Friday 4 November 2011

Melbourne Art Deco

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life and the Melbourne Literary app for the iPhone and iPad.

It was all in the detail.

There’s something about Art Deco design which never ceases to delight me. Maybe it’s the combination of geometry and colour. Maybe it’s the frescoes in which 20th century technology looks decorative and classical. Maybe it’s just the way I associate Deco with PG Wodehouse and his Jeeves and Wooster books.

Whatever the reason, the Melbourne Art Deco Architecture Tour provided the requisite delight as I walked around the city under the guidance of guide Robin Grow. Some of Melbourne’s Deco architecture was already known to me, but Grow revealed a few secrets as well (the secret, guys, is to look up!)

The Manchester Unity Building was the logical start for our walk. Although I’m very familiar with the elegant sweep of this 1932 building, I hadn’t really stopped to look within its interior. How had I not seen the picture of the grieving woman near the Collins Street entrance? The curve of her back, the image of Death in the corner. The art is blocky but eloquent:

Further along I noticed the lovely stained glass highlights under the walkway to the Capitol Theatre for the first time:

Then, after spotting the little K on the former Kodak House, I got a better look at the mosaic on Newspaper House. I’ve always seen it from the other side of the road, but up close, I could see the dates and strange little designs on the insets of the windows:

It’s strange to think you know a city well, only to discover you really haven’t been looking at it properly. The Aztec influence in Harry Norris’s floor design for Block Court was obvious once it was pointed out to me. Howey House’s musicians were a surprise, as were the fish forming what I thought was a floral design on the Majorca Building:

I hadn’t expected the strange combination of images at the top of the Theosophical Building on Collins Street. The design is a combination of the six pointed star, a cross that looks a bit like an ankh, a swastika (the peaceful Indian one,  not the reversed Nazi one) and the ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail):

My favourite surprise, though, was the Egyptian motif on a building on Bourke Street. The winged sun and lotus columns reminded me of the time I lived in Egypt. The Egyptian craze in design that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb reached even our far shores and this elegant decoration represented a bridge between Melbourne’s history and my own:

Robin Grow knows a lot about the architectural history of Melbourne, helping you see the parts of the city you never noticed before; but it was the tour's interaction with my personal history that added detail to the experience.

The MELTours Melbourne Art Deco Architecture Tour takes place on the second Sunday of each month. Cost $49. Bookings via +61 407 380969 or

Narrelle M Harris was a guest of MELTours. You can find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her Melbourne Literary app and other published work.

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