Chances are, you won’t know the official name for these houses, but you’ll know them once you see them.

February 09, 2020 07:44:40
As Australian cities become denser, some the post-war homes that changed Australia forever are facing the bulldozer, so who’s going to save them once their owners are gone?
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Chances are, you won’t know the official name for these houses, but you’ll know them once you see them.
Some examples tote multiple kitchens, verdant backyards, or balconies lined with white balustrades that appear as though they’ve been taken straight from Venice.
These are some of the elements that make up Australian homes built by scores of Southern European migrants in the post-war period.
From the late 1940s to the 1980s, the first waves of Italian, Greek and Balkan migrants to Australia planted literal and figurative roots that would go on to fundamentally alter cities across the continent.
For some, it was a time of neo-Baroque furniture, terrazzo-clad terraces, and statues of lions sitting atop fences, while for others, it was a time where the humble brick-veneer or weatherboard home ruled supreme.
Many of the original creators of these homes now can trace one to two generations of their families in Australia, where many of their offspring have moved out of the family house to establish lives in Australia and overseas.
For those that have remained in these houses, they live in palaces of a bygone era a time where building a small house on a large block close to the city was still relatively affordable.
Letting the light in: Post-war ‘migrant modernisation’
This is Nicola Di Risio, 89, out the front of his home in Reservoir a northern suburb of Melbourne 12 kilometres from the CBD.
He migrated to Australia from southern Italy and moved into this four-bedroom cream brick house with his late wife, Giannina, on Christmas Day in 1959.
He’s lived there ever since.
Back then, a home and land package cost a few thousand pounds (this predated the introduction of the dollar, which was in 1966).
Walking down Mr Di Risio’s concrete driveway, past a long-disused basketball hoop, you are introduced to his verdant backyard that produces cherries, figs, olives, tomatoes, grapes, and persimmons among other foods.
Mr Di Risio told the ABC he and his wife were content with moving to “the bush”, as it was considered then, to avoid living in the “dusty” inner city.
“Back in those days, land was our joy we looked for a big block of land and found it,” Mr Di Risio said.
“Our house was one of five houses on the street: cows were not far away from us as there was a farm nearby.”
But like many other new migrants from Southern Europe arriving in Australia after World War II, the Di Risios initially lived in the inner city.
“The reason why migrants moved to the inner city was because it was close to their work and it was cheap,” Mirjana Lozanovska, an author and expert in post-war migrant housing, told the ABC.
“You’ve got to remember at that time other Australians had left as houses there had been in disrepair and were quite dilapidated.”
Dr Lozanovska’s book, Migrant Housing: Architecture, Dwelling, Migration, published last year, looked at the architectural legacies of Australia’s post-war Southern European migrants.
In Melbourne, Italian and Greek migrants flocked to inner-northern suburbs such as Brunswick, Carlton, and Fitzroy North, while in Sydney, suburbs such as Alexandria, Glebe and Leichhardt became Southern European strongholds.
Together, Dr Lozanovska wrote that many brought “skills in carpentry, plumbing, painting, concreting, and joinery” that often weren’t recognised by Australian authorities.
But as waves of these migrants moved into these locales, Dr Lozanovska said a process of “migrant modernisation” transformed existing Victorian and Edwardian homes.
This saw the installation of large windows, the renovation of outdoor toilets and laundry facilities, and tiling taking the place of rotting floorboards.
But for other Southern European migrants, the desire to leave what was then a dilapidated, polluted inner city, was an ardent one a drive that eventually populated the middle rings of Australian cities that were built from the late 1950s onward.
This prompted a raft of new construction, where homes “incredibly cubic in form” ushered in a post-war housing aesthetic.
Dr Lozanovska wrote that post-war migrant housing in Melbourne for example, “evolved as a series of architectural details the front garden, facade, gateway stairs and border fencing”.
In her book, she cited a “migrant enclave” of post-war migrant housing in the city’s inner suburb of Northcote, where a cluster of families bought a plot of land each on the same day in 1965.
Dr Lozanovska noted the enclave “expanded the image and aesthetic spectrum of what it is to be Australian”.
She told the ABC those examples still standing in Australia weren’t those that have been popularised in recent years the ones associated with the Italian Baroque or ancient Greece but instead were far more modest in scale and aspiration.
“Post-war migrants typically worked in horrendous and arduous jobs ones that were not exemplary of their skills,” Dr Lozanovska said.
So for a lot of these migrants, the few times their skills were rewarded were in their homes, she added.
And for a select few, this need to reward physical labour with a home created a housing type that has been lauded and loathed in equal measure.
Enter the stone lions: Post-modern migrant architecture
In recent years, there has been a groundswell of interest in the idiosyncratic examples of post-war migrant housing, which were often built decades after the initial wave of Southern Europeans settled in Australia.
