Walking Mid-Century Melbourne + Coffee

I often walked through London on weekdays when I was a freelance writer/education consultant/arts manager/comms person.  I’d work at the British Library for a bit, then wind my way through the back streets of Bloomsbury, head across to Soho Square, then push through the crowds at Piccadilly, making my way down to the river at Embankment, where I’d cross to Festival Hall on Southbank.

This kind of walking is always best done alone. Small moments reveal themselves as your own personal treasures: a blue historic plaque on a townhouse for someone you’ve never heard of, the sound of someone beatboxing through their intercom to whoever’s passing by outside, letters piled up inside the door of a closed-up business. Noticing these little things is what Walter Benjamin called Erfahrung – an extension of the wandering of Baudelaire’s 19th Century Parisian flâneur – soaking up the city’s wealth of sights, sounds and smells unmediated; emerging from the anaesthesia brought on by the chaos of modern city life (or Erlebnis). 

I own a lot of flat shoes.

I’ve started walking more in Melbourne – mostly around the warehouse conversions of North Melbourne after a hot chocolate at Mörk (if you haven’t been yet, try the campfire hot chocolate to feel like you’ve truly left the city). Last weekend though, I did something different – I undertook a far more considered journey around Melbourne’s CBD, following a wonderful little blue book called ‘Melbourne Mid-Century: 1950 – 1970’ by Footpath Guides.


I wish everyone could see and feel the beauty in Modernist architecture’s confident lines and stark surfaces. Australia is losing so many lovely mid-century homes, almost always marketed for sale as a ‘development opportunity’. Many unique office buildings are sadly already gone. There’s some reason for hope though: one of the buildings below, Total House, was saved from demolition in 2014 and added to the Heritage Register, and another, London Assurance House, was given a fairly sympathetic facade treatment in 2003 – although it still took me five minutes to realise I’d found the right building! Fingers crossed we hang onto more of these mid-century gems!

Here’s a quick jog past the buildings I photographed on my mid-century Melbourne walking tour, with some great coffee-pit-stops along the way!

H.C. Sleigh Building | 1962 | 160 Queen Street

Coffee stop: Brother Baba Budan

London Assurance House | 1959 | 468-470 Bourke Street

Seen here with its ‘new’ cladding, added in 2003.

London Assurance House 1959 and 2003

Coffee stop: Patricia (weekdays only)

Royal Mail House | 1963 | 253-267 Bourke Street

Coffee stop: Sensory Lab

State Savings Bank | 1961 | 258-264 Little Bourke Street

The clock was originally integrated into an advertisement for the bank, and was a watch on a man’s wrist. That’s a BIG man!

State Savings Bank 1961

Coffee stop: Embiggen Books

Total House | 1965 | 160 Russell Street

The ‘ugly car park’ is saved.

Sapphire House | 1960 | 17-25 Crossley Street

With original occupant, gem dealer M Hurwitz, still in residence upstairs!

Coffee stop: Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar (1954)

ICI House | 1958 | 1 Nicholson Street

The big daddy of them all…the original ‘International Style’ building in Melbourne, which drew crowds of 20,000 in the first week it opened. The original fountain is by Sydney sculptor Gerald Lewers, and makes a bold statement even when it’s not flowing. It was one of his last works – he was thrown from a horse and passed away in 1962.

ICI House Gerald Lewers Fountain 1958

Coffee stop: After all that walking, it’s time for something stronger: a cocktail on the roof at Siglo, and a toast to all the visionary architects, artists, business owners and city planners who brought these buildings to life.

For more smart stuff about psychogeography,Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, and flâneurs, read the Psychogeographic Review blogpost.

Dates, building names and small details mostly taken from the Footpath Guides ‘Melbourne Mid-Century’ walking tour book.