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Opinion 11: Unsung Modernism in Carlton

By Alexia Baikie On the Corner of Pelham and Cardigan Street holds a modernist marvel. Featuring quirky filleted windows and a bright orange concrete façade, 88 Pelham Street is truly Carlton’s warmest character. Contemporary Australian Architecture has a resurgence in public enthusiasm for mid-century modern homes and buildings. We are experiencing a long overdue celebration for designs that represent diversity and individualism in and around Melbourne.


This article delves into the cultural significance of a modernist factory on the verge of demolition, by tracing its history through collaboration, research, and interviews with architects. It includes streetscape photography to explore aesthetics and highlights the challenges of navigating local council bureaucracy and heritage preservation.


As time passes, an appreciation will inevitably grow for places that reflect the richness and diversity of Carlton’s Modernist era. As architects, designers, and lovers of the built environment, we have a role and responsibility to speak up about beautiful design by seeing the beauty in buildings others may miss. For me, 88 Pelham Street embodies an interplay of symmetry and proportional balance, and evokes a sense of joy when the sunset reflects on its orange concrete render. I offer this story as a tribute to a local lantern. As of this month, construction workers are dismantling the brick and mortar, removing the windows and gutting the interiors.



Photographer: Gaby Miegeville-Little (2022)


Finding Pelham


Down the street and around the corner, with soft rounded curves and a glowing face, here today and gone tomorrow. We were walking home from the city, passing by Argyle Square. He points up the filleted windows, “I can’t believe they are knocking this building down.” I look up. Standing there, on the corner is a fantastic orange modernist factory. The building references the late-twentieth-century modernist style; the repeating pod-like façade nods to Metabolism and the concrete characteristics reference the era of Brutalism. You could fantasise about the shape in an outer space streetscape or be featured in a film set in a 70s movie. Yet it has made a home on Pelham and Cardigan Street. Conceived in and expressing a 1980s vision for the future, the curved glass eave and marble elevator foyer capture a new way of building.


In the weeks that followed, I learnt the ground floor is a working factory, with work zones, coolers and boning rooms. Whereas the first and second floor accommodates office spaces and the top-level Director’s office, sparing no expense. It has a luxury apartment suite, marble bathtub and bar, separate timber-lined sauna and glass atrium and an end balcony. The three floors are connected by an elevator; a feature which was rare for this scale building at the time.





Story of Pelham Street


The building was known as the Luizzi House was commissioned by local Italian figure Fernando Luizzi and forms part of the rich artistic history of inner-city Melbourne. Luizzi migrated to Australia at the age of 18 (2). The Architect, Joe Arcaro and Associates, together with the client designed a building that was both a working meatworks factory and a visual asset to the streetscape. The design aimed to balance aesthetic appeal with practical functionality, resulting in a structure that not only performed its intended purpose but also added value to the surrounding community. It contrasted with colour the surrounding Victorian terraces creating a vision for the modern future.


The interiors of 88 Pelham were photographed by Elizabeth Gilliam and featured in the

photojournalism series ‘Italian community: Building a country archive.’ Gilliam’s photographs are an authentic representation of 1980s Carlton (3). She captured a series of diverse stories and characters, similar to Fernando Luizzi, who immersed themselves in the opportunities of a new country. In reviewing these images, the destruction of 88 Pelham would disregard an important slice of the history of Carlton’s Italian community and national architectural story.


Motivated by a deep curiosity and appreciation for the architectural history of my community, I ventured on a journey to explore the cultural significance of a modernist factory facing demolition. Along the way, I encountered challenges in uncovering the building’s history to engaging with the rejection of heritage preservation for buildings of the 21st century. However, fueled by a passion for story behind the architecture, I persisted in my search and reached out to my network of architectural professionals, including a professor, a librarian, an architect, a historian, and a researcher. Through their guidance, I was able to expand my network to include a property manager, an urban planner, an archivist, a heritage consultant, a lecturer, and even a butcher. Eventually, my architectural sleuthing led me to the architect behind the project, allowing me to gain valuable insights into the design process and the building’s cultural significance.



Gilliam, E. (1988). [Fernando Luizzi with workers at one of his construction projects, Carlton, 1988]


Sitting around a table covered in hand-drawn wax paper plans and details, Joe Arcaro pulls out the plans from the existing 1955 two-story factory by Architect L.Guttman. He enthusiastically explained how his engineering knowledge and research allowed him to calculate the existing structure’s load-bearing capacity. This discovery enabled the third floor to be designed using the original concrete slabs and structure. Arcaro explained his design methodology simply, “if a building still works you should use it, once it doesn’t you should change it.”


