Dreams were built on these houses

The focus on the preservation of 1800s heritage buildings is obscuring the impact immigrants have had on housing in Australia according to CHRIS FOTINOPOULOS.

Why are Victorian terraces more culturally important than the brick veneer homes built by migrants in the 60s?

Clean, plain and simple angular lines were preferred to cast iron lace, stain glass and elaborate wood carved fittings. Timber pickets were replaced with brick fences and timber sash windows where substituted for wide aluminium sliders that let natural light into the gloomy rooms and corridors of homes that belonged to a different period and place.

And why are we sensitive to the demolition of buildings erected in the 1800s, yet do not bat eyelid when structures such as the Gas and Fuel building, the Southern Cross Hotel and the CRA building are torn down?

I suspect that it has something to do with cultural snobbery. Most Australians still consider securing a house early in life as a smart move.

Those who chased work half way across the world after their family home was reduced to rubble by bombs would certainly agree.

My parents, as with most post-war migrants, still associate a home and a job with security and prosperity.

All of which were virtually guaranteed by Robert Menzies on the condition that new comers to this country were not too fussy with where they lived and were prepared to toil in factories until they found their financial feet.

Most post-war migrants hit the factory floor running, working long hours to ensure that enough money was earned to put a large slice of their pay aside for a deposit on their dream home.

Apart from the aesthetic differences, the great migrant dream is not too different to the great Australian dream.

Luckily for many “New Australians”, this dream was realised on account that reasonably priced workers’ cottages and terrace homes became available close to work around the time when much of the ‘old guard’ where escaping to Melbourne’s fringes in pursuit of a larger family home on a quarter acre block.

Given that newcomers to Australia were not going anywhere in a hurry, they had to ensure that their newly acquired rickety abodes were sturdy enough to accommodate kids, parents, extended family, as well as distant relatives who had yet to secure a home of their own.

Many of these homes were therefore refashioned into solid and functional domiciles.

Gypsum plaster embellishments such as ornate ceiling roses, cornices and picture railings linked to the “boom” style of the previous century were replaced with ICI ‘plasterglass’ or paper-lined plasterboards.

After all, these products were manufactured on the fully automated production lines that many migrant workers were assigned to when they first took up work.

Some went as far as levelling their crumbling terrace homes and building new brick dwellings on their narrow strip of land.

You can still find these homes nestled amid the renovated terraces and architecturally designed warehouse apartments in the inner city.

Although heritage purists may see these plain 1960s structures as a form of cultural vandalism, they nonetheless signify the arrival of what I call the Smart House.

The Smart House is a no-frills, functional and eco-friendly structure that was built to last by migrant workers.

Clean, plain and simple angular lines were preferred to cast iron lace, stain glass and elaborate wood carved fittings.

Timber pickets were replaced with brick fences and timber sash windows where substituted for wide aluminium sliders that let natural light into the gloomy rooms and corridors of homes that belonged to a different period and place.

I recall neighbours and friends stacking car trailers with irreplaceable moulds representing Australia’s architectural design history and heading off to the outer reaches of Melbourne to dump them in tips that would eventually become parks where the kids of the ‘new’ suburbs could kick a footy.

These modest brick dwellings may resemble bomb shelters to the heritage Nazis but they are prototypes to efficient, functional and eco-friendly living.

Their owners certainly placed energy efficiency, biodiversity, sustainable gardening, and functional living well ahead of old-world quaintness.

It is for this reason they deserve a place in the Pantheon of Australian architecture.

Blocking drafts and arresting rising damp was often the first renovation measure adopted by the new migrant owners.

Heating was costly and there was no way that the new occupants were going to allow precious heat hover twelve feet above their heads while waiting half the night for the living room to warm up.

Dropping the ceiling a few feet by covering the decorative plaster work with plain sheeting and cove cornice not only brought the heat to where is was needed, it ensured that the power bill remained low.

No matter how attractive or cultural significant the fireplace may have been to the heritage purists, it jarred with ‘new’ Australians on the grounds that it reminded them of their peasant heritage.

Lugging firewood for the home hearth was something that my grandmother had done ever since she was a child living in Greece.

Why should she continue to do so in a country that had the gas space heater?

I remember our re-configured period home being bright and breezy by day and warm and cosy at night as the family gathered near the spot were the ornate fireplace once stood to watch television to the hum of our new Vulcan gas space heater.

Gas was the new clean energy. And Melbourne’s 1967 Gas and Fuel building constructed out of 50s brown brick with aluminium windows seemed to give a nod to the homes that the migrants were building at the time.

Wedged between the Victoria era built Flinders Street station and the Neo-Gothic style St Paul’s cathedral, the Internationalist style of the Gas and Fuel building resembled, albeit on a grander scale, the Greek and Italian homes that sat amid period homes in the suburbs of Richmond, Collingwood, Carlton, South Melbourne and North Melbourne.

The yellow brick cubiform shapes eventually multiplied in the outer reaches of Melbourne as working class migrants left the inner city suburbs for new homes in Oakleigh, Clayton, and Clarinda.

The Internationalist style of Monash University’s Robert Menzies Building, affectionately dubbed ‘Ming Wing’, seemed to give nod to the Smart Houses that the Greeks were moving into in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sadly the Gas and Fuel building was torn down in the early 1990s at the behest of former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett to make way for deconstuctivist Federation Square.

This was around the time when the modest Smart House of the 1960s was mutating into a bombastic display of vanity.

The nouveau riche outer suburban mansions replete with Juliet balconies and driveways wide enough to deliver more than one four-wheel drive to their triple garages has come to represent the new Australian dream.

The McMansion, as it is referred to these days, is the pride of a new generation of workers, tradies and professionals, many of whom are of migrant heritage.

Those, however, who do not care for pretence and vanity can opt for an inner city abode where they can cycle to work, walk to a friend’s home, take the tram or train to the movies or a local restaurant and by doing so they help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint.

These days, for over a million dollars you can purchase an inner city period home that escaped the migrant touch.

For half the price you can buy a modest 1960s brick home. For me, the smart money is with the Smart House.

They are structurally rock solid, often well-positioned, secure, safe and cheep.

It really is a matter of getting over the snob factor. With some tweaking the 60s brick home can become a comfortable, functional and eco-friendly abode.

After all, the post war migrants did most of the heavy work in their effort to modernise homes that must have seemed old and impractical to their eyes.

Surely by now the 1960 Smart House is as culturally significant as the period homes that we go out of our way to preserve.

Chris Fotinopoulos writes for the ABC Unleashed and NKEE, he also teaches philosophy.