The history of high rises in Australia provides a fascinating insight into the great Australian dream but also points the way to the future.
And the battle for the hearts and minds of Australian home owners – the excitement and convenience of city living versus the wide open spaces of a house with a big backyard — has been waging for nearly 100 years.
According to Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon, apartment living is beginning to gain an edge.
Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon is the Director of Curatorial and Public Engagement at Sydney Living Museums. She completed her PhD on the history of apartment living in Sydney at the University of New South Wales in 2009.
At the end of the 19th century Australian cities started to blossom, buoyed by agricultural exports and the yield from the gold fields. Urban density might have continued unabated if not for a series of events — a world-wide recession, property prices plummeting and then, a world war.
The need to house and find work for returned servicemen, the influence of European architects and the perceived glamour of American urban life depicted by Hollywood, turned around the concept of shared dwelling from the Victorian-era terrace to something distinctly more modern.
“A lot of people are surprised when they learn that Australia has had a love affair with apartment living for nearly 100 years,” said Dr Butler-Bowdon. “It seems to run counter to the narrative we tell ourselves about our country – the ‘Great Australian Dream’ of a house with lots of land.
“And yet with our major cities – Sydney, Melbourne and to a lesser extent Brisbane and Perth, flats and apartments were seen as a great way to house large numbers of the population close to work and infrastructure.
“But more than that, it provided a way for people to live close to where they choose to be in a way that is also affordable.
“The price of land in Sydney for instance, and the growth of apartment buildings around Potts Point and King’s Cross were major factors, so between the wars you saw a huge increase in both low rise and high rise developments that shaped the characters of those areas.”
From that point the genie was out of the bottle.
Following World War Two, the increased mobility and prosperity of the 1950s saw the development of high rise buildings and flats – not just for business but also for leisure with holiday destinations such as the Gold Coast (and the roads that led there) featuring hotels and motels.
Legislation took a little longer to catch up. Before 1961, apartment dwellers could never own their own home; they could only be renters from the individual or entity which owned the building.
In New South Wales, the first strata title legislation was passed which allowed individuals to own their own flat and have a financial interest in the running of the building. That legislation was revolutionary and has been used as a model, not only by other states, but also other nations including Singapore.
“That caused a complete revolution in Australia,” said Dr Butler-Bowdon. “It means smaller developers, owner-builders, could use strata titling for their buildings which made the project affordable and as a result, more and more were built.
“When you talk about apartments, many people only think back as far as the high rise building boom of the 1970s and 1980s which the Gold Coast was most obviously a part.”
In the 2010s there is a new wave of building – higher, smarter, more luxurious apartments — that is changing the skyline of our capital cities.
“As much as apartment living has changed the way we live, demands from residents and owners has changed the way these new generation of high rise buildings are constructed and marketed,” said Dr Butler-Bowdon.
“Roof top spaces, green walls, terraced common areas, concierge services, access to hotel amenities and larger apartments are all a part of this impressive new trend but we are at a crossroads at where cities are heading and this ties into the hottest topic for debate and that is housing affordability.
“It would be a shame if people were shut out from living in their preferred area because the price of apartments became unaffordable. Quality, well-designed apartments need to be made available at the affordable end of the market as well.”