The team behind 88 Pelham Street was a fresh, youthful, Italian group of designers, developers and contractors moving away from conservatism and into the 20th century. 88 Pelham, delivered as one of Arcaro’s first projects, was an innovative building that pushed the boundaries of existing norms by balancing ideas with engineering rigour and architectural knowledge.


Designed with a balance between functional engineering and the desire to impress. It was the complementary relationship between the client and architect that encouraged Arcaro to design with bold material and colour choices. Liuzzi was an eager and passionate client who hurried along the construction. He declared ‘Paint it orange!’ while optimistically needing to exhibit the structure to the visiting Italian consulate. He was successful to a degree as the Italian flag was raised at the top of the lift core on a half-constructed building back in 1980.


A Changing Streetscape


88 Pelham street represents a flourishing post-war modern architecture in Melbourne and accurately reflects the Australian historical design journey (5). The building has been a backdrop to community life present during new business ventures, morning commutes and the Argyle street night markets. As the research continued stories seemingly flowed to me from the public, with a neighbour, who lives adjacent recounted, “Sometimes when we wake up our apartment is completely coloured orange by the reflection. We yell ORANGE in happiness!” she exclaimed Sadly the new design completely demolishes the orange modernist corner building. Designers and developers at La Storia along with the council at VCAT could have considered a design that gracefully retained and restored parts of the iconic façade. A missed opportunity to create an exciting adaptive reuse design strategy for an apartment block in an oversaturated market


The new developer, La Storia, has begun the demolition of 88 Pelham St for a similar scale and internal footprint apartment building. The new design advertises similar design features to the existing building - such as double-height spaces, marble specifications, and an entertaining space with park views (6). With the resurgence of this modern style, an adaptive reuse design strategy could create an exciting and value-adding opportunity for an apartment block in an oversaturated market.



Joe Arcaro and Associates Pty. Ltd. (1979). Architectural Drawings of 88 Pelham Street.


A Farewell


To me, 88 Pelham Street is a delightfully layered representation of a modernist era of architectural experimentation. It is a tale of a talented group of young immigrant designers forming an identity in Carlton and most importantly how a functional building ought to be a visual asset to the streetscape. I am able to reflect on the journey of archiving an unknown building’s beginnings before its end, venerating how important it is to find your architectural voice and express the euphoria your find in your local buildings. Our future streetscapes are being shaped by the decisions we make today and the urban fabric requires delicate and considered thinking to not erase representation.


Soon the Pelham Street streetscape will look a little less bright and be a little less connected to its past. As councils prioritise and allow developers to freely cut swathes of blank canvas for their profit, the vibrant urban landscape of Melbourne communities will be lost (1). We must remember Melbourne’s Architectural history is not confined to Victorian-era terrace houses, and broaden our understanding of historic buildings to include the internationally significant moments. We need to continue to fight for the diversity of characters in our community, the authenticity of the past and for buildings that still have a lot of life left in them. We can design creative, textually-rich, light-filled, safe buildings while still engaging with the reuse of existing buildings. With a sensitivity to the past and an understanding of our city’s history, 88 Pelham was an opportunity to do just that.






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Citation:


Victoria Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Planning and Environment List, ‘VCAT REFERENCE

uploads/2016/01/VCAT-Order-Permit-Aug-2016-86-94-Pelham-St.pdf


Liuzzi Property Group, (2017). Sourced https://www.liuzzi.com.au/who-we-are/our-founder/

Gilliam, E. (1988) Photograph, ‘Fernando Luizzi, in one of the rooms of his office building, at Luizzi

House, 88 Pelham St. Carlton. 1988’ sourced https:// www.slv.vic.gov.au/pictoria/gid/slv-pic-

aab74836 and ‘Fernando Luizzi with workers at one of his construction projects, Carlton, 1988’


World Heritage Management Plan, ‘Royal Exhibition Building & Carlton Gardens’ (2009) sourced

https://www.heritage.vic.gov.au/__data/ assets/pdf_file/0015/512151/World-Heritage-Environs-Area-

Strategy-Plan.pdf


Curtis, W. (1996) Modern Architecture Since 1900


Kingsford Direct, ‘La Storia’ (2022) sourced https://www.domain.com.au/ project/5406/la-storia-

carlton-vic/


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Image credit:


Elizabeth Gilliam


Liuzzi Property Group


Gaby Miegeville-Little


Joe Arcaro and Associates Pty. Ltd.

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