Old Wollongong buildings on the cusp of cool

Corrimal Street architecture. Pictures: ORLANDO CHIODO

Corrimal Street architecture. Pictures: ORLANDO CHIODO

Wollongong "eyesores", built in the 1950s and '60s, are coming back into vogue, according to an academic who keeps tabs on attitudes towards ageing architecture.

Professor Chris Gibson believes the city is home to some of Australia's best mid-20th century architecture as a result of a building boom in the 1950s and 1960s, when much of the city's fine Victorian buildings were lost to the wrecking ball or heavily altered.

He is calling on owners to think twice before they fell well-made buildings from the era.

Often much-maligned blonde or red brick creations, they were likely on the cusp of a new covetability, he said.

"Every era disdains the architecture of the era immediately prior, until after about 50-60 years [when] that architecture eventually gains heritage cool," said Prof Gibson, a professor of human geography at the University of Wollongong.

Human geography professor Chris Gibson.

Human geography professor Chris Gibson.

"Sadly, this intervening period of being daggy is when some great buildings are demolished prematurely, before they have attained heritage cachet.

"It's hard to believe now, but the Rocks and many gorgeous Victorian terraced streets in inner Sydney were due to be flattened in the 1960s and 1970s, when people thought that Victorian architecture was old, fussy and decrepit."

In Wollongong, Prof Gibson is particularly fond of a 1960s Cliff Road apartment complex built atop a "fantastic" set of pillars, and of Crown Street Mall's David Jones building - "a classic example of cubism" with a wide, high awning.

Prof Gibson has been leading UOW heritage students on architecture field trips around Wollongong for the past 12 years and has noticed attitudes shift during unofficial "straw polls".

A string of adjoining art deco shopfronts on Keira Street was despised by the majority of students about 10 years ago.

Come full circle: a string of art deco shops on Keira Street.

Come full circle: a string of art deco shops on Keira Street.

"Now it's very different. They'll wax lyrical about how beautiful it is," said Prof Gibson, whose research within UOW's Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research is concerned with how people interact with their immediate environment.

He credits TV show Mad Men with recently awakening many to the chic qualities of mid-century design and points to Market Street's Catholic Diocese of Wollongong building - with its 1960s Internationalist concrete skeleton - as one that could make the jump from despised to desired. Despite the charms of the past, Prof Gibson was not in favour of total preservation, especially when it came to poorly made buildings.

"I'm not intrinsically against development or new architectural styles - without things changing and moving along we'd not have the diversity that makes cities interesting places," Prof Gibson said.

Market Street's Catholic Diocese of Wollongong building.

Market Street's Catholic Diocese of Wollongong building.

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