Friday, 12 June 2009

Melbourne's Cultural Capitol

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

When Joni Mitchell sang those words, it was unlikely she had Melbourne’s architectural heritage in mind. The city has been luckier than most in retaining its fine buildings of the past.

However, many gems have been lost.

Sing a song of lament for these fine structures, if you feel inclined. The old fish market, a Moorish confection by the riverbank near Batman Park, disappeared in 1956. The original exhibition building in William Street, made largely of glass, went much earlier in 1869. And interesting city arcades vanished from sight as retail fashions changed.

Miraculously the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street survives, though not without enduring an attempt at decapitation. The grand cinema was a 1920s vision of American architect Walter Burley Griffin, best known for his design of Canberra. Many of his buildings across Australia have gone, but the Capitol remains. Even in its abridged form, it remains a fascinating space.

It’s all about the ceiling, the first thing to grab your attention as you enter the auditorium. In fact, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it. Row upon row of angular plaster projections are illuminated by hidden light bulbs, in four basic colours: red, green, yellow and blue.

In 1924, the yellow bulbs were white, but everyone remembers them as yellow; so they’re yellow today. The ceiling is a stunning sight when fully lit, its angles suggesting crystals or stalactites.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Casual visitors would be surprised to discover they’re seated in the original dress circle and upper circle sections of the auditorium. Below them, a vast area of stalls once stretched from the current street entrance to the screen.

A palatial lounge spread out above the current foyer, decked with lounges, mirrors and pot plants, for the enjoyment of the higher-paying customers. Above that was a gentlemen’s smoking lounge, lined with armchairs and padded benches.

And this was just the public face of the Capitol. Backstage, a lofty five-storey fly tower held sets and backdrops for live performances. A Wurlitzer organ lifted out of the floor at the start of each performance, with the pipes artfully hidden in rooms above the stage. And small offices, nooks and crannies throughout the venue were used for management and maintenance.

What happened to this palace of dreams? In a word, progress. In the 1960s, the original street level foyer and stalls were demolished, to be replaced by the nondescript shopping arcade that exists today. In the process, many doorways and stairwells were bricked up.

The dress circle and upper circle lounges were separated from the auditorium by concrete block walls, and a concrete slab filled one of the foyer voids, so they could be turned into lettable spaces. One became a knitting factory, while the other was a pharmacy storeroom for a while.

In the cinema auditorium, a new section of seating extended the dress circle down to the level it sits at today, slightly higher than the old stalls. A large airconditioning duct snaked its way down former stairs and through the backstage area.

The “new” Capitol was a shadow of its former self. Still, it lived on as a cinema, passing through the hands of major chains. Chinese films had a run as well, but the single screen venue became uncompetitive with the new breed of multiplex.

Though Melbourne’s international film and comedy festivals used it for special occasions, a new threat suddenly loomed. In the mid-1990s, it was suggested the cinema be walled up, to allow further retail development. It would still exist, but be inaccessible to the public.

Outcry ensued, a white knight was looked for, and in 1999 RMIT University stepped in. Its nearby business department needed a large auditorium for lectures and other uses, and the Capitol filled the need. For once, practical considerations, the public good and public relations all happily coincided. RMIT gained a new venue and the kudos for rescuing a grand old lady in need of a saviour.

As a bonus, previously sealed-off “hidden areas” have been discovered since RMIT took the place over and instituted a renovation program.

Luckily, it’s possible to get a glimpse at these areas which were closed for so long. One Friday each month, volunteer guides lead tours of the Capitol, including some of the hidden areas; if interested, you can book for a prized place on a tour by ringing 03 9925 2415 (international +61-3-99252415).

It’s the chance to meet an unlikely survivor of the city’s past, hidden above the streets; and an intriguing reminder of Melbourne’s 20th century architectural history.