Designed by architect Geoffrey
Mewton of Mewton and
Grounds in 1935-36, WoyWoy
is not only the earliest of a small group of Modernist flats in St Kilda, but
also certainly the earliest in Melbourne, and arguably, in Australia.
Sydneyflats, tend to retain decorative elements of
Moderne streamlining. But WoyWoy is austere, daringly
minimal, rendered plain, without ornament. The design is in the
composition of pure, pale, geometric forms. Arguably, WoyWoy is the earliest, multi-storied, Modernist
building in Australia.
Its only competitor for this accolade would seem to be Cairo flats, 98 Nicholson
Street, Fitzroy (also 1935-36) designed by architect Best
Overend, of Taylor Soilleux and
The only modestly decorative indulgence at
WoyWoy is the name,
jauntily applied in blocky relief letters, as if snatched from a Ginger
Meggs comic strip, and a small cream brick nib. The
connection of the flats with the coastal town north of Sydney,
is not known. At three stories with an accessible roof (it seems taller),WoyWoy is still the
tallest building along the waterfront, south of EdgewaterTowers.
The interlocking cubic forms at
Mewton’s interest in the works of Willem Marinus
Dudok, whose best-known building, the
Raadhuis at Hilversum,
Netherlands (1928-31, 38), but Mewton avoids
Dudok’s decorative flashes.
Mewton’s design is also firmly in the slipstream of International
Modernism, as if it were one bay
van der Rohe’s
flats at his Weissenhof
Siedlung estate, high above Stuttgart
A companion block was planned for the rear of
WoyWoy, to face
but never built. Relatively recent alterations at WoyWoy have reduced its integrity, including that: most
window sills have been lowered by 250mm; only the ground floor window is
original. (This is a frequently requested alteration in historic buildings, to
increase light and views to current expectations, but it does diminish the
carefully determined façade composition and proportion). So, steel window frames
have been replaced with aluminium (again, to different effect). The front stairs
have been extended to the roof, and the date, 1936 has been gratuitously
insinuated onto the upper stair.
Interiors are tightly planned and include
interesting details like a breakfast inglenook. Oddly, floors are insulated with
concrete between timber joists. For WoyWoy is not a reinforced concrete building as might
be imagined, but brick, with timber-framed floors.
In the same year, 1936,
Mewton also designed Bellaire, 3 Cowderoy Street,
St Kilda West. This is a large, three-storied block
of so-called ‘bachelor flats’, appearing as even more severe than
WoyWoy, because of its
bulk. Yet, mediated by Mewton’s
interest in Dudok, it is
unrendered, with two tones of brick: cream decorative panels in the red
walls. The accessible roof increases the available open space, but is
cheerfully adorned with umbrellas and planting to dress-up its views over the
Here also, ‘kitchenettes’ have inbuilt meals
inglenooks. But some planning is so tight as to be inconvenient: bedrooms so
wee as to be unusable, (except by St Kilda’s
vertical sleepers) and the front door opening into the bedroom. Whether this
was due to a too-clever architect, or (more likely), a greedy client, is
Yet even more than WoyWoy,
Mewton’s Bellaire looks towards
post-war flat design, as the Heritage Study’s authors perceptively note,
for better or for worse; even to the ubiquitous 1960s ‘six-packs,’ flats of
suburbs beyond St Kilda.
(1905- ), travelled overseas between July 1928 and 1932, studying recent
architecture in Europe and
as did successful commercial architects (such as Leighton Irwin and Marcus
Barlow), other recent graduates (Best Overend and
Roy Grounds) and as so many others of us have since. Mewton
recalled that Dudok was the hero of every
architectural student during his first years in Europe.
returned to join Roy Grounds, his exact contemporary, in partnership as
Mewton and Grounds, from 1932-38. As Prof Freeland
observed, Mewton and Grounds ‘with their clean, pure
and intensely warm buildings, set Melbourne
architecture alight for a brief five
In 1939, Grounds went off
on his own and Mewton joined Edward
Billson, as he was finishing the Warburton buildings
(38). Billson had been articled to Walter Burley
Griffin and was his first employee in Australia.
And so the wheel turns, with so many spokes from St Kilda.
Until his retirement,
Mewton then became a partner in the old established architectural firm,
Godfrey and Spowers, which had been founded in
1901. It became Godfrey,
Spowers, Hughes, Mewton and
Lobb. Employees such as Alex
Njoo recall Mewton still coming to the office
as an old man. The firm continues still, as Spowers
First with Mewton,
then alone, Roy Grounds could claim, virtually more than any other architect, to
have brought Modernism in architecture to Australia.
His Modernism is plain, unpretentious, yet consistent; assembled from simple
geometric, often interlocking forms.
Roy Burman Grounds
(1905-81), graduated from the University
of Melbourne Architecture Atelier.
