Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Mad Max Carpark

I'll never forget the first time I saw it.

I was wandering around Melbourne Uni's Parkville Campus, just killing time, hanging out, filling a lazy afternoon. I hadn't lived in Melbourne long, and I didn't know much about the uni, or the city's history

Walking along one of the many pathways, it suddenly came into sight; something totally incongruous, and at odds with the surroundings. A massive stone doorway, highly ornate and elaborate, with only blackness beyond

I had found the Mad Max carpark.

Also known as the underground carpark beneath the south lawn. 

But what was the stone doorway doing there? And where had it come from?

Melbourne in the 1880s; booming and marvellous.

Melbourne in the 1880's was a city in the midst of a boom.

The second largest city in the British Empire (after London) and one of the fastest growing and richest on Earth. The gold rush, which had commenced in 1851, had already peaked, but the influx of labour and capital this had brought to the city had matured into a diverse and rapidly expanding economy.  

This era is what gave us the phrase 'Marvelous Melbourne.'

Supporting this river of money was a burgeoning financial sector, illustrated by the large number of banks across the city. To demonstrate their flush balance sheets, these bank buildings were often elaborately designed and expensive constructions, new money made tangible.

One of these was the Colonial Bank.

Built on the corner of Little Collins and Elizabeth Streets, the Colonial Bank mirrored the early years of Melbourne's development. 

It was founded in 1856 by John O'Shanassy to serve small investors associated with the gold rush. The parcel of land the original building was constructed on, a considerably more modest building to start with, was the spot where Father Patrick Geoghegan performed the first mass in the Port Phillip area in 1839. It was said that the fig tree growing on the back of the allotment had been planted that day to mark the occasion, and so the tree was maintained in a small square of land, with the bank built around it.

By 1880, the Colonial Bank was successful enough to afford a grander edifice, and so the elaborate bluestone building above was commissioned. It would take two years to erect, in place of the old offices. 

The Argus describes the building once completed:

Topping off the building's appearance was an elaborate stone archway over the front entrance. 

Designed by Irish born sculptor James Gilbert, who also designed the sculpture of Sir Redmond Barry that stands in front of the State Library, the arch depicted mythical figures Britannia and Neptune, supported by a pair of muscular underlings.

The boom years of the 1880's were followed by the bust of the 1890's. 

Many business struggled or went under completely, and the face of the city changed again. The Colonial Bank survived these years, but was finished off by the unstable times that accompanied the First World War. By the 1920's, their elaborate bluestone headquarters was deserted and slated for demolition.

The Colonial Bank corner today

While building preservation was unheard of at this time, the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects did call for the building's stone entryway to be saved.

As this was a relatively simple task, the archway was removed and gifted to Melbourne University (although the sculptures of Britannia and Neptune were somehow lost in this process). The rest of the Colonial Bank, including its historic fig tree, was flattened and removed in 1932.

A sketch of the old Physiology building from , prior to the archways addition.

The University would initially incorporate the archway into their new physiology building, which was under construction at the time.

But the physiology building at Melbourne Uni would only last about forty years  In the early 70s it was demolished and the stone archway was moved for a third time, to its present location. The arch now has National Trust protection.

And this brings us to 'Mad Max'.

The carpark in real life.
Max and co in the MFP garage in the film.

George Miller was a doctor, who wanted to be a film maker.

In 1971, he attended a film making workshop held at Melbourne Uni, and somewhere along the way came across the south lawn carpark. As well as the elaborate entrance, the carpark also has a highly stylised interior, with futuristic-ally curved roof supports instead of standard, angular ones.

When Miller was filming his first feature, 1979's 'Mad Max', he utilised the carpark as the garage for the Metropolitan Police Force (Max's employer, before he goes rogue). Several scenes were shot in the carpark, including the famous moment when they hand Max the key's to the 'last of the V8 interceptors.'

The film became a cult success, and established both Miller and lead actor Mel Gibson as up and coming talents. 

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