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Take a Walk into Melbourne’s History

26 Nov 2018

Stroll down Swanston Street for the city’s best architecture.

You probably didn’t realise that you can start at the top end of Swanston Street, stroll in a straight line and take in some of the city’s most fascinating buildings. They date from the time of the gold rush right through to the past couple of decades. Got the whole day? Finish up at NGV International and check out some of the art. Or get as far as you can and enjoy all the attractions along the way on our Melbourne architecture tour.

Start Here: RMIT Building 8

Behind the colourful and quirky Swanston Street facade of the late architect Peter Corrigan’s RMIT Building 8 [360 Swanston Street] are a number of university services, including a library, the student union and, fittingly, the schools of architecture, interior design and landscape building. While its postmodern design borrows features from some of Melbourne’s other significant buildings — like the Manchester Unity Building, which we’ll get to soon — Corrigan’s main idea for the 1993 building was to break up the monotonous wall-like aspect of the street. He achieved this through the use of coloured brick and stone work, exposed piping, an uneven roof line and windows topped by turrets that would look at home on a castle. Corrigan himself was an amazing asset to the university – he considered teaching, writing and designing buildings as essential contributions to Australian culture. A renowned maverick, he taught at RMIT from 1975 until he died in 2016, never missing an opening at the RMIT Gallery in that entire time.

Getting There Any tram route that travels along Swanston Street — 1, 3, 3a, 5, 6, 16, 64, 67 and 72 – will stop right outside RMIT Building 8. Hop off at stop 7, called RMIT University/Swanston Street.

Walk 200 Metres South to State Library of Victoria

It’s one of the city’s greatest institutions, and the State Library of Victoria [328 Swanston Street] has its origins in the early days of the city as a British colony. In 1853, Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe appropriated £10,000 to both purchase a two-acre block on Swanston Street and build the Melbourne Public Library on it. Joseph Reed won a competition to design the library and it took from 1856 to 1870 to complete the first stage of this grand structure. The much-loved and incredibly beautiful La Trobe Reading Room, designed by Norman Peebles, opened later in 1913. It is six storeys high and topped by a 35-metre-high dome. Since then various renovation projects have restored parts of the original structure, and the latest, due to be completed in 2020, will see the Queen’s Hall reading room once again open to the public. The library has a number of galleries — one is home to Ned Kelly’s armour — and daily free tours show visitors through the building and its collections.

Cross the Road to Melbourne Central

A shopping centre, you say? But Melbourne Central [corner La Trobe and Swanston Streets] is far more than that. Duck down the laneway past Harajuku Crepes and NeNe Chicken and you’ll find yourself at the base of the centre’s atrium, also known as Shot Tower Square. Look up and you’ll see the historic Coops Shot Tower, a bullet-making facility built in 1889, standing beneath a glass cone designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Want to find out more? You can book one of the Unlocked tours that will take you to some of the normally off-limits parts, the rooftop included, of Melbourne Central.

Walk 500 Metres South to Manchester Unity Building

When it was first built in 1932, the Manchester Unity Building [220 Collins Street] was considered the grandest in all of Melbourne. Architect Marcus Barlow drew inspiration from the Chicago Tribune Building in the USA for his creation, built in the modern Gothic style. It was far ahead of its time and was where Melbourne’s first escalators — they led to a basement cafe and mezzanine-level shops — were installed. Look up at the building’s exterior today and you’ll still see the mother-of-pearl coloured terracotta tiles covering the building, the bay windows on the second floor and the 24-metre-high turreted tower on the roof. Access the ground floor arcade — stop for a coffee at tiny Switchboard Cafe inside — with its friezes depicting aspects of Australian life back in the day, or take a one-hour architecture tour of the building to gain access to the rooftop terrace and tower. They take place one Sunday each month and must be booked in advance.

Keep Walking 260 Metres to Flinders Street Station

If you ever gathered with teenage mates in Melbourne back in the day, chances are you would have arranged to meet beneath ‘the clocks’. Everyone still does it to this day, most not even glancing at when the next trains are departing. Engines and carriages have passed through Flinders Street Station [207–361 Flinders Street] since 1854, and a competition was held at the turn of the 20th century to find a building design that matched its importance. It was won by two railway employees, but in the five years, between 1905 to 1910, it took to construct the huge Edwardian baroque building many elements were changed. That doesn’t change the vast scale — it stretches for an entire city block — or the impressive features, such as the grand dome, architectural arches and hidden ballroom that still stand today.

Cross the Road to Federation Square

Do you remember a time when Federation Square [corner Flinders and Swanston Streets] wasn’t controversial? From the announcement of its construction on the banks of the Yarra River until its opening, critics rolled their eyes saying the collection of buildings would be an eyesore. Local firms Lab Architecture Studio and Bates Smart were responsible for the unusual fractal triangular design in zinc, sandstone and glass and, after it launched in 2002, it didn’t take long for the city to warm to its charms. The piazza is almost considered Melbourne’s unofficial town square, with free events taking over every day of the week. More recently, there’s been uproar over plans to tear down one of the buildings — now home to the Koorie Heritage Trust — and replace it with an Apple Store. So much so, that at the time of writing, Fed Square was being assessed for heritage protection.

Cross the Princes Bridge to NGV International

This is Australia’s largest and oldest art museum, and both its permanent collection and touring exhibitions attract huge crowds. The Roy Grounds-designed bluestone building, once known as the National Gallery of Victoria and now called NGV International [180 St Kilda Road], was completed in 1967 and two of the original features, the Leonard French stained-glass ceiling and the water wall entrance, are as popular today as they were then. Mario Bellini significantly modernised the interior in the early 2000s, while the Australian collection was moved to the new Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in 2002 when Federation Square opened. Its own collection boasts pieces such as the first cast of Rodin’s The Thinker and Picasso’s The Weeping Woman, which was stolen in 1986 only to be returned two weeks later, although its blockbuster exhibitions are always worth catching. The gallery also hides an oasis, the Grollo Equiset Garden, complete with moat and sculptures.