From an aesthetic point of view, our religious architecture in Australia is unprecedentedly novel. Save for the situations where former Australian churches built by other denominations have been adapted to Orthodox use, a proper appropriation of pre-existing structures that fit in with the local landscape, which already have a history and facilitate the formation of a truly Australian Orthodoxy, the church buildings constructed by Greeks in Melbourne, generally tend to look nothing like the traditional form of churches existing in Greece, at least, from the outside. Most significantly, their exteriors are extraordinarily diverse, reflecting various layers of Greek settlement and acculturation in Melbourne.
Thus, in a cursory drive around the suburbs of Melbourne, we are treated to a vast range of church buildings, some of which take surprising forms: resembling aeroplane hangars, sheds, multipurpose gymnasia and, in one bizarre instance, a Buddhist pagoda. All forms of construction materials have been used in their erection, from the mission brown bricks of the seventies, to prefabricated concrete slabs and beyond. It could be argued that the strange character of these buildings reflect the circumstances in which they were constructed: hastily erected by a community still finding its feet in Australia and far from affluent, in desperate need of places to worship, with more thought given to function than form. Furthermore, it has been argued, the architectural and construction skills necessary to build the traditional form of Greek church, which invariably is crowned with a dome, have not been present in Australia until recently, which is why the splendid Dormition of the Theotokos church in Altona looks Armenian or Georgian, with its strikingly Caucasian pointed roof. This is a potent argument, but one which ultimately is refuted by the beautiful, traditional, domed Orthodox churches constructed by communities much smaller, or more recent in arrival than our own, such as the Serbian and Russian communities, along with the FYROM community, however it should be pointed out that their church, though not its architecture, is schismatic. Of course, it is trite to mention that there are a number of Ottoman-style mosques dotting the suburbs which also sport grand domes.
There is something more intrinsic at play, in the manner in which Greek churches on Melbourne have departed so markedly from the traditional norm’, than mere lack of money, or lack of skill. Saint Nektarios in Fawkner, built decades ago, is possessed of a grand dome, spanning almost the entire breadth of the building. It is not an example of ‘traditional’ Greek church architecture and not does it need to be. Compared with other churches in Melbourne, Saint Nektarios in Fawkner is architecturally significant because it is an Australian reinterpretation and adaptation of the Great Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, and its facade reflects both the building materials and designs available to the community at the time, as well as the aesthetic of the community at large, which is why its strange round windows, trapezoidal porches and rendered exterior fit in well with what was, at the time the church was built, an up-and-coming newly developed suburb. Someone has considered the Orthodox tradition, the Australian urban landscape, and the nature of the Greek community of the area very carefully, and has successfully married all these elements into an Orthodox church that belongs to and encapsulates its environment and its aspirations, in an unprecedented way.
A few kilometres away, the Coburg church, which resembles the stark Coptic churches of the Nitrian desert, also has a rendered exterior and a dome. Unlike the dome of Saint Nektarios however, the concrete dome of the Presentation of Our Lord is clumsy, and ill-fitting. One also does not know how to interpret the two looming bell-towers at the front of the church, rounded by bizarre hollow arches. Here we venture into the world of the surreal. On a clear day, this church resembles the Coptic churches of the Nitrian desert, and in the early morning with no-one around, the dome and the arches look like a cityscape from a De Chirico painting. Is this a reflection of the parishioners own sense of quandary in interpreting the world around them? If so, this endearing church is a potent focal point of an unravelling cosmos.
If surreal is what one is after, one can go no further than the brilliantly breathtaking Saint Athanasius church in Springvale which combines the Saint Sophia-style aspirations of Saint Nektarios with the De Chirico qualities of The Presentation of Our Lord. A small red dome that looks like the top of a flying saucer sits jauntily atop a roller coaster of arches and half-arches of a complexity rivalled only by the architectural imaginings of a Dr Seuss book. One is in constant anticipation of a Lorax springing out from behind one of the columns and if the Grinch was ever to steal Christmas, surely it would be from here. The overall effect upon the viewer is one of awe derived from an appreciation of the church building’s immensity, complexity, and most importantly, overall harmony.
Saint John’s church in Carlton also sports a dome. It is squat, comfortable, and, unlike the Coburg dome, un-self conscious. The highly adorned exterior brickwork recalls, but does not copy, the decorative stonework of the late Roman and early Byzantine eras, while the metalwork in vibrant blues, yellows, red, and grays reminds one of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The disconcerting blue trapezoidal porch and eaves are a novel interpretation of the traditional barrel vault. This hybrid masterpiece has something of the Gothic about its aesthetics. Instead of feeling enveloped by the heavens, one feels a vertical connection of ascent to them, granting a completely different ecclesiastical experience. This marriage of received and inherited architectural emotions and aesthetics renders Saint John’s a truly significant edifice.
Saint Andrew’s in Sunshine is a remarkable building in that it reminds one immediately of a Roman basilica, the first type of Christian church, crossed with a martyr’s shrine of the type one generally sees in the Holy Land. Constructed of the light brown brick common to homes in the surrounding area, it has a great gate for entry to its side, just like the basilicas of Constantine, and is a prodigious reinterpretation of the fundamentals of church architecture.
With regards to their ability to interpret and adapt received religious architectural tradition, all of the abovementioned churches have their precedent in the first Greek Orthodox Church ever to be built in our city, the Annunciation. This church, constructed by Longstaff in 1901 to a design by noted contemporary architects Inskip and Butler, plays on motifs drawn from French and German medieval sources in order to situate the church within the context of turn of the century Melburnian urban architecture, without rendering its form unintelligible to parishioners used to the architectural traditions of their homeland.
It is this unique ability to enshrine the essence of Orthodoxy from the outset while also appealing to its parishioners’ desire to acculturate within the context of broader Australian society that has perhaps rendered the Annunciation church the most beloved and revered in Melbourne. Its interior, prior to its partial destruction by fire last year, was endearing though unastonishing, permeated as it was by the dark, close aesthetic of the neo-Baroque, so common to Greek churches of the nineteenth century. Its successful restoration will, no doubt, recall that style, for it forms an intrinsic part of the history of the formation of our own Greek Australian design, with the restoration forming yet another layer in the edifice’s composite history. The manner in which the Greek community engaged in radical innovation of church architecture from its very genesis, in the Annunciation, has thus had profound influence in the interpretation and ideology of style, right up until the present day.
One could say that a vernacular form of architecture specific to Australia has been articulated and if the work of architects like Angelo Candelapas who is currently completing an extraordinary 99-domed mosque in Punchbowl, Sydney, and who has designed All Saints Greek Orthodox Grammar primary school, is anything to go by, that tendency will most likely continue into the future.
Given the above, it is regrettable that a proper cultural and comparative study of the churches of the Greeks in Melbourne, one that examines the innovations and ideologies of adaptation, their cumulative effect upon the development of church architecture in Australia, how they respond to and interpret the Orthodox tradition and most importantly, what they say about the Greek of Melbourne themselves, has not been undertaken.
Considering however, that church architecture is one of the few cultural elements in which the Greek community has displayed pronounced innovative tendencies, for the large part, divorced from the tastes and trends of the mother country, their evolution is well worth studying.
Such a study, perhaps undertaken concurrently with the restoration of the Annunciation Church, will surely lead to an increased appreciation of the art behind some of our most utilised, but least aesthetically appreciated, community edifices.