It’s good to appreciate profound places that are close to home during the COVID lockdowns. Melbourne has a World Heritage Site at its front door – Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens.
Social distancing (or spatial distancing as I prefer to call it) is easy to attain in the open air of Carlton Gardens – this garden also houses the Royal Exhibition Building: Victorian building “bling” at its best. This grand, expansive domed icon achieved World Heritage status in Australia in 2004, before the iconic Sydney Opera House.
The Royal Exhibition Building is straight out of a 19th century history book. It’s a unique example of World Fair buildings that were essential for large festivals that showcased industrial and scientific achievements in the late 1800s. These festivals went for many months, drawing in people from all over the world, at a time where journey times were long. Melbourne is the only city where a vast hall has survived due to good fire services and local community support. Similar halls in other cities have disappeared through fire or neglect, including amazing sites like the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and the Garden Palace in Sydney in 1879 (built shortly before the World Fair in Melbourne and burnt down shortly afterwards – quite close to the site of the 1970s Sydney Opera House).
Despite its huge proportions, the Royal Exhibition Building was built in a relatively quick timeframe from February 1879 to October 1880. Designed by Joseph Reed and Frederick Barnes, it is a T-shaped hall with a central dome that’s 217 feet high, with two annexes stretching 400 feet in opposite directions and another hall stretching to the north. Joseph Reed also designed 19th century buildings that can still be explored in Melbourne: the State Library, St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Wesley Church in Collins Street, Rippon Lea house and the Trades Hall.
The interior of the building is covered in paintings dating back to the World Fair – Victorian characters and symbols of industry, exploration, exploitation and propaganda. It’s quite a spectacle to behold – these paintings were restored in the 1980s and are well maintained to this day – a relic of the past that we can all learn from. One of the murals features six strong pale women with robes that are drawn up to symbolise each of Australia’s six states.
After the 1880 World Fair, this site continued to play a pivotal part of Australia’s history, probably because it was the biggest building across the whole continent at the time. It’s a good indoor space for big crowds. , around 500km north of Melbourne. Shortly after the opening ceremony, the new Federal parliament took over the Victorian State Parliament building in Spring Street, while the local Victorian parliament sat in the Royal Exhibition Building for many years before prior to the completion of the new building Canberra in 1927.
This lockdown allows time for research. I discovered that the building served as a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic that engulfed Melbourne in 1919 – a sobering reminder of how buildings and places can change quite dramatically, while also giving us an appreciation of how history repeats itself. A newspaper article from 15 February 1919 has eerie echoes of news stories during coronavirus, as it outlines scores of influenza deaths each as the local hospital system in Melbourne was severely challenged.
It seems like there was also some controversy at the time as the temporary hospital was originally set up by the state hospital system, only to be transferred to a Catholic run St Vincent’s Hospital which is an institution that is still adjacent to the site. It appears that nurses were in short supply during the Spanish influenza epidemic, so religious control of some hospitals became a necessity.
Up until very recently, the Royal Exhibition Building continued to host large annual conventions including flower & garden shows, car shows, home shows, beer festivals and industry events. Exams for Melbourne University students are also held here each semester. I’d imagine that it’s quite a memorable building to take an exam – grand and steeped on history.
The gardens surrounding the hall are an excellent example of the grand Victorian parks that are essential element of Melbourne’s character. Long avenues give local walking commuters a peaceful respite on their way to and from their offices.
Most of the trees are very old, although Melbourne Council does a good job of removing dangerous trees while also planting new trees so future generations will hopefully be able to see a big tree in real life.
The northern part of the gardens include the modern Melbourne Museum, which is an impressive venue to visit, but my personal opinion is that the futuristic design is quite at odds with the rest of this world heritage site. It’s got a huge flat roof that juts into the air, and enormous underground car park and an IMAX theatre with a screen that is the world’s second largest (after another IMAX theatre in Sydney). Not much use in a physical distancing lockdown, but an awesome venue for the latest 3D movie.
Carlton Gardens have also accumulated some quirky artefacts from various local and international events that were important at some particular time. A quirky collection of granite blocks from the demolished Colonial Mutual Life Building have been haphazardly assembled in the gardens. It was one of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings with intricate artwork and interior grandeur. Situated at 316 Collins Street, it had a relatively short life from 1893 to 1960 when it was demolished and replaced by a 1960s streamlined modernist building.
There’s also the really colossal fountain that stands at the central entrance of the Royal Exhibition Building. Designed by German Josef Hochgurtel for the World Fair in 1880, it has statues that celebrate the arts, science, commerce and industry. Above this are images of Victoria’s indigenous flora and fauna, and a boy with a clamshell. Holding all of this aloft are four merpeople rising up from the waters of the lower pool.
Official Website from Visit Victoria Website
World Heritage Website link: Royal Exhibition Building
Interesting blog page on the Colonial Mutual Life Building.