Dr Lozanovska said the neo-Baroque homes that have been popularised by photobooks and Facebook pages in recent years the ones with ornate balustrades, lion statues, and arches belong to the post-modern period of the 1980s which resulted in “much more ornamentation”.
“It wasn’t something migrants invented it was just the post-modern period in architecture,” she said.
During the post-modern period, various periods of culture from the Baroque to the neo-classical were mixed together to create new forms of cultural expression, often done with an ironic wink.
Warren Kirk is a Melbourne-based photographer whose work has documented this era of Australian suburbia, initially catching the attention of people on Flickr before being published in photobook form.
His photos bear the hallmarks of the post-modern period, where images show houses complete with a white lion sitting atop a brick fence, a Corinthian pillar, or a multitude of classical arches.
For years, Kirk has gained access to houses and their inhabitants through word of mouth and his work has been described as a process of capturing a “vanishing suburbia”.
“They’ve just been Joe Blow living in a house for years and don’t see it as a historical item in itself,” Kirk said.
Melbourne’s David Wadelton is another photographer whose work has documented this period of Australian suburbia but, unlike Kirk, he’s documented these homes via open house viewings.
He said the homes he documented often broke people’s pre-conceived notions of design “rules”, such as the need to maintain harmony between different elements in a room.
This led to them being maligned by “skippies” an antiquated form of Australian slang describing Anglo-Celtic Australians and even by some descendants of the first inhabitants of these homes, he added.
“There [weren’t] any real designers involved it was a manifestation of their own desires and interests,” Wadelton told the ABC.
“I feel duty-bound to document them.”
‘You can kill a city by a thousand cuts’: The density conundrum
Jill Garner, Victoria’s Government Architect, told the ABC that post-war migrant housing presents a conundrum for a rapidly-growing city like Melbourne, as they’re “very small houses on huge blocks of land”.
“You would never build a house on a block of that scale anymore,” Ms Garner said.
“[They’re] never going to stay as one small two-to-three bedroom house, and at the moment, they’re almost at the end of their life in some ways.”
Already, the pressure to redevelop on the land that post-war homes sit on is easy to find: a four-bedroom post-war house a few minutes’ drive from Mr Di Risio’s Reservoir house recently sold for more than $1.2 million.
An aerial photograph taken by its real estate agent showed that its land has the potential to host multiple townhouses, as demonstrated a new development three doors down.
Ms Garner told the ABC that facilitating more urban density is a primary concern of the State Government, as the Victorian capital is tipped to become a city of 8 million by 2050 about the same size as London and New York and may become Australia’s largest city as early as 2028.
Ms Garner said to limit urban sprawl, there was potential for middle-ring suburbs such as Reservoir to further densify, but noted it was a “very sensitive” topic.
“You can kill a city by a thousand cuts if you take too much of it away,” she said.
But unlike their Edwardian and Victorian peers, a great number of post-war migrant homes aren’t protected by heritage overlays, which leaves them vulnerable to being bulldozed.
Ironically, some inner-city post-war homes were built where period homes once stood, after many were consigned to the bulldozer in the decades after World War II.
However, in some circumstances heritage might not even come into it: Mr Di Risio told the ABC that present planning provisions in his area meant he wasn’t able to build units on his land but was able to raze his house to build another of a similar size on the same plot.
Given the current pressures on the post-war migrant homes, those that inherit them face a critical question: to sell, stay, or rebuild?
“In retrospect, I probably should’ve kept it,” Rocco Russo, a first-generation Italian-Australian, told the ABC.
He sold his childhood home a weatherboard built by his father, Donato, in the 1960s which has now made way for townhouses.
“This happens a lot as soon as elderly parents die: the kids aren’t interested in the house because it doesn’t suit what they need,” he said.
“In a way, a lot of those houses that were built back then were almost impractical.
“You had rooms that weren’t necessary or you just didn’t use like a dining room or lounge room as all the action was in the kitchen.
“I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.”
As for Mr Di Risio, he’s pretty sure about the fate of his home once he passes away.
“My kids haven’t told me anything, but I’ve got a feeling they will sell it,” he said.
“This is an old-fashioned designed home, and they want something different I can’t argue with that.”
But for researchers such as Dr Lozanovska, descendants, developers, and governments should be conscious about valuing all parts of their urban history.
“What we tend to do in Australia is to start from a clean slate rather than work with what we’ve got,” she said.
“I’m not saying that every single one of these places has to be conserved, but there may be particular cases which are valuable to the community and our history as Australians.
“To leave traces in the built environment is a very important way to develop a culturally sustainable society, rather than swiping the slate clean.”

  • Reporting, Photography & Production: Alan Weedon
  • Additional Photography: Warren Kirk, David Wadelton & Sean Mantesso
  • Additional Production: Christina Zhou & Jarrod Fankhauser
  • Editor: Steven Viney