Royal Arcade

Right, let’s try and talk about architecture. We’ve got the Royal Arcade lined up today – I’ve been doing a bunch of posts on water facilities and stuff, so it’ll be good to have some actual architecture commentary in here.

So the Royal Arcade is an arcade along Bourke Street, one of the main streets in Melbourne’s CBD. It’s where the knife attack happened recently, the one where a homeless guy helped out by bashing the criminal with his shopping trolley. Apparently they had another attack on Bourke Street back in 2017, where some fuckstick ran his car into the crowd – I only just learned about that one now, looking for the knife thing. Gross. Anyway, Bourke Street is one of the main bits of Melbourne CBD, and it’s where I get off the tram, so I think of it as the main main street. It’s probably not, but that’s how I think of it. The Royal Arcade is at 335 Bourke Street, although being an arcade it also opens up onto Little Collins Street, which is the next block down, and Elizabeth Street, which is to the side. It’s sort of on the corner, in that sense.

The Arcade has been open since 1870, and the design is Renaissance Revival. I’m not really an expert at this stuff, but basically there’s a bunch of historicist styles of architecture in the 19th century, where architects basically all just went around pinching stuff from the past. It’s where you get neo-Gothic, or Gothic Revival, as well as Renaissance Revival and all the rest of it. I don’t want to get too caught up in classifying the building, though, because it’s definitely not my strong point. It’s also a bit of a minefield, because – well, for example, the official Royal Arcade website describes the style as Italianate, but as drawing on French and English models. French and English models of the Italianate style? I don’t know – anyway, I’ll just point out interesting features and what they’re called or what they’re doing. Simpler for everyone.


It’s pretty easy to place this arcade in the 19th century, just straight off the bat. Firstly – well, it’s Australia, and there’s not many buildings from the 18th century. But even if you didn’t know the location, the shopping arcade only came around in the late 18th century, so 19th is a safe bet. The iron and glass combination in the roof also says 19th century – look at the Crystal Palace for the classic example of iron and glass construction. At the same time you’ve also got a bunch of architectural elements updated from the Renaissance – hence Renaissance Revival. The Renaissance itself was reinterpreting features from Greek and Roman architecture, so expect to see lots of pillars and arches and so on. Even in a really quick first look, you can see the pillars lining the shops in the photo above, as well as those beautiful rounded arch windows (fanlights).


So when you think about a typical Greek or Roman building, you’ve probably got that basic idea of a bunch of pillars holding up a triangular roof, sort of like how kids stereotypically draw houses. The Pantheon, in Rome – it’s that sort of business. To me, these windows here are the evolution of that basic idea. You’ve got the pillars framing the door, and then the fanlight sitting on top. It seems like a derived form of the pediment, which is basically what that top triangular bit is called. You can see a more traditional (albeit small) example of a pediment on the front of the building above. It’s that little raised triangle in the middle – again, you can see it’s flanked by the columns on either side. It’s derived from that basic Roman structure. The four side windows on the first floor also have pediments, although they’re again of a different style. I don’t think the ones on the second floor are quite the same – note that the windows there are arched at the top, rather than flat. Really it might just be an inversion of the lower level – that is, where the lower level has a rounded arch pediment, the higher level is basically what you’d get if you took a rectangular arch and cut the same semi-circular shape out of the base. I’m really just guessing, though.


It’s also interesting to note, just in passing, that these fanlight windows are entirely decorative. In theory, they’re supposed to let light into an area. You’ve got the glass ceiling up top, and then these windows should help send that light through into the stores below. But look here – under the ‘window’, it’s all just solid roof. It’s not making the room below any lighter at all. Compare that to something like the front door of 10 Downing Street, where the fanlight is obviously meant to bring light into the house proper. So when you combine the roofing here with the reflective nature of the fanlight glass, chances are they’re using that space for storage or something.

Alright – I’m nearly out of space and I haven’t even talked about half the stuff I want to get to. The big thing that people normally talk about with the Royal Arcade are the Gog and Magog figures who strike the hour. I don’t want to talk about that here, because you can read about them everywhere else. One thing I will note is that the clock was made by Thomas Gaunt, the famous clockmaker and jeweller (among other things). Gaunt had his shop right bang on the Royal Arcade, and is responsible for a number of major clocks around Melbourne, including the one at Flinders St Station, and in the town halls in Camperdown, Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne), Mount Gambier (SA), and Malvern. He also designed and installed a special chronograph at Flemington Racecourse, where the Melbourne Cup is held each year. Busy guy. Note as well here, incidentally, that the clock in the Royal Arcade is mounted in a dome, another hallmark of Renaissance architecture. Think, uh, St Peter’s Basilica, but in Melbourne. And tiny. And built in the 19th century. And with a clock.


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