On the ‘contemporary European’ shelf of Collected Works, a bookstore in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, you can find a copy French novelist Georges Perec’s 1978 masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual.
This remarkable book tells the story of a Parisian apartment building, 11 rue Simon-Crubellier, and the intersecting lives of its inhabitants. The key narrative of the book is about the wealthy dilettante Bartlebooth, whose life plan is this: for ten years he learns to paint watercolours, with the aid of a painter who lives in the building. For twenty years he travels the world, painting harbour-scape watercolours of 500 ports, with the aid of his assistant Smautf.
Then, after employing the services of Gaspard Winckler, a master jigsaw-puzzle-maker (and another inhabitant of the apartment building), he has those watercolours turned into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles, which, once completed, he has chemically treated by a special solvent that erases entirely the watercolour paint. The aim is to leave behind nothing of his life’s work. Unfortunately, Bartlebooth finds the puzzles increasingly difficult as he gets older. He dies before he can complete his quixotic task.
The events of the novel take place in all the various rooms of the apartment building at the moment when Bartlebooth dies. But Bartlebooth’s is only the most prominent among many tall tales and yarns. In a narrative structure of intricate sophistication, Perec embarks on a knight’s journey through all the rooms of the apartment building, describing who and what is in each, and telling the back-stories and interrelationships of the many different characters involved.
The result is one often cited as a key work in postmodern literature, although Perec himself disavowed such a description. Life: A User’s Manual should really be seen as the apotheosis of French high modernism, a kind of Ulysses or Man without Qualities for a postwar age: a master-work about the impossibility of a master-work, an elegy for entropy, in its own way interestingly similar to the work of J.G. Ballard, of which we do not know if Perec was adequately aware.
Perec’s story of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier is not just a metaphor for the irreducibility of the creative impulse. It is also a rich and superbly detailed exploration of a vertical community. It is therefore perfectly appropriate that one should find Life: A User’s Manual in Collected Works, the bookshop located on the Nicholas Building’s second floor.
The Nicholas Building is perhaps the perfect antipodean analogue of Perec’s fictional building. Just as Borges suggested that all great works of literature create their own influences, it is tempting to see the Nicholas Building in some fantastical sense as the Australian instantiation of Perec’s imagination (to add to the intrigue, Perec visited Australia just before he died, as attentive readers of 53 Days will discover). The Nicholas Building also has its secrets, its rich interactions, its famous and not-so-famous creative inhabitants. And the building is all the more remarkable for the unplanned way it has evolved.
The Nicholas Building was designed in the 1920s by Harry Norris, perhaps Melbourne’s most important interwar architect. Built for the pharmaceutical magnates Alfred and George Nicholas, it opened in 1926. George Nicholas was a small-time pharmacist in Windsor who had made his fortune with the help of his brother in the First World War, after winning the right to produce aspirin for the Australian Government. The patent for salicylic acid, previously held by the German firm Bayer, had been suspended by then Attorney General Billy Hughes in 1915; the Nicholas brothers won the lucrative contract with the help of entrepreneur Henry Woolf Shmith. With the fighting on the Gallipoli peninsula extracting a frightful toll, the need for aspirin was urgent, and the Nicholas family earned huge revenues, despite incurring heavy debts. After the war, the Nicholases expanded their pharmaceutical business to Asia and England, made huge profits, and became important philanthropists. Their legacy lives on: you can still buy aspirin in Australia under their old trade-name, Aspro Clear.
When the Nicholases decided to build new premises on the corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street, they engaged Norris, an architect who would go on to design Alfred’s country house in the Dandenongs, Burnham Beaches. The new building on Swanston Street would include a retail arcade, as well as offices and studio space on the upper floors. Rumour has it that the basement and first floors were to house a laboratory for the Nicholas business; however, as the building’s entry in the Victorian heritage database notes, ‘It does not appear that the Nicholas company ever occupied the building, rather it was built as a speculative office building development.’
A frequent traveller, Norris had been much influenced by the architectural styles he encountered on a trip to California in 1920. The Nicholas Building design is a prominent example of Melbourne’s inter-war style, with a Doric colonnade sitting above giant Ionic pilasters, and clad in a terracotta tiling that its manufacturer Wunderlich called Granitex. According to Christie Petsinis, a Melbourne architect and urban designer, ‘the terracotta cladding used on the building was revolutionary at the time, it was the largest example of terracotta ever used in Australia’.
There is no readily accessible monograph on the work of Harry Norris. Petsinis, who completed a project on the Nicholas Building as part of her final-year architecture studies, is effectively the Australian expert and represents the best-informed source of critical understanding about the building:
If you look at the National Trust and what cultural significance they’ve registered for the building, it’s both the barrel-vaulted ceiling and the ground-level arcade, and I actually think the arcade is quite a good way of addressing both Flinders Lane and Swanston Street in that it connects the two together.
The idea of having natural daylight, and becoming an internal street and then reflecting the other laneways which intersect around this area, where there are all these small-scale happenings and events … really this area is kind of the model which is being implemented for other developments around Melbourne.
Then, when you go up into the building and start to dissect and understand the floor-plate, it’s got this internal light-court, so it’s got natural light and ventilation, the rooms aren’t too deep, there’s different sizes of rooms, and the rooms can be interconnected and linked, or they can be separated, so the solid masonry structure has allowed for the rooms to be robust and allow for different uses, and that’s attracted different people as well.
In 2006 Petsinis curated a visual art exhibition about the building for the gallery on the eighth floor, Blindside. It featured work from many of the building’s artists and craftspeople, including milliner Serena Lindemann, bespoke cobbler Brendan Dwyer and visual artist and curator Tai Snaith. In her notes for the exhibition, she described the Nicholas Building as ‘a vertical village with a unique spirit’.
‘It feels as though it’s got this street-like quality, because of the generous width of the corridors,’ she explained. ‘It’s very rare that you get two-metre-wide corridors.’
‘You can find whatever you want, whatever you need to get made in the building … it’s animated, it’s sustainable economically, socially and environmentally. It has this interdisciplinary approach where so many people in the building work together, it’s like a miniaturised city in that sense.’
The history of the Nicholas Building is an important part of the broader economic history of Melbourne. As late as 1961, textiles, clothing and footwear still accounted for 15 per cent of all Australian manufacturing employment; in Victoria, the most industrialised state, this figure was higher. Much of this rag trade was centred in and around Flinders Lane, the heart of Melbourne’s garment district. By 1939, there were 610 businesses in Flinders Lane, according to the Jewish Museum of Australia’s 2001 exhibition ‘Schmatte Business—Jews in the Garment Trade’, a level of business activity maintained until the early 1960s. The Nicholas Building was an integral part of this.
You can catch a glimpse of what that past must have looked like in small garment businesses still operating in the Nicholas Building such as Buttonmania—a shop on level two that is probably Australia’s most comprehensive specialist button retailer. Here you can see hundred-year-old period button-making equipment, operating very much as it might have done in the early twentieth century. Kate Boulton, Buttonmania’s proprietor, bought the button-making equipment as part of the stock of a firm called Isa Buttons and Buckles, which had a long and obscure history in Flinders Lane. ‘I bought that from a girl called Mitsi and she had the business for seventeen years, and before that Mitsi had the old equipment.’
Boulton explained the equipment’s provenance, including the centenarian button hole machine and the antique tools and dies. ‘I asked my supplier what was the next step up in technology, and he said “More people”, and apparently when Isa Buttons and Buckles was going in its heyday, it had nineteen women on these kick press machines.’ Boulton continues the tradition with her specialist operation, including making buttons for Collette Dinnigan. ‘I don’t make for a lot of big designers … but I do a lot of work for film crews. I actually saw parts of Ghost Rider last Friday night and I made all the buttons for that movie. We had to make buttons out of shark skin, so that really tested the hundred-year-old equipment.’
Boulton is a button collector who estimates she has four million buttons. She shows me a piece of cardboard with seven lithographed buttons from the 1880s, one of the favourite items in her collection. ‘I was told they would have come from a man’s top coat. I had a collector in from New York who saw them, and she said that she had seen similar buttons but that it’s rare to get this many with all different ladies. They’re probably French and they used to be the ladies from the Court.’
A couple of doors down on the second floor, you can find Kim Hurley’s haberdashery l’ucello. ‘I’ve always made things,’ Hurley tells me. ‘I’ve done visual merchandise for about seven years, and I started making craft kits and collecting the haberdashery for that, and one thing led to another, and I moved into here. It was such a beautiful room, I thought it should be open to the public … and now it’s a haberdashery all of a sudden.’ For Hurley, the history of the building looms large in her craft. ‘Part of what I really love about doing the haberdashery here is the sense of history of the place. I had a lady come in recently who worked Le Louvre back in the sixties—she still takes her scissors upstairs to be sharpened at Harveys.’
One of the things you soon discover about the Nicholas Building is how much pride its tenants take in the creativity of their fellow tenants. Hurley points to the three working milliners in the Nicholas Building. One of them, Louise Macdonald, trained in millinery in London and has made hats for period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice, Howard’s End and The House of Eliott. As Hurley tells me, ‘There’s Brendan who makes shoes on the third floor, Serena Lindeman on the sixth floor, Leanne down the other end of the hallway—she does tea ceremonies upstairs … there’s Carolyn from Idlewild Press on level six, you really should try and talk to her.’ (See Carolyn Fraser’s essay ‘Notes on Provenance; or, Tom Ross’s Tooth’, Meanjin, no. 3, 2009, pp. 20–31.)
There is someone who talks to everyone* in the Nicholas Building, sooner or later: Joan McQueen, the building’s veteran lift attendant. If the Nicholas Building is a vertical city, then its public transport systems are the lifts. In this respect, the Nicholas Building is unique. It is the last building in Melbourne’s CBD to retain lift operators. Once ubiquitous in Melbourne’s high-rises, these days lift operators are a curio, a living vestige of a bygone era. Catching a ride up and down in the lifts with them is a glimpse of a time when it was impossible to turn up to work without having at least one conversation with someone in your building.
‘McQueen, as in Steve,’ Joan quips, after I sit down for a morning of riding up and down in her lift. ‘I’ve spent thirty-two years in this lift.’ Joan is a kindly and witty woman who effortlessly radiates grandmotherly charm. Her lift is decorated with hundreds of photographs of cuddly animals, as well as pictures of her grand-daughter. I ask her how she ended up in this line of work.
Well, it was like this: we were struggling, my husband and me, I had two children at the time, so I looked in the paper and they wanted somebody at Big W at the corner of Swanston and Bourke streets, so I got a job there. It was a very heavy job, because it was huge, the lift. Anyway, I stayed there, then I thought it got a bit much, so I changed and I went to Buckley’s and Nunn, which was where David Jones is now, and I stayed there and worked there for a few years, calling floors and all that.
Intrigued about the process of ‘calling floors’, I asked if she had to wear a uniform. ‘I had to wear a uniform: a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie,’ she smiles. ‘And then I had to give that job away, for personal reasons, and then I started here, by an ad which was put in the paper, and I’ve been here ever since.’ There’s not much about the building that Joan doesn’t know. ‘What do you want to know?’ she asks.
There was a theatre on the first floor, and it was run by brothers, you know, live theatre [she adds with a wink and a flourish]. And they were like topless usherettes in there, so we used to be busy with elderly gentlemen. Then there was one of the girls, they were transvestites I think, and anyway one had a snake, she used to bring the round basket in here with the snake in it. Well, I didn’t look in that basket. Flinders Lane was known for the rag trade. It was all kind of factories in here, we had a couple of solicitors in here, but apart from that they were all big factories.
The lift opens and she pauses to talk to a mother and daughter looking for Chantilly Bridal. ‘They’re not here,’ she declares firmly. ‘They were here for a long while and then he moved out. Who’s getting married?’
‘We’re actually looking for deb dresses,’ the mother replies. ‘Do you know if they’re very expensive?’
‘What isn’t expensive?’ Joan asks archly. She discusses her grand-daughter’s dress, and directs the family to the new address.
When we get down to the ground floor, a party of eight gets in. ‘Sorry about this, it’s an invasion,’ one remarks to her. ‘Look at all these dogs!’ another says, remarking on Joan’s animal photos.
She stops for two people on the eighth floor, who then decide they want to get the automatic lift. ‘Well, thanks for making me open the door!’ she exclaims with mock indignation.
Is she the last lift operator in Melbourne, I ask. ‘As far as I know.’ Do people come and talk to her often?
They’re all good people that you talk to, everybody in the building’s nice. I like mixing with people, you know. You couldn’t get a boo out of me when I was a kid, I was that quiet.
I did ballroom dancing when I was younger, with my girlfriend. Where did I go? The Troccadero, across the bridge here, it was like a ballroom, we used to go there a lot, then there was an ice-skating rink we used to go to a lot. The Brunny Town Hall, we used to go dancing, because I come from Brunswick, all my family came from there and my father and that were from Brunswick, so I was more or less from there.
I ask Joan how the building has changed in her time. Are there more artists than there used to be? ‘It’s all new guys here now. It has become a haven for artists, it’s good really, I like the art really. As you say, with the artists there’s more artists, and also the graphic design more so these days isn’t it, they’re all good girls and boys, and it’s nice to be with younger people. Oh nasties, you might get one or two, but you soon get on top of that.’
Stephen McLaughlin runs one of the Nicholas Building’s three galleries, eponymously named. After sixteen years on a month-to-month lease, he’s one of the building’s most established tenants. ‘In my self-deprecating way, I say that if I’ve run a gallery unsuccessfully for sixteen years, I must be doing something right.’
McLaughlin is a calm and precise man who speaks in a staccato rattle of well-turned phrases. He makes me a coffee as I gaze out from his gallery’s eighth-floor window over Flinders Street station and Federation Square to the Yarra and the Shrine of Remembrance beyond. What was the building like when he first moved in, I ask. ‘It seems a reasonable question. It was no different: namely, some people in the building today moved in sixteen years ago, one of the lift attendants is still the same lift attendant, over the years some things have changed, other things haven’t changed, but with more experience you notice them.’
Although I was a little curious at this point, I didn’t have time to rephrase my question, as McLaughlin was still speaking in well-modulated clauses. ‘When I moved in this floor had a wig maker, a voice coach, the gay and lesbian accommodation service, some graphic designers, some jewellers, a massage therapist. You’d come up in the lift and you could tell by the person you were with if they were up for a wig, up to have their stutter fixed, up to have their accommodation listed, or sometimes a little of everything.’
As a curator and long-time tenant, McLaughlin is well qualified to explain the evolution of the building’s artistic community. ‘The reputation it gets, how people perceive it, isn’t always accurate. Every eighteen months or so, a Herald Sun journalist will be sent to write an article on the Nicholas Building. Often the building gets written up [as if] it’s big department store full of interesting things, but typically the galleries and the bookshop are the only things open to the public.’ For McLaughlin the building is not necessarily an artistic community.
If people already know each other and they’re in the building, that friendship will continue, if people have a reason to meet people in the building, that will create a link, but there are serious committed artists in the building who do not advertise their presence. If you’re a genuinely poor artist or architect or anyone, you couldn’t afford to be in this building, because although it’s still cheap, it’s still a fair whack of money, so it tends to be people on the good side of precarious who choose to stay in this building.
It’s not difficult to guess the sort of creative types who exist on the better side of precarity in 2010: as well as the artists and haberdashers, the Nicholas Building is home to designers, animators, film- and television-makers, even anthropologists. Recent ABS figures show there were more than 17,000 designers working in Victoria in 2006, a number that has surely grown since. It’s not surprising therefore that the Nicholas Building has its fair share. Graphic design is the rag trade of the early twenty-first century.
Aaron Moodie is one of them. He’s perhaps typical of the designers who inhabit the Nicholas Building and other buildings like it in inner Melbourne. His firm, People Collective, is small (a partnership between Moodie and his colleague Colin Trechter), highly networked in Melbourne’s artistic community (People Collective designed the program for the Next Wave festival) and, while scarcely wealthy, brings in enough work to pay the bills and allow Moodie and Trechter a modest living.
‘I’ve been in the building since 2006, when I initially moved in with [designers] tin&ed on level eight, and I was there for three years before moving down here to level three,’ he tells me. ‘When did we move in, Natalya?’ he asks Natalya Hughes, the visual artist he shares the room with. ‘We moved into this studio June last year.’
Moodie’s studio, on level three, sports the words PRIVATE DETECTIVE on the door. ‘We often see flashes go off of people taking photos of it. We have no idea if there was a private detective, it’s just letraset, it’s not etched on the window, so it’s not period, it’s not like the podiatrist on level eight.’
Why maintain a studio, I ask. Moodie laughs. ‘I probably spend a good 60 to 70 per cent of my time in here. The idea of having somewhere to go every day is fundamental to running a business, because otherwise I’d be rolling out of bed at eleven every day. It’s just a good separation of working life and home life, though then I end up spending more time at here then I do at home.’
Up on level nine you can find another of the building’s digital creators. Huni Bollinger is an animator whose most recent short film, The Dress-Maker’s Daughter, won a swag of awards and has been shown at seventeen international festivals (and counting). After spending seven years in Darwin, she moved to Victoria for a change of scene, but found working from home difficult.
‘I was going crazy freelancing at home. I was turning into a basket case, not getting out of the house enough, my flatmates wanted to kill me,’ she smiles. ‘I felt like my life was so restricted, animating tediously frame-by-frame in my bedroom. And I had no other employment and no social life.’ Bollinger echoes many of the artists I spoke to in the Nicholas Building, particularly those whose chosen craft can be lonely and demanding. ‘I love it [here]. It made a really big difference to my motivation, my professionalism and work ethic … because you know I was kind of new to Melbourne.’
In an adjacent room you can find anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Caro McDonald. She has just completed an oral history of a return-to-country trip with the Martu people of Western Australia. ‘It’s the most remote part of WA, we went as far west as Gibson Desert, it was basically a trip that enabled people to return to country and I was recording their stories.’
McDonald had been working from home when she responded to an advertisement:
I think it was an ad on the VCA mailing list. I was moving house and I realised that it was going to be far more expensive to rent a