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Refabricating the towers: the genesis of the Victorian Housing Commission's high-rise estates to 1969

posted on 12.04.2017, 03:23 authored by Peter Mills
This thesis examines the genesis of the Victorian Housing Commission's high-rise housing programme up to 1969. The Commission's towers have come to symbolise all that was wrong in modernist urban planning. Most previous accounts involve a narrative in which responsibility for the creation of the high-rise programme is concentrated within an autocratic Commission that usurped the reforming intentions of its founders in mid-to-late 1950's, to adopt utopian Modernist planning and a technocratic stance.

    This account proposes a more complex narrative. The high-rise solution, it argues, evolved over a longer period. The problematics of reclamation, housing and urban planning derived not only from experts but from more broadly-held common understandings about the city and the slum. Drawing on Actor Network Theory it examines the relationships between a more inclusive range of agents who shaped the developments of high-rise estates. Such an account does not privilege the influence of ideology over the mundane.

    In the early post-war years the city's experts engaged in a lively debate over the proper means of slum reclamation. The debate was led by those who called for a combined attack on reclamation and redevelopment of the decaying inner areas using the technology of the high-density high-rise estate. In the late 1950s the translation of this vision into the programmes of the Commission was smoothed by the adoption of the British model of the mixed estate.

    The development of the towers was a far from orderly and predictable progression. It involved a complex sequence of resistances and accommodation, advances, detours and retreats. The emergent programmes, buildings and practices could never have been envisaged at the start of the process. These processes are reflected in the form of the towers as we see them today.

    Once the towers were populated, a new phase of the design process began, involving tenants, community groups, managers and the towers themselves. These actors created adaptations, treatments and criticisms for a set of conditions unprecedented in the life of the city. The move to tower-only estates from the mid 1960s was a product less of utopian Modernism than of limitations of funding, the mounting expense of reclamation and the failure of the concrete walk-ups as the companion of the towers in the mixed estate.

    Throughout the 1960s understandings of the problem of inner areas were changing and old truths of the slum dissolving. Private enterprise had failed to engage in a large scale redevelopment effort. Operating within this new geography, the Commission was already in retreat as it planned the last large estates, even before the opposition groups with powerful political weaponry took to the field in the late 1960s.

    These were Melbourne's towers as much as they were the Commission's. Today they stand as the isolated sentinels of earlier aspirations for a modern city and a modern welfare state.


Principal supervisor

Graeme Davison

Additional supervisor 1

Seamus O'Hanlon

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts