15 March 2016

Cairo Flats - Art Deco bachelor flats in 1930s Melbourne

According to Assemble PapersCairo Flats Fitzroy was an Art Deco horseshoe building of brick and reinforced concrete that faced onto the Carlton Gardens. The 20 studios and 8 one-bedroom apartments were to be functional, utilitarian abode for Melbourne city workers with no children; they were never intended to be luxurious, traditional or huge. The roof was flat, to be used for social and even sporting space for residents and guests, accessible by curved, cantilevered concrete stairs. The main building was originally accompanied by a shop and communal dining room, 8 car garages and two communal laundries. 

The front doors were at first green with a round port-hole window (see first photo). Each hall­way opened onto an open timber-floored living space, which included seating space for two over a meal. Despite the shop and communal dining room, each flat had a small kitchenette that sat next to the entry hall on the south or west, featuring a gas cooker, sink and storage space. Opposite the entry and kitchenette, the living space linked to the outdoors through a large window and door onto a cement-finished sun balcony with curved corners at ground level or canti­lev­ered from the first floor, facing north or east. Each flat was bord­ered by greenery.

In Australian Home Beautiful 1933, Australian modernist architect Best Overend described the desire for minimum flats in London, where he had recently been living and working. Art Deco Buildings showed that Overend had worked with Wells Coates in London for 18 months. And that the Cairo flats in Melbourne clearly followed many of the principles employed in Coates' Lawn Road flats in Hampstead (see final photo) which had been completed only two years earlier.

Cairo flats and gardens in Melbourne 1936
Note the curved and cantilevered stairs
Designed by Best Overend
Photo credit: Assemble Papers

Looking into a bachelor flat from the Cairo flats garden
The kitchenette is tucked in, next to the front door.
Photo credit: ArchitectureAU

Best Overend completed the Cairo Flats in 1936, a radical innovation for Melbourne. He showed that private flats could afford to be slimmed right down because they were supported by shared/communal spaces: communal dining room, an in-house meal and laundry service, communal flat to roof space and lockable garages. These shared spaces were both functional and social.

Until a recent residential conversion, the shop operated as a milk bar on Hanover St. The dining room vanished and The Cairo Flats became fully residential. For a long time Cairo Flats attracted residents who were involved in art, design and architecture. Unfort­unately the rooftop became unsafe.


Now let us compare the Cairo Flats in Fitzroy (1936 Melbourne) with The Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead (1934 London). The Lawn Road Flats were said to be the first modernist building in Britain to use reinforced concrete in domestic archit­ec­ture. The four storey Art Deco build­ing was designed by the Canadian ex-pat archit­ect Wells Coates in 1932, a passionate follower of Le Corb­usier and the Bauhaus. His 34 two-bedroom flats built out of steel, concrete and glass!

Each Hampstead flat was small, was built to a standard plan, and used Isokon-designed furniture. Since this was an experim­ent in semi-communal living, most of the flats had only a kitchette. Food was cooked in a large com­munal kitchen, then conveyed to the res­id­ential floors. All the flats were linked to exterior corridors, located on side facing the street, in a style that reminds us of an ocean-going liner.

As the complex was designed for not-wealthy young professional city workers who wanted to dispense with domestic drudgery, rent included on site cleaning, laundry service and shoe shining. On the ground floor was the community kitchen. The kitchen was remodelled in 1937 by Marcel Breuer to become the Isobar restaurant.

Lawn Rd flats in London 1934
Designed by Wells Coates

Best Overend reiterated for real estate companies and magazines that "an economical layout combined with comfort" could now be firmly associated with a bachelor bedsit. This 1930s concept in both cities provided single, professional men with housing at affordable prices.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These bachelor apartments are very similar to the senior apartments of today, with communal areas (especially the dining hall), smaller flats with kitchenettes, service provided, etc. With all those young singles and Bohemians, I wonder whether the buildings, despite screening, had a problem with attracting the wild, noisy sort. While I can admire the architectural innovation, I find it hard to see the attraction for tenants, as I personally value privacy and comfortable space over convenience and questionable communal meals.

Pom said...

My uncle got his first city job just before WW2 started, in a bank. He was ambitious career-wise and proud of his independence, so living with his parents would have been disappointing. He adored the Hampstead flats.

Andrew said...

This style of place was ideal as a home for men who were not of the marrying kind. I am reminded of Summerland Mansions in St Kilda, with it originally have a communal dining room and I think kitchen, with the flats only having a kitchenette. I note the Lawn Road Flats, built 1934, but by 1937 the (barely used?) kitchen was converted to a restaurant. Similar happened at Summerland Mansions. I am impressed by the cantilevered stairs of Cairo Flats, but the Lawn Road Flats is a very attractive building.

Hels said...


a fashionable elite was drawn to the original prototype (the Lawn Rd Flats in London) but it was not a monied elite. So the goal was to provide quality but not overly fancy accommodation, mostly for single City workers. I am assuming single men were seen as disinterested in/incapable of domestic duties, so collective facilities had to be provided. But it was not compulsory to use them. Men could do their own cooking and shoe polishing, if they chose to.

Was it a radical plan in 1934? Definitely. Could each man have used 1.5 rooms instead of 1 room in his flat? Certainly.

Hels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...


I imagine young men, in banks or insurance or the public service, being very excited about their new, independent careers. And Hampstead is such a lovely part of town!

I hope he survived the outbreak of war in 1939 safely.

Hels said...


you are a clever lad! I had never heard of Summerland Mansions in St Kilda!

Two points were unique. Firstly was built way earlier than expected (post WW1 instead of the mid 1930s). Secondly Summerland flats were much bigger than the batchelor pads mentioned in the post, to appeal either to a wealthy clientele or to families. But these points don't diminish the fact that Summerland must have been a very radical concept in Melbourne in 1921.