According to Assemble Papers, Cairo 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.
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.