By John H. Smith
“The gardens at Hotham Gardens are amazing,” said Neil Cole. “It blew me away when I found the place. I am going to really enjoy living here.” I was talking to our newest resident at Hotham Gardens.
Hotham Gardens, which was begun in 1959, was a creative innovation. It replaced substandard housing that existed on the two-and-a-half-acre site on the north side of Arden Street, North Melbourne, between Curzon and Abbotsford streets. The Housing Commission of Victoria reclaimed the land, found new homes for the 208 residents and demolished approximately 73 houses.
But there was more to it than slum clearance. Anne Reynolds, who worked for architect John Mockridge and Associates, said of the project: “It was an experiment in a totally different way of doing things that emerged from architectural firms that collaborated to design decorations erected on the city intersections during the Olympic Games.”
The collaborative relationships that gave birth to a new kind of innovation in design and landscaping at Hotham Gardens came to include the State Government, the City Council, the Architects’ Association and the Master Builders’ Association. The land was bought by the Master Builders’ (Association) Slum Clearance Ltd and the rehousing project followed.
Hotham Gardens attracted a lot of attention. Melbourne Professor of Architecture Hugh O’Neill said the development was “very well-known when it was done, because of its unique design and its landscaping”.
The Hotham Gardens Housing Block – Photo: Jim Weatherhill
The vision that drove Hotham Gardens was to create ‘own-your-own’ homes catering for a mixed population. The design has a European flavour thanks to ideas local architects gathered from seeing the rebuilding of European cities after World War II. One, two and three-bedroom units were included in each block of 18. The four towers in each block sit at different angles to each other, reducing the number of walls in common. Each block has off-street parking and garages.
But the second feature that really sets Hotham Gardens apart is the landscape gardening. Brilliant landscape architect Beryl Mann designed gardens that added to the amenity of the properties and enhanced the wellbeing of the residents. Her work captured the spirit of her mentor, Edna Walling, whose vision was to use the landscape to develop a unity between house and garden.
Mann’s achievement depended on her flair for blending plants and colour. Uncommonly for her time, she made use of Australian flora as well as exotics. Hotham Gardens was created as an urban forest using exceptional Australian trees and a variety of exotic plants long before the modern greening of the urban environment came into vogue.
The sensitive planning of the gardens anticipated present-day concerns for community health and wellbeing, our connection with nature and the health and sustainability of the environment. With cities working out how to green themselves, and climate change making us more aware of the importance of trees and plants, 60-year-old Hotham Gardens remains ahead of the pack.
The modern relevance of Hotham Gardens is due to the project’s visionary architecture and landscape gardening implemented in 1959. This innovative marriage of building and garden is being recognised in the striking of a special plaque to be erected on the site.
Hotham Gardens deserves to be celebrated as a significant and valued heritage site in North Melbourne. And it is a very good place to live. At Hotham Gardens, what is old is new again.