In Sydney, there are over 400,000 flats, units or apartments making up 1/4 of the domestic buildings in the city area. In certain parts there are more flats then there are houses, as high-rise unit blocks grow up on former factory sites or redeveloped blocks. The growing population and the sprawling city demand this type of development. They are part of the modern solution to diminishing land, demand for inner city living and increasing population densities.
Curiously, the first apartment blocks in Sydney were built not so much as space savers but as time savers. The first purpose-built flat building in Sydney was The Albany, completed in Macquarie Street in 1905. The Albany combined medical and dental chambers on the first two floors and then five stories of residential apartments above. The buildings proximity to the Parliament, Macquarie St doctor’s and the law courts meant that it attracted an elite range of residents including Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of the newly formed Supreme Court of Australia.
The attraction of the building, as well as its location, was the fact that the decline in the number of women working in domestic service from the 1890s onwards, made looking after large mansions in Sydney increasingly difficult and expensive. Modern flats or apartments could be kept easily and cheaply, they were self contained homes in miniature. The Albany was soon joined by others along Macquarie Street and nearby city addresses, the sole survivor from this first phase being Wyoming completed in 1909.
While the well at heal took up fine apartments in the city, the Sydney City Council could see the potential for apartment living for the not so well off. By the turn of the 1900s a number of inner city suburbs were showing their age. Their terrace housing was crowded close together, with services stretched to the limit (if they existed at all). Many areas were considered, rightly or wrongly, to be slums. Sydney City, with recently acquired powers to both resume and construct housing, was keen to clean up their area while providing cheap, affordable housing to the large working population that lived there.
In 1914 the Council built Strickland Flats in Chippendale, the first large scale public housing building in Australia. Comprising 71 flats, each with their own balcony, the building was clearly designed in wings to blend into the surrounding terrace and warehouse developments.
Through the 1920s and 1930s there was a boom in apartment construction across Sydney-both for the middle and upper classes and as public housing. New, modern art-deco apartments rose over the heights of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross and apartments such as The Astor in Macquarie St became hot property, while at the same time public housing was built throughout Waterloo, Pyrmont, Alexandria and Erskineville. Heading west and south, flats followed the railway lines into the growing commuter suburbs. From 1900 to 1940, flats went from 0% to 20% of Sydney’s building stock.
Some of Australia’s best architects were attracted to the concept, especially after WWII. Architects such as Harry Seidler, Douglas Snelling and Hugo Stossel, all new arrivals from Europe designed some of Sydney’s best known and most controversial high-rise blocks. Seidler’s Blues Point Tower continues to divide opinion.
Flats and apartments are found in just about every suburb. From the high rise monsters in Surry Hills and Waterloo, to small scale 1930s blocks in Roseville to art deco masterpieces in Potts Point to the new flat pack towers in Green Square and Homebush. Over a century of development they have become part of the landscape and for many the only affordable option for living in the city.