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Flats have never been a dominant feature of Melbourne's urban landscape. Until the 20th century there were no purpose-built flats in the city other than the failed philanthropic development Gordon House in Little Bourke Street. Melbourne's first purpose-built block of flats was Melbourne Mansions in Collins Street, built in 1906. Other notable pre-World War I blocks included Whitehall in Bank Place, Fawkner Mansions in South Yarra and Cliveden Mansions, created out of Sir William Clarke's former home Cliveden in East Melbourne.

Flats became more common in the interwar years, as some Melburnians developed a taste for urban over suburban life, while others were attracted to the convenience that the small, sometimes serviced, flat offered. Mostly built in St Kilda Road and Queens Road, South Yarra and Toorak, East Melbourne, Hawthorn, St Kilda and Parkville, these flats are predominantly in low-rise blocks of two or three storeys. Individual flats were almost always rented, rather than owned, making blocks of flats a lucrative form of investment in the aftermath of the stock market crash and depression. Tenants were mostly single men and women, childless couples, widows and those thought bohemian.

Few private flats were built in the early postwar years, as housing demand shifted back to detached suburban housing for families with children. The Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV) experimented with both brick and concrete blocks in the 1940s and 1950s. A second major wave in flat-development occurred in the 1960s, again largely centred on the inner areas, although low-rise flats and villa units were also built in the middle and outer suburbs. Most were again aimed at the rental market, specifically young adults of the emerging baby-boom generation. Basic design and amenity gave rise to the pejorative label 'six packs'. The Transfer of Land (Stratum Estates) Act 1960 and Strata Titles Act 1967, however, allowed for the sale of individual flats, leading to the growth of an owner-occupier class. The HCV built concrete multi-storey flats in the inner suburbs, while private developers built low-rise flats and what they called 'apartments' (high-rise blocks of between six and 20 storeys) in Central Melbourne, Toorak and South Yarra. Local protests and the formation of resident action groups against further development led to a significant decline in flat-building in the 1970s.

The 1990s saw a third major wave of flat-development, spread right across the metropolitan area, although high-rises were mostly concentrated in the city, Docklands, South Yarra, Southbank and St Kilda Road. Residents are empty nesters seeking a lifestyle change, international students and a new generation either priced out of, or uninterested in, home-ownership. A new wave of resident protest, including the group Save Our Suburbs, is again resisting these developments, especially in suburban areas.

Seamus O'Hanlon

O'Hanlon, Seamus, Together apart: Boarding house, hostel and flat life in pre-war Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2002. Details