The alluring glamor and decadent hedonism of Hollywood influences on Australian architecture
Between the First and Second World Wars, Australia’s high-end architecture was heavily influenced by the exotic landscapes of the booming Hollywood film industry.
Southern California’s style of seductive glamor and decadent hedonism – reminiscent of the sunny days of Roman emperors and Mughal sultans – has particularly inspired developers and designers of lavish movie theaters, mansions, apartment buildings and gardens. of leisure with swimming pools.
The best of Hollywood
Sydney’s Potts Point peninsula has been a hotbed of this trend, especially after music publishing magnate Frank Albert hired English architect Neville Hampson to create his splendid Boomerang residence, facing Elizabeth Bay.
In 1924, Hampson and Albert visited Los Angeles to find ideas among “the best of Hollywood”. The pinnacle then was La Cuesta Encantada, a sprawling hilltop estate that media magnate William Randolph Hearst was developing, in Spanish, Italian and French neoclassical styles, with architect-engineer Julia Morgan.
Their own version of Hearst Castle included the Baroque cathedral-inspired Casa Grande, three grand guest houses and “the most lavish swimming pool in the world”.
Hampson and Albert likely also visited Russian actress Alla Nazimova’s Garden of Alla estate in West Hollywood, known for its risque parties around its pool and lush garden. His terracotta-roofed mansion exemplifies the Spanish-Italian style of vineyard villas that was also promoted in Australia by architects William Hardy Wilson, Robin Dods, Walter Bagot, Harold Desbrowe-Annear and the first dean of architecture in Australia. Australia, Professor Leslie Wilkinson.
When Wilkinson founded the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Sydney in 1919–20, he strongly criticized the ornamental features and intricate roofs typical of the declining Arts and Crafts movement. Instead, he promoted a Mediterranean mode of relaxed, sun-sensitive elegance; based on “the work of Spain, southern Italy, Provence, with, perhaps, a little of the orientalism of North Africa”.
He also hailed Los Angeles’ updates of the West Coast Spanish Missions, with their adobe walls, arched archways, wood-beam ceilings, and rounded terra-cotta tiles, as “a delightful style of building and appropriate”.
This aligned his 1920s Australian clique with the mixture of Spanish-Mediterranean styles espoused by Hollywood property developers, architects and the new wealthy stars of the silent film industry.
The interwar decades
During the interwar decades, many mansions, villas, bungalows and apartment buildings were built in Spanish-Italian Renaissance styles, often combined with flat roofs, low proportions and curved corners of the new Streamline Modern movement. Typical features were centrally-opening French windows, curved Juliet balconies and columned porticoes, colonial-style (multi-paned) windows, loggias and arcades, piazza-inspired courtyards and stairways pageantry rising around the entrance halls.
Outstanding Sydney, examples included Wilkinson’s own villa, Greenway, in Vaucluse; Burnham Thorpe and many other lavish North Coast residences from Frederic Glynn Gilling (with Howard Joseland) and Craigend at Frank Ironstein’s Darling Point the Anson Bloomfield (with Roy Stuart McCulloch).
Two other Hollywood and Mediterranean stars were The Lodge in Canberra, from Melbourne architects Percy Oakley and Stanley Parkes, and Pine Hill (Bruce Manor) in Frankston, Victoria, from Sydney architects Prevost, Synnot & Rewald (with Robert Bell Hamilton). These two cream-painted, terracotta-roofed mansions shared the same original occupants: Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce and his family.
In addition to residences, Spanish-Mediterranean styles were adopted for various new building types; especially apartment buildings, gas stations, car showrooms, hotels and shopping malls, and beach pavilions for new surf lifesaving clubs; notably the Bondi pavilion by Robertson & Marks.
The Spanish aesthetic also suited Catholic schools and churches, such as St Columba’s in south Perth, and crematoria for modern funerals. Two stunning cremation complexes were designed by Frank Bloomfield at Sydney’s Rookwood and Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens.
Cinemas, theaters and operas
The most spectacular Australian interpretations of Mediterranean architecture were the “atmospheric” cinemas designed by Henry Eli White and other Antipodean acolytes of John Eberson, America’s leading architect of interwar theaters and opera houses .
The atmospheric interiors tended to feature extravagant ornamentation, picturesque trompe-l’oeil paintings and dramatic lighting effects that gave audiences the fantasy of spending a starry night watching performances in the palace courtyard of the Alhambra in Granada. Its over-the-top decor influenced Hollywood decor styles that seemed sophisticated and exotic in the mid-20th century, but today are often described as “camp” and “kitschy”.
White, a New Zealander, set up his practice in Sydney in 1913 and expanded his career to both sides of Tasmania in the 1920s. Historian Ross Thorne revealed that White had worked with Eberson at the Capitol and State theaters from Sydney. He also designed the Palace, Athenaeum and new Princess theaters in Melbourne, the Civic in Newcastle and the Wintergardens in Ipswich, Rockhampton and Townsville.
Sydney architects Bohringer, Taylor & Johnson also produced notable atmospheric cinemas in the late 1920s, including the State (now Forum) in Melbourne and the Ambassadors in Perth.
Spanish-Mediterranean architecture was well suited to Australia’s post-federation culture as it provided a more exotic flavor than the Georgian colonial revival that accompanied the reigns of Kings George V and George VI from 1910 to 1952. And it connected Australia to the exhilarating, glamorous Hollywood spirit of the Roaring Twenties.
Now that Australia’s Hollywood-aligned film culture is thriving, these vintage architectural icons remain alluring.
This is an edited excerpt from Australian Architecture: A History, by Davina Jackson, published by Allen & Unwin.