He was then articled to Blackett, Forster and Craig, before travelling to the
He worked first in New York
in 1929, then in Los Angeles
as a set designer for RKO and MGM Studios, before returning to Melbourne
in 1932, and partnership with Mewton. They were
prolific designers, producing a series of at least 15 Modernist houses with open
floor plans and flat roofs, responding to local conditions, which made the
running for subsequent Modernist domestic design in Australia:
fifteen years before Harry Seidler’s first house in
designed the Stooke house in Halifax Street,
(1934) and Grounds, his own house, Ranelagh, at 35 Rannoch Avenue,
Mt Eliza (1933-34); arguably the two earliest Modernist buildings in Australia.
These were followed by houses designed by Grounds within the partnership:
Portland Lodge, 1 Plummer Avenue, Frankston (1934-35),
Lyncroft, Tucks Road, Shoreham (1934), Chateau
Tahbilk, Nagambie (1935), Watt house, Grosvenor Court, Toorak (1935,
altered), Evan Price house, 2 Riverview Road, Essendon, (1935-36),
Ingpen House, Aphrasia Street, Newtown, Geelong and
236 Kooyong Road, Toorak (both 1936). Then over 1935-36, came the two St Kilda
flats, WoyWoy and
Bellaire. Finally, in 1937, Grounds designed the Ramsay House, 29 Rendlesham Avenue
which neatly became the Grounds House, when Grounds conveniently married his
On his own (1939-42), Grounds developed their
approach at WoyWoy in
his own manner, influentially recasting Australian flats design in sheer
Modernism. Clendon (1939-42) and
Clendon Corner (1940-41), 13-15 Clendon Road,
Armadale; Moonbria, Mathoura Road,
Toorak (1941) and Quamby, 3 Glover Court,
Toorak (1941-42). Here Goad detects the influence of Scandinavian design and
less obviously, of Raymond McGrath, an Australian architect who stayed in London
and known for his public building interiors such as the BBC’s Broadcasting
House, Portland Place (1931) which are described by
NikolausRassner as ‘daringly’ modern’.
Inexplicably, none of these flats is in St Kilda.
In 1953, Grounds joined Frederick Romberg
(1910-92) and Robin Boyd (1919-71, 46) as another partnership: Grounds,
Romberg and Boyd became the most important architectural firm in Melbourne,
over 1953-62. Afterwards, Grounds devoted his last twenty years to the
gestation of his National Gallery of Victoria and Cultural Centre (now Victorian
Romberg’s complex contribution to Melbourne’s
Modernism includes two remarkable flats, recipients of the baton passed from
WoyWoy and Bellaire, in
Queens Road, just outside the City of St Kilda: Newburn, at 30 (1939-42) and
Stanhill, at 34 (1945-50).
There are only four other Modernist blocks of
flats in this early period in St Kilda, leading up to World War II: Park Court,
473 St Kilda Road (1938) developed from Bellaire, but with balconies; by
significant and innovative architects, Seabrooke and
Fildes, who had just designed
MacRobertson Girls High School, Albert Park (1933-34), the earliest (Dudokian,
and near) Modernist substantial government building in Victoria; 51 Ormond
Esplanade, Elwood (1939) is J.H. Dorney’s excursion
into Modernism; a long stylistic trip only six years from Surrey Court (41).
Acland Hill, 45 Acland Street (1939) by A.W. Plaisted
and Burnett Lodge, 9-13 Burnett Street (c 1940) where the designer is unknown.
It is interesting to compare these daringly
Modernist works with the more Sydney
stylist streamlined Moderne of others. Fearful of
stark modernism, your Moderne
designer streamlines with round corners, corner windows, horizontal aerofoil
stripes, nautical references and Art Deco decoration: stylised, prismatic, or
geometric. The earliest is the Royal, Robe Street
(1933), Archibald Ikin’s most distinctive design.
Boncap, 49 Fitzroy Street,
by L. GarrardCalin has
shops on the ground floor in the European manner and with cantilevered
balconies. Windermere, 49 Broadway, Elwood is finely detailed and the most
vigorous and remarkable composition, although its designer is not known; Del
Marie, 4 St Leonards Avenue, by S.W. Hall; Taradale,
229 Brighton Road, by Walter Mason; and Valma, 17
Victoria Street by W.H. Merritt, were all built in 1936. Devon Court,
45-47 Chapel Street
by Alder and Lacey is from 1938.
By World War II, such was the floating flats
population of St Kilda that, over two-thirds of all accommodation in St Kilda
was rented and even more remarkably, 20-30% of all households had only lived
there for a year.
Njoo in conversation with Richard Peterson, 12 December
and Rassner, Nikolaus.The Buildings of England.
Penguin Books, London,
1991, pp74, 648, 650.
The Making of a Profession.Angus
Sydney Press 1999. pp 133, 137, 143, 250 and 272-73.
Leslie. Australian Architecture.
1901-51. Sources of Modernism.SydneyUniversity
1980. Pp 99-101
Hanson Associates.City of St Kilda.
Twentieth Century Architectural Study. May 1992
Richard. ‘Streamlined, Boom and all that Jazz.’In Richard Peterson.Editor.John. An Informal Festschrift in Honour of John Slater
at 75.Melbourne 2001.
’A Question of Style.Inter-War
Domestic Architecture in Melbourne.’Master of Architecture thesis, The University of Melbourne.
1993. Chapter 4. Modernism.