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Feature article

Wattle Avenue House MvS Architects 2012 corner Wattle & 12th Street Mildura


In 2009 I visited Mildura for the first time as an adult.

WORDS BY Jan van Schaik

A decade prior, on a break from secondary school studies, I had visited a friend whose father had been stationed there as a Telecom technician. For two weeks we terrorised rabbits and kangaroos with lengths of pipe and guns in a fashion I now understand to be characterised by the film ‘Wake In Fright.’ I learned to ride a motorcycle and that discharging a 303 rifle in a moving car creates a lot of noise and a neat if unwelcome hole in all the car’s body. Given this, and other shooting accidents we precipitated, I count myself lucky to have escaped with all limbs intact. My school buddy, somehow attributed with less luck, lost the end of his index finger when placing it over the end of a 0.22 rifle in a failed attempt to discourage his younger brother from ‘wasting a bullet’. The fine dirt of the Mallee was red and omnipresent, the rabbits inedible and sweet bright oranges the only fruit. If we made a trip to the urban areas of the town it left no impression on me other than glimpses of overheated tarmac and poor examples of 1970s motel architecture.

I can’t say that I gave Mildura much thought in the subsequent decade, but the impressions formed by these experiences lingered. I was thus quite surprised when I received an invitation to attend a dinner at ‘one of Australia’s best restaurants’ listed the restaurant’s location as Mildura.

Sat adjacent to the kitchen, I spent the dinner contemplating the six hour drive I’d invested in to earn my place at the table. The route I’d taken had wound its way through towns with nothing but a pub and giant grain silos, past wind-farms with their idly rotating blades and through a beautiful gold-rush town with perfectly preserved Victorian era architecture and an uncharacteristically narrow main street – named St Arnaud after the then general of mines, a veteran of the Crimean war.

Old Mildura Base Hospital Leighton Irwin & Associates, 1934, cnr Wattle & 13th Street Mildura

I can’t say that I gave Mildura much thought in the subsequent decade, but the impressions formed by these experiences lingered. I was thus quite surprised when I received an invitation to attend a dinner at ‘one of Australia’s best restaurants’ listed the restaurant’s location as Mildura.

Jan van Schaik

Contemplations aside, there was a meal to attend to as a dish containing nothing but pasta, beans and olive oil was placed in front of me. Given the reputation of the restaurant, this was not of the calibre I had been expecting. Absentmindedly, I placed a fork-load of the dish into my mouth…and my world changed forever.

The olives from which the oil was made, the wheat from which the pasta, and the Berlotti beans had all been chosen with the same care that a viticulturist chooses grapes. This culinary method is common in Italian cooking so I should not have been surprised. However the technique, simple though it is, relies on fresh, fine and local produce and while I was aware that Mildura is a food production region, the ‘Wake In Fright’ image residing in my mind had left me unprepared for the quality of the cuisine placed before me.

Since this meal, I have gotten to know Mildura more intimately. Its current rendition in my mind is one where the ‘Wake in Fright’ version and the ‘Three Hat Restaurant’ version constantly collide.

As I discovered, the proprietor of the restaurant is one of a number of people in Mildura who share a vision that the place has a rich culture and history, possessing remarkable qualities and the potential to be a complex and comprehensive bustling regional metropolis on the boundary between Australia’s most productive agrarian region and a historically significant desert (in which human remains dating back 40,000 years have been found).

This small number of people have, over a generation or so, promoted Mildura as culinary destination, established a vibrant arts culture around arts education and a not-for-profit non-government arts organisation which operates six festivals a year. This also includes 360 separate arts events, invested in its agricultural and other industries, all the while working to protect its endangered natural resources and servicing the unfortunately increasing demand for the provision of social services that is typical of most regional areas in Australia.

That Mildura has for a long time been a safe national seat often renders it ineligible for the types of government funding typical of swinging electorates and this makes the achievements above seem only more remarkable.

Through these individuals I have learned of the establishment of Mildura by land speculators from Canada. The Chaffey brothers bought land en-masse and then established an irrigation system which rendered the land arable. Once so, its value increased and they profited from the sale of the land to prospecting farmers. One part of the arrangement was a rail-link, due to be provided by the government seated in Melbourne. This, however, was reneged on, forcing farmers to focus on crops that could be preserved for the longer journey to Melbourne via road, giving Mildura a reputation as a producer of dried produce; a reputation which lingers to this day.

