Port Places welcomes this week’s contribution from Brendan Baxter. A photograph in his family’s collection leads to reflections on housing policy and provision in Victoria. Brendan is an architect and urban designer living in Port Phillip.
Brendan Baxter 14 August 2019
Monument to a View
Many different views of Park Towers are included in Monument to a View, the exhibition that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the South Melbourne public housing estate’s opening in 1969. The exhibition includes photos of the apartment towers under construction, taken by my grandfather Ron Allan (1912 – 2001) who delivered building materials to the site in his truck. I remember being shown the photographic slides by my grandfather when I was about 10 years old – in the early 1980s – when Park Towers were still in their teens! At the time, the flats seemed an odd thing to include amongst slides of babies, pets, holidays and family gatherings. But I do remember my grandfather being proud of his work contributing to this modern marvel and being particularly interested in the new technology of pre-cast panels. As an architect and urban designer, I love learning about these kinds of bold new public projects from before I was born. Both the Park Towers exhibition and my grandfather’s photos have prompted the following reflections.
I am amused that many people view Park Towers as an example of Cold War communist housing, like the Plattenbau estates of East Germany. In fact, this type of government housing was built on both sides of the Iron Curtain, including in West Germany and Great Britain, which makes Park Towers a local example of an international trend. Park Towers was actually designed and built during the five consecutive terms of ‘conservative’ Premier Henry Bolte’s Liberal state government. So, rather than communist housing, Park Towers should be viewed as the product of a democratic western society that acted decisively to solve its massive postwar housing shortage. Victoria has doubled its population since 1969 and, now in the second term of the ‘progressive’ Premier Daniel Andrew’s Labor government, again has a severe shortage of safe and affordable housing. In stark contrast to the thousands of houses built by the government in 1969, Victoria now only builds about three hundred new dwellings each year and is even privatising its existing public housing stock. This is not just a symptom of us becoming a more neo-liberal society, Victoria’s public housing ownership and investment levels are only about half that of other Australian states. Clearly, Victoria needs to invest much more in safe and affordable housing.
The prefabricated construction of Park Towers in 1969 is a significant technological achievement and demonstrates that the Victorian government then had considerable in-house expertise, funding, and power to act to solve its affordable housing crisis. In 1946, as there was a severe shortage of conventional building materials after the war, the Housing Commission took over the large military tank factory in Holmesglen to create a modern production line for manufacturing concrete panels. The Commission used pre-cast concrete panels to construct large numbers of detached villa houses, low rise walk-up flats and, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, high-rise buildings. Prefabricated construction has been a powerful ideal within the building industry since the early 20th century but, despite its advantages, is still uncommon in Australia today. While by today’s standards we can judge Park Tower’s concrete wall panels to be energy inefficient and aesthetically drab, at least they are not dangerously flammable like the cladding recently used on many new private apartment buildings. Today’s crises in poor building quality and lack of enforcement of building standards says more about our society’s values and processes than it does about 50 years of progress in construction technology.
A future for our past
Renowned architect Robin Boyd praised the Housing Commission’s bold agenda to redevelop inner city sites as ‘an extraordinary official repudiation of the Australian dream’. While we still need alternatives to low-density suburban housing today, it is now hard to imagine a time when a large section of South Melbourne could be demonised as ‘slums’ and then demolished because it was considered to be physically and socially ‘beyond repair’. It is particularly hard now to imagine the antipathy that mainstream architects and planners then had for the pre-modern city. By the late 1960s, there was a small but growing group of people who appreciated historic places, particularly the fine-grained, human-scaled neighbourhoods of inner Melbourne. By the mid-1970s, the rise of a grass-roots urban protest movement effectively halted the Housing Commission’s land-grabs and large-scale redevelopment projects.
Some things have not changed much in 50 years, Melbourne continues to expand with building of car-dependant low-density outer suburbs and to try and solve transport problems by building ever-bigger roads. At the same time, we continue to build ever-higher apartment towers, many of which are visible from Park Towers, in the central City, Southbank and Docklands. Unlike Park Towers, however, these days few attempts are made to provide apartment residents with opportunities to connect with nature. While the tower-in the-park is now viewed as a flawed design model, more green landscape spaces are now needed in the inner city areas.
Incredibly, we now know that the Housing Commissionpursued high-rise construction in the 1960s even though they knew that low-rise walk-up flats could achieve equivalent dwelling yields and garden areas at a lower cost. But low-rise construction would not have given the senior government officials the same power and prestige that projects like Park Towers could offer. For example, at the grand opening in October 1969, Park Towers received praise from ‘overseas experts’ for being ‘the highest pre-cast loadbearing wall building of its kind in the world’.
We still continue this love affair with big projects today – politicians love to announce massive transport infrastructure projects and do large property and development deals. Yet, we also need thousands of small, detailed acts to improve the quality and safety of our public realm, provide local community facilities and create well-designed medium-density housing. Melbourne needs to build more of this ‘missing middle’ density because it is a more popular, affordable and sustainable form of urban housing.
Mirroring those of wider society, professional architectural attitudes towards Park Towers have reversed over time. For example, Park Towers received an award in the 1969 South Melbourne Architectural Awards, with a jury that included Robin Boyd. At first, this seems a surprising endorsement from the architect of the 1962 Domain Park Flats that is still celebrated for its refined design. However, Park Tower’s award category, ‘Residential Building built by a Government Instrumentality’, highlights that professionals then thought that public housing should look and perform quite differently than private housing.
Today, new social housing is expected to be smaller in scale and better integrated with the local community. In addition to publicly owned housing, the ideal is now for a diversity of non-profit and member-based housing organisations to have a role in providing social and affordable housing. Well-designed local examples of this approach include Knox Schlapp Housing (1985, Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design), Wintringham Port Melbourne (1996, Allen Kong Architect) and several projects by Port Phillip Housing Association (now HousingFirst), including Inkerman Oasis (2000, Williams Boag Architects). This emphasis on social integration has tended to suppress technological innovation, at least visibly, with the exception of K2 apartments (2007, by Design Inc Architects) whose distinct appearance was driven by strong environmental performance goals.
50 years on, the design and construction of Park Towers remains a great social achievement for creating public housing with high residential amenity in an inner suburban location. When I look at Park Towers now, I wish our community would regain some of the drive, vision and compassion that we had in the 1960s, so that we can again make the building of quality affordable and social housing a real priority.
Sources and Further Reading
Monument to a View: Park Towers 1969 – 2019 Exhibition, 16 Jul 2019 to 27 Sep 2019, Emerald Hill Library & Heritage Centre, City of Port Phillip, 195 Bank Street, South Melbourne
Exhibition dates: 16 July to 27 September Exhibition opening hours: Monday & Friday 10am to 6pm, Tuesday 12pm to 8pm, Wednesday & Thursday 12pm to 6pm
Australia Modern: Architecture, Landscape & Design edited by Hannah Lewi & Philip Goad, Thames & Hudson, 2019
Trendyville: The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities by Renate Howe, David Nichols and Graeme Davison, Angus and Robertson, 2013
Victoria spends less than half the national average on social housing, report shows, by Luke Henriques-Gomes, The Guardian, Tue 22 Jan 2019,
Victorian public housing waiting list at 82,000 and growing by 500 a month, Danny Tran and Guy Stayner, ABC News, 6 Jun 2018,
Brendan Baxter is a Melbourne architect and urban designer with over 20 years experience in both the public and private sectors. Brendan established his own practice in 2018 that draws on his experience with leading a range of residential, community, education and urban projects. His doctoral thesis, ‘The New Berlin, urban design models for a more compact and sustainable city’, is currently getting quite close to being approved.