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The architecture of Melbourne is to be found in buildings which are, quite literally, all over the map.  I have mentioned before that this city is spread out, but it only sinks in when you see the suburbs light up one by one on an illuminated map which reveals them according to the dates each was founded.  The map is to be found at the ultra modern Melbourne Museum, right next door to one of the city’s architectural showpieces, the Royal Exhibition Building, 1879-1880.

Melbourne was founded in 1835 without the approval of the British administration of London or Sydney.  Free settlers from Tasmania stumbled upon the grazing lands along the Yarra River and set up a small, pastoral settlement producing wool.  The settlement grew slowly for the first sixteen years.  In 1837, the government in Sydney accepted the inevitable and sent surveyors over to establish a grid of streets.  The town was named after the British Prime Minister, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne.

Brick and wood were the most common building materials, followed by the basalt that had been squeezed up to the surface by volcanic action in the area– bluestone.   In 1851, Melbourne became the capital of the new colony of Victoria.  Gold was discovered the very same month and more than half a million gold seekers poured into the city over the next ten years.  Melbourne was suddenly transformed into the biggest city in Australia.

The city’s open sewers were covered over and grand Victorian buildings were erected to line the new streets, boulevards and gardens.  The boom generated a staggering number of Victorian buildings, banks, museums, hotels, churches, theatres and mansions.  They were ornate, demonstrating ingenious use of the new products of the industrial revolution, cast iron, pressed tin, sheet glass and cheap labour.  The neo classical style was adopted for public buildings, gothic for churches.

The building boom continued until the bank crash of the 1890’s, which was followed by an economic depression. After the 1890’s there was a new enthusiasm for the picturesque.  This was influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau.

Basalt (bluestone) was extracted from a quarry in Clifton Hill and used extensively in the 19th century. Because the material was difficult to carve, it was used for warehouses and the foundations of public buildings. Significant bluestone buildings include the Melbourne Gaol, Pentridge Prison, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne Grammar School, Victoria College for the Deaf, and the Goldsborough Mort warehouses.

It was also used extensively for cobblestone roads, curbs, gutters, retaining walls and bridges. It is ubiquitous throughout the city, anchoring the city to the earth with its appearance of permanence. Bluestone is not, in fact, as immortal as it appears.  It weathers, and some of it is riddled with holes made by escaping gasses  It does not posses diamond-like qualities, but to the builders of Melbourne, it was the next best thing.  It made the city what it is today.

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