One of my favourite Mid Century Modernist designs in Tasmania is the Myer building located in the heart of Launceston’s central business district. It’s an important building, due not only to its use of materials that create a striking example of Tasmania Mid Century Modernism, but also its socio-cultural history within the retail landscape of Launceston.
The Myer building in Launceston cannot be missed; it stands as one of the cities tallest buildings rising 6 levels above ground. With its imposing design, largely built of red brick, Myer sweeps around the corners of Brisbane and St John Streets. Its sheer makes it stand out in the streetscape and as such it visually anchors the CBD - meeting in front of the Myer building you’ve arrived in the heart of retail Launceston!
When it opened in the early 1960s it was the tallest commercial building in Tasmania, marking its place in history as one of the first high rise buildings in the State. Launceston would soon see more tall buildings from the Modernist period. Hobart, too, would see a swathe of tower blocks in this mid century period, both for commercial and residential uses.
The mid-20th Century was an an amazing time of prosperity, providing Tasmania with a rich variety of architecture supporting a post war population boom. Taking a look at the infrastructure in and around Launceston that was constructed at this time, we see many large scale projects that have shaped the city we know today. The Trevallyn Dam and it’s connecting hydro power station in the same suburb name (1955) are dominant Modernist landmarks in Launceston. The dam and power station stand as visual reminders to Launcestonians of how the city’s power is still predominantly obtained from hydroelectricity. Along the Tamar River is the striking design of the Batman cable-stayed Bridge, which commenced construction in 1966. You can walk along it, and the views from underneath and various vantage points along the Tamar river are spectacular.
The period between the 1960s to early 1980s also provided Launceston with many striking examples of 20th century commercial and civic architecture, much of which remains to this day. Some prominent examples include the Telstra Exchange (1960s), Launceston Library (1970s), Magistrates Court (1960s), Launceston Police Headquarters (1970s) , ANZ Bank (1970s), Coles Building Mowbray (1970s, demolished), Newnham Police Station (1970s), Henty House (early 1980s) and, of course, the Myer building.
The Myer building was originally built as a department store for the firm Cox Brothers. A Victorian period building had stood on the site and was demolished in 1959. Cox Brothers operated out of its new purpose built building for only a few years until Myer moved in and occupied the entire building. Myer has been located within this building for nearly 60 years and has remained there ever since.
‘‘The Myer building in Launceston cannot be missed; it stands as one of the cities tallest buildings rising 6 levels above ground. With its imposing design, largely built of red brick, Myer sweeps around the corners of Brisbane and St John Streets. Its sheer makes it stand out in the streetscape and as such it visually anchors the CBD - meeting in front of the Myer building you’ve arrived in the heart of retail Launceston!’’
One of the most fascinating attributes of the building is its size relative to the population of Launceston, especially when you consider it would have been far less in the 1960s than it is today. It’s one of the few examples of high rise design department store in regional cities and towns in Australia. Sure, capital cities such as Melbourne have multi-storey stores within the the CBD, but Launceston has a population of around 100,000, whereas Melbourne has four million! Most Myer stores in regional areas are in low rise and/or integrated into an outlying satellite shopping mall. The very size of the Myer building is a monument to the confidence of this period in Tasmanian history.
Myer is a fascinating example of Mid Century department store design. Like many other period designs around Australia, the building highlights and reflects on a history of retail experience in the mid-20th century in Australia represented by purpose built shopping malls or multi storey towers. Launceston differed from many other towns at the time as it didn’t have a large scale dedicated shopping mall with large anchor stores as key attractors. While small scale malls exist today in Kings Meadows and Mowbray (with anchor stores being the two major supermarket chains), the traditional CBD shopping strip with a range of chain and independent stores was, and continues to be, the major retail shopping experience in Launceston.
In Victoria, it was a different story. Myer created Australian retail history in 1960 when it opened Chadstone Mall in the suburb of Malvern East. When the mall opened it was the largest in Australia and remains so today, with 211,929 m2 of retail floor-space, 20 million visitors annually and a turnover of around $1.4 billion a year. Recently the complex underwent massive renovations (there were also renovations in the 1980s, which produced a glass ceiling of a Post Modern style that in parts still exists today) and it's worth visiting just to admire the the massive curving wave of the glass ceiling - a magnificent feat of engineering and beautiful to behold.
