stages.
D-Block’s basement was finished by 1977, but languished as a basement with local itinerants and homeless people using it for shelter and to keep warm. Eventually Inge raised the funds to complete D-Block along a similar mould to the first three blocks. The townhouses however were a different story.
McIntyre regrets that the plans for City Garden were lost not long after its construction, when his office was burnt down by some children who broke in, turned all the taps on and set fire to it.
Living in City Garden
Wendy and Graham Hamilton were among the early and longest residents of City Garden, coming to North Melbourne in 1965 while the urban redevelopment was underway. Wendy worked as a librarian and teacher, and Graham worked in the Victorian auditor general’s office. They remember some of the colourful characters and stories associated with ‘Happy Valley’. Among these were the terraced shops of Abbotsford Street, including a fish and chips shop, and a famous local butcher called ‘Horry’ whose family of six children crammed into his little two story shop. The ‘valley’ would frequently flood, as it lay in a natural depression and creek that once ran along Plane Tree grove. When it flooded, the cable tram ‘used to come down the hill and people would get out and swim’ across. It was ‘a bit of a rough area’, but one with a tight-knit community.
The redevelopment of ‘Happy Valley’ prompted residents to protest, including with a march down Abbotsford Street featuring a ‘Lady Godiva’ figure. The working class residents may have failed in their attempt to stop the gentrification of Happy Valley, but nor did Inge Brothers realise the sought after windfall.
The Hamiltons had already moved into their apartment when Inge turned his focus to making money out of his continuing stake in City Gardens by leasing his apartments to touring performers, including actors and musicians during theatre seasons and racing carnivals. Among these, were actors from the filming of Mad Max brought to Melbourne by producer Byron Kennedy. Another famous tenant was ‘glamour jockey’ Shane Dye, who rode the Melbourne Cup, Plate and Golden Slipper while living at City Gardens in the 1990s . Wendy and Graham also saw entertainers brought to Melbourne by promoter Michael Edgley, from ballet dancers to knife eaters and all manner of artists who ‘wanted us to live their lifestyle in terms of hours!’ Another tenant, a partially deaf Vietnam veteran would play his sound system to the max ‘every night at 2am’ so ‘everyone could hear it’.
Other ventures attempted by Alex Inge included setting up City Gardens as a venue for Japanese marriages in the 1980s. The rose arch opposite A3 was constructed for this purpose and the garden was planted with spring blossoms and remodelled by Richmond florist Jill Raft.
Alex Inge ran City Gardens more or less as a personal fiefdom until ‘the coup’ in 1999. Then, convening a meeting in a local church hall, people who owned other units at City Gardens challenged Inge to run it as a Body Corporate rather than a business. The Hamiltons reflected that ‘the biggest problem was that Inge ran it like an autocrat’. Among the straws that broke the camel’s back had been Inge’s demolition in 1994 of the brick fences that provided each unit with its private courtyard. The privacy, security and aesthetic value of the garden courtyards had been a major selling point of the apartments for the Hamiltons. Inge had guaranteed that they would be rebuilt, but the process took years and was plagued with legal and technical issues. Michael McLaughlin and Michael Stevens were on the initial Body Corporate committee that was, after much legal wrangling, finally constituted.
Once the Body Corporate was established, more residents came to live at City Garden. Students at university also became a prominent element of the residents. The gentrification process started in the 1960s finally seemed to reach its zenith. Apartments that Inge had sold for $30,000 to $60,000 by 2014 were selling for over $500,000. The Hamiltons ‘couldn’t believe it’ when they finally sold up after 37 years living at City Garden
Written by Historian Aron Paul