Finding traces of Paris in Melbourne, Australia
Posted on August 10, 2012 by Kathryn Brown
Dolly Daou refinds Paris in her new Melbourne home.
Despite living in Australia most of my life, my francophone origins have meant that Paris has always held a special place for me. In 2007, finally catching my first glimpse of Paris from the air, I thought to myself, “this is home”. Within a year, I returned to Paris three times, and by the end of 2008, I relocated from Australia to Paris. I lived in Paris for nine months conducting research for my doctorate in architecture and urban design and working as an interior designer, before returning to Adelaide, South Australia in 2009.
While in Paris, I lived mainly in the 5th (Latin Quarter) and 2nd (Opera) arrondissements. I was privileged to experience the true, local character of the city. I was living, breathing, eating and speaking like a Parisian, immersing myself in Parisian culture and learning the art of savoir vivre. I captured everything I could in Paris, its streets with local markets, cafes, restaurants, artisan boulangeries, nightlife and the different architectural features of the neighborhoods and arrondissements.
Saint Germain des Près, with its buzzing nightlife, restaurants and 24/7 cafés, offered me a different side of Paris compared to the upscale, calm Rue Pierre Charron and Rue Maubert near the Champs Élyssées. The latter proved to be the best spot for a coupe de champagne with friends! I learned where to find the best crêpes, the hidden gardens, and the specialty museums, art galleries, bookstores, hairdressers, and boutiques.
I had visited Melbourne many times but only noticed its similarities to Paris after moving here, surely thanks to my fresh Parisian eyes. I see similarities in its buildings, streets, cuisine and people that I never noticed before.
Melbourne is known as the Capital de Terre Napoleon, or Napoleon Land, since it was the French who first mapped Victoria’s coast and assigned French names to prominent landmarks. The French influence was solidified by the establishment of the Alliance Française in Melbourne in 1890, the first in Australia and one of the first in the world. The recent migration of young French professionals to Australia has reinvigorated the French esprit in the town today.
The influence of Parisian architecture on Melbourne is striking. French influences played an important role in Australia’s Neo-Classical architecture period in the early 20th century. Delicately ornamented buildings were built in the signature Beaux Arts and Empire styles of 19th century Paris.
A good number of these buildings disappeared during the modernization of Melbourne in the mid-20th century, while others abandoned their original use in favor of redevelopment as residential apartments. Fortunately, several important examples remain, including the National Theatre, the Port Authority Building and the Flinders Street Railway Station.
On the corner of Chapel and Greville streets in Melbourne sits one of the oldest Neo-Classical Baroque buildings in the city, The Prahran Central. Built in 1941 as a shopping centre, it currently houses residential apartments for the upper floors but remains a shopping centre on the lower floors. The overall feel of the façade is true to the French style; but the ornate plaster stucco decorations, cornices and pillars, and the striking black cast-iron balcony-balustrades with motifs of urns, shells and flowers give the building a uniquely Australian flair.
Traces of Parisian life reveal themselves throughout the city, from the vibrant farmers’ markets on Saturdays, to the many French-inspired cafés in the Prahran neighborhood.
With its narrow road and designer boutiques, Greville Street reminds me much of Rue des Francs Bourgeois in Le Marais. The buttery smells of French patisseries waft out the doors of Eugenie and Brioche by Philip, and the many small boutiques, quaint corners and notable Chez Olivier restaurant round out a Parisian atmosphere. I journey back to Paris from my favourite writing corner at La Terrace, sipping coffee on the patio and soaking up Melbourne’s Parisian atmosphere.
Substantial real estate development around the Prahran district’s Greville Street has helped to transform it from a fringe, hippie area to a mecca for fashion trends, hot clubs and restaurants, and young professionals. Despite a slide in prices over the last year in Melbourne and the suburbs, overall rental and real estate prices have soared in the neighborhood over the last five years.
At the east end of Greville Street, Chapel Street is one of the main shopping precincts in Melbourne, and has been since the mid-19th century. The atmosphere is similar to that of Saint Germain des Pres: alive by day with students, young professionals, chic shops and restaurants, and at night by pubs and people bustling about the streets. But in contrast to Paris’ toniest neighborhood, in the Chapel Street neighborhood upmarket apartments and community housing are built next to each other. This was a conscious choice by the government, an initiative to maintain socio-economic diversity throughout the city and, at least in theory, to keep rents and property prices affordable. Real estate in the desirable neighborhood around Chapel Street fetches an average €6,500 per m2, comparable to prices in Paris’ less expensive neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, for example in the north 18th arrondissement.
Nothing can truly replace crossing the Seine at the Pont des Arts or enjoying a morning coffee at the Place de la Contrascarpe. But in some of my favorite corners of Melbourne, the architecture, cafés, and quaint streets create the perfect backdrop to transport my mind and heart back to Paris.
Dolly Daou is a lecturer and program coordinator for the Faculty of Interior Design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. She has worked internationally in interior design practices and projects in exhibition, furniture, retail and branding, institutional, residential, and stage set design. Dolly is fluent in French, English, and Arabic.