Meanwhile in Hobart, Tasmania's first suburban shopping mall, Eastlands, opened in 1965, three years before in 1962 the Cat and Fiddle arcade opened in Hobart’s CBD. While Eastlands catered for the newly expanding suburbs on the eastern shore, the Cat and Fiddle Arcade provided modern shopping amenities and anchor stores right in the heart of the CBD. What Chadstone Myer had started in Melbourne became a model emulated across Australia. These mid century retail designs of providing multiple retail experiences under a single roof changed the retail experience in Australia forever.
Outdoor pedestrian malls in the later part of the 20th Century witnessed main roads removed in favour of walking and sitting areas with retail experiences on either side. Tasmania and, in particular Launceston, holds a special place in pedestrian mall history. The Launceston Brisbane Street Mall was the first in Australia, opening in the early 1970s. It remains to this day and, although altered several times (it underwent redevelopment last year), the concept of the open air pedestrian mall has not changed. Hobart too has an open air mall within a pedestrianised section of Elizabeth Street.
The advent of retail malls under one roof and open air malls set the scene for a retail boom in the mid 20th-Century. Access to and from these new retail experiences was still relatively close to the suburbs in Tasmania, in comparison to the sprawl of some mainland cities. This proximity, perhaps, aided in the viable continuation of traditional CBD shopping in Launceston and Hobart. There is also no doubt that Myer itself was a huge draw-card for shoppers in the CBD. It’s not only a retail attractor but the building itself is visually stunning, with many beautiful and interesting design attributes. The original exterior facade remains intact. A striking design feature is on this facade, which wraps and curves, enveloped in thousands of mosaic tiles in a variety of colours typical of hues seen in mid-20th Century design. This feature, so large in its scale, is the largest known use of mosaic tiles in Tasmania to me. The irony is though that not many people are aware of its existence. People ask me what the tile details of my photographs are from and they’re surprised when I tell them where it is. When you take the time to look up and admire how enormous the mosaic really is and how many tiles have been used, you can’t help but be impressed. The fact that it has been retained demonstrates its importance as an example of 1960s design aesthetic.
‘‘People ask me what the tile details of my photographs are from and they’re surprised when I tell them where it is. When you take the time to look up and admire how enormous the mosaic really is and how many tiles have been used, you can’t help but be impressed’’
If you’re interested in seeing more mosaic tile design from the same period in Tasmania, check out the wonderful Railway Roundabout water fountain in Hobart: the roundabout itself, the water fountain and underground connecting footpaths, with the elaborate use of mosaic tiles in the tunnels. The Railway Roundabout is another exquisite example of Tasmanian Modernist artistic design and a walk through there is a great way to witness the use of mosaic tiles similar to those on the Myer building.) The original entry used to be on the corner, under the wall of tiles, and it really looked a grand entry as you entered beneath those tiles. I love the way the mosaic wall curves at the front corner, breaking up the straight walls of the rest of the building. The straight exterior facades are adorned with more tiles - panels of blue with alternating red bricks. The sheer amount of bricks used to build this building must have kept the factory making them very busy!
There are emergency stairs at the end corner of St John Street, and rather than be a functional hidden exit, the staircase has panes of glass and aluminium windows allowing for natural light to flood the stairwell. While the interior has been altered several times, original features remain and the sense of scale is apparent with the tall ceilings throughout. The escalators are original, with their narrowness apparent in comparison to escalators today. A wonderful original design of the escalators are the numbers as you enter denoting the level you’re on, perhaps made from Bakelite, they are, a typeface lovers delight!
One of the amazing experiences of Myer was the rooftop cafe. Many locals still speak of their memories of it, as it only closed down in the early to mid-1990s. The only visual reminders of it now are the verandas when you look up outside. The verandas are framed within a concrete “tv box” framing. If you stand a little further back and gaze up, you can also see a small wall or curved brick work with alternating gaps on the rooftop, which looks to be a decorative element hiding perhaps plant machinery equipment. This design and use of bricks is typical of this period of design. What a place to window gaze over a coffee and lunch it would have been! With the boom in cafe culture today, it would be a local and tourist draw-card for the city if it were to ever open again.
It's been nearly 60 years of Myer operating out of the current building. It will be interesting to see what happens into the future with constant change within the retail environment. If Myer ever vacates the building it’s difficult to envisage how such a large floor space would be reused and if the building could be adaptively reused. For now, it's a fascinating and intact example of mid-20th Century department store design and reflects the larger picture of how retail design in the mid-20th Century shaped and changed Launceston and Tasmania and the way we go about shopping and using our leisure time.
I have just uploaded a new gallery dedicated to my photographs of the Myer building in Launceston. As I edit my collection I will continue to add these to the gallery. Click here to view the project gallery