My favourite Australian Architect – Harry Norris

Harry Norris and I have a long history. It began in the Coles cafeteria when I was four, and now I am in my forties. I suppose you could call him my other lover, for I have occupied his space and he mine for as long as I can remember. He has been there for me on so many important occasions.

Cathedral Arcade Nicholas Building

Norris was born in 1888, part of the Victorian era. A man of ordinary means who became a prolific interwar architect. One of the first to introduce the Art Deco style to major commercial projects, completing over twenty notable buildings in a career that spanned forty years from 1925 to 1965. These buildings are in Melbourne, my hometown. This collision course that Harry and I share began long ago at the G.J. Coles Building in Bourke Street, which opened in 1930.

One of my favourite things, other than Harry, is to daydream. Others have always been critical of this past time, but not me. Daydreaming is about details. My vacant brown eyes staring at the ceiling in the Coles Cafeteria on level six. All of those squares, layers of patterns, each sits inside one another—fans and scallops and triangles, columns extending down the wall. And so, began my love affair with Harry, comparing him to all others. After our visit, we would walk up the hill to get the tram home. I would turn and look back at the façade, something I now know is called faience. It was mauve, the colour of the building; it fascinated me. Norris had learned about faience in America from the Chicago school. It is a glazed architectural terracotta that can be used as a skin for a building. I came and went from that building for ten years, and then it changed, like everything changes. It became David Jones, and they hid the ceiling.

Before I knew it, I found myself working full-time in town. After some years, I ended up in Block Court Arcade. In my early twenties and with my own office. I had arrived. Norris had remodelled this Victorian building in 1930 to insert a shopping arcade connecting Collins Street and Elizabeth Street. It included entrance signage in Jazz Moderne typography and stylised floral and zig-zag motif. A multi-coloured terrazzo arcade floor, ornamental bronzes, and copper shop fittings. Divine. Upstairs I had an arched internal window looking down on this scene—more food for my hungry eyes. And then I met ‘the one, my love.

But you, dear Harry, are coming with me. It is not the time for divided loyalties. We shall be three”.

It was time for a Wedding. I wanted a ballroom as romance was the only reality I had ever considered. Finally, I found the northern extension at The Windsor Hotel, designed by Norris in 1961. My lip quivered as I stared at the ceiling; it was a homage to the old, not decorative like the Victorian ceiling of the original hotel but imprinted with the memory of it. A parquetry oval dance floor beneath. And so, I, my betrothed and my other lover, had a wonderful Wedding reception. And we danced and danced; it was just as I had imagined it would be. I come and go from that building every year to mark the date. First, there were two and then three, four, five, and six, each of us participating in this shared experience that is a celebration of our love. The ballroom no longer exists; it became the Hard Rock café and then something else.

“I didn’t like this, Harry, but acceptance is something I am good at.

I went on a journey recently to Burnham Beeches in the Sherbrooke Forest, built in 1931. It was a day of surprises. A beautiful streamlined building, reminiscent of an ocean liner, she is listing. But there has been a spotlight placed on her now, and I am confident it will be okay. Empire Rone had a fantastic art installation there, and now Burnham Beeches is to be a five-star hotel. It was a lovely excursion to the countryside, a chance for me to think.

I didn’t know she was one of yours, Harry, a treasure you left hidden in the forest for me”. 

Lift Nicholas Building

Now it is time to get back to work. My children have grown up. All roads seem to be leading to the Nicholas Building, designed in 1925. It is commanding with its large-scale classical elements, a great example of the ‘Commercial Palazzo’ style. The lifts are the longest-running manual lifts in Melbourne. I have visited three times in the past year, and now this week, I see there is a little room to rent for a modest price. My eyes enjoy the kaleidoscope of colour as I walk under the leadlight barrel-vaulted ceiling in Cathedral Arcade.

“Is this where I am supposed to be, Harry? This was the beginning for you; perhaps this is the end for me. Is it time for us to part? I think this is your masterpiece. Coffee in hand as I walk to the lifts, I look at the others; their eyes are turned down. They do not see you. But then I feel grateful for all of those stolen moments, the times I have got to keep you all for myself”.

Harry Norris died at 78 years of age in 1966, only six months after he retired. To my knowledge, he was not awarded during his lifetime. He worked in an era where there was emergent opposition to decoration and ornamentation. Nevertheless, he was a man of strong vision and unwavering in his design ethos. A number of his buildings have been destroyed in recent years. But his work endures in many prominent city locations.

 “I think it would make you sad to see them now, Harry, these spaces you created for us. They are in desperate need of rejuvenation, someone to bring back the romance“.

Harry Norris, my all-time favourite Australian architect.

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One thought on “My favourite Australian Architect – Harry Norris

  1. What a lovely history story. Another time, and closer to Melbourne, and I would eagerly go on that walk.
    Thank you for the images I have in my mind now.

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