During their tenure the brothers set in place the seeds of a grand vision consistent with their northern American mindset and almost identical to the towns of Upland and Etiwanda, California also established by them. To align with the most convenient loading point on the river, they laid out a street grid at almost 45 degrees to north. The roads they titled by the Dutch/American model of named avenues in one direction and numbered streets in the other. Deakin Avenue, the main drag, was set out at three chain wide (66 yards, or 60m) to allow for a future tram-line to be laid down its centre. The brothers commissioned a number of ambitious pieces of architecture to house pumping stations, their employees and themselves. Their optimism and ambition for the town they had established set in train a tradition of proud architectural commissions which, in the subsequent century, included a number of churches, the working men’s club which, for a number of years housed the world’s longest bar, schools, libraries, a police station, the requisite T&G buildings, two substantial Art Deco cinemas and an Art Deco hospital.

As many of these remain as have been demolished, the story of the hospital is particularly instructive. A demand for it was established after the Second World War, but no funds were forthcoming from state or local government. To fund the hospital a group of local community members established an illegal lottery to raise finds, which they did in volume. The lottery was closed down by authorities as it breached anti-gambling laws, but it succeeded in embarrassing the government into finding the balance required to build the facility.

Designed by Leighton Irwin & Associates in 1934, the hospital was based on the sanatorium model and features large rooms on each end with curving windows for sunlit convalescence. The building served the hospital well until the late 1990s when the hospital outgrew the building and moved to a new site. The Mildura Rural City Council (MRCC), in a rare moment of vision, saw an opportunity to house their offices in a beautiful, grand building and approached the state government with an offer to lease it. However, the state government was of the view that extracting the highest value from the land would be achieved by demolishing the building. Not to be outdone, the MRCC placed a heritage order on the building in an attempt to bolster their chances of leasing the building. Sadly, before an agreement could be signed, council lost office and the subsequent council decided to abandon the move. A dozen years later, the building remains unoccupied and listed ‘for sale’ by the Department of Treasury and Finance. For some, the hospital is a canvas for graffiti and creative vandalism, for others it is a beacon of hope for the cultural economies of Mildura. If anyone has a lazy $200,000 it is yours for the taking.

The Mildura Rural City Council provides scant support for the image of Mildura as a cultural city, preferring instead to cling to the idea that the city should only exist as a support structure for agrarian industries in spite of the fact that these industries have been continually shrinking over the past three decades due to drought, climate change, the strength of the Australian dollar and ever increasing labour efficiencies in farming methods.

Drawn to these contradictions set among a rich architectural history, I embarked on a project of drawing local council members, business owners, artists and educators into a dialogue about the role that pride in architecture and the built environment can play in developing and sustaining culture based economies. Two years into this project, Stefano de Pieri and his partner in life and business Donata Carrazza commissioned MvS Architects to design a new home for them and their family. They had been living just over the river in New South Wales on a waterfront property away from the built up environment of Mildura. Together we sought out a 1960s timber framed brickveneer red-tiled, hipped roof house, typical of the area. The house, on the corner of Wattle Avenue and 12th Street, it was in poor condition and would have been much improved by demolition. Instead we saw it as an opportunity to encourage reverence and respect for the vernacular and proceeded to treat the house as if it had a heritage listing. We straightened the roof and repaired and polished the brick. We created a new layer of insulation in all available wall spaces and created an additional and ambitious structure to the south-east of the house. From the street the house seems unchanged, but on approach the new structure is revealed as a dramatic first act in a new entry sequence and new occupational model for this type of house. The house won an Australian Institute of Architects Victorian Architecture Award for Residential Architecture – Alterations & Additions in 2012.

For generations, and against much resistance, immigrants, speculators and locals have been creating Mildura around the idea that its communal, cultural, historical, geographic and often contradictory conditions are worth celebration and note. There has been a renaissance in the role that the visual arts plays in the perception of Mildura dating back to the 1970s when Tom McCullough curated the first Mildura Sculpture Triennale. And there has also been a revolution in the way Mildura is perceived from a culinary point of view since the 1990s when Stefano’s Restaurant was established. The efforts of MvS Architects in Mildura are motivated by the idea that architecture has an important role to play in the contested ground for the image of Mildura in the mind’s eye of its constituents and visitors alike.

Jan van Schaik is a director of MvS Architects, a PhD candidate at RMIT University, Chair of the City of Melbourne’s Creative Spaces working group and a board member of the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale. His built works, academic pursuits and acts of advocacy have been awarded for privileging the civic, the transformational qualities of architecture and celebrating the complex relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit.