By Peter Wingate

    What’s the best way to learn about significant architectural styles of the twentieth century?  Have a look at the best buildings around you, I say.

    In the first of a series, we take a look at a style that took off around the western world early last century, one of the first to react to historically-inspired revival styles and a precursor to modernism.

    Effectively a ‘new art’, Art Nouveau was a movement that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the existing art establishment and its perceived constraints.  Gaining inspiration from nature, particularly the curvaceous line and beauty of the organic form and a strong sense of geometry, Art Nouveau rejected previous historically-inspired movements (think Greek Revival/Neo-Classicism etc.) which were felt to be backward-looking and overly restrictive, for a more ‘modern’ style that was concerned with the arts as a whole.  The Art Nouveau movement rejected the notion that true art was limited to just painting, embracing all art forms including furniture, fashion, graphic design, led-lighting, jewellery and architecure.  It broke free of conservative, hierarchical ‘art’ that took its cue from the past only and ushered in a century of huge theoretical and stylistic change in architecture and the arts as a whole.

    In Architecture, Art Nouveau displays a strong use of geometric forms, often exploited structurally, contrasted with natural decorative motifs, non-uniform curves and lines, and organic forms.  It was less often a style used in isolation and many Art Nouveau buildings can be included as part of the Federation, Queen Anne, Romanesque and Art Deco styles which variously inspired and were inspired by Noveau, being popular around the same time.


    State Savings Bank, 1909

    13 Ballarat Street, Yarraville

    Melbourne architects Sydney Smith and Ogg designed this handsome example of Art Nouveau-inspired architecture for a flourishing post-federation Yarraville in 1909. The contract price paid by State Savings Bank Victoria was £1,966.  Perhaps most significant to its design is the fact that renowned architect, architectural author and academic Robert Haddon was employed by the firm at the time.  Haddon had just published ‘Australian Architecture’ in Melbourne 1908, a book which espoused a unifying (although not independent nor particularly unique) architectural style for the antipodes.  He admired the Art Nouveau style popular in Belgium and greater Europe at the time, but his treatise encouraged designers to look to conservative British forms for inspiration; hardly forward-looking for a young post-colonial nation.  His design for the Yarraville branch of the State Savings Bank takes from Romanesque Art Nouveau design and displays  nature-inspired organic decorative detailing counterpointed by strong geometry in the structure.

    Note the multi-faced rectilinear columns over both levels, and Romanesque rounded-arch windows which are contrasted by intricate ornamentation inspired by flowers and the flowing lines of the natural environment.

    20150923_095626 (1)

    St George’s Theatre, 1891

    34 Birmingham Street
    Yarraville VIC

    The St George’s Theatre was designed by architects Craven, Brown & Marqua in 1891.  The theatre was converted to a cinema in 1913 shortly after the introduction of film, and became the Universal Dancing Classes (UDC) Ballroom in 1960.  Interestingly, it’s interior was used to film scenes for the movie Strictly Ballroom, 1992.  It has been converted to apartments in the last decade.

    Similarly to the State Bank, this building’s façade exploits vertical columns to create a strong visual framework (they are not technically structural), and uses organic forms such as leaves in its ornamentation. The columns, which are both square and round, are topped by similarly strong geometric forms; spheres, contrasting more intricate nature-inspired detailing.

    Can you spot some of the characteristics of these Inner West Art Nouveau examples and the significant Melbourne buildings below? Bonus points if you recognise them!

    20150626_15045620150920_140032 (1)20150920_14014320150920_140154Leviathan_building_bourke_street_melbourneMilton House on Flinders Lane in Melbourne.JPG


    Australian Architecture 1901-51: Sources of Modernism Johnson, Donald Leslie University of Sydney Library Sydney 2002

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.

    Your feedback

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here



    Latest Articles

    Latest edition

    #96 May 2024

    Recent editions



    Become a supporter

    The Westsider is run on the power of volunteers. Your contribution directly contributes to ensuring we can continue serving and celebrating our community.

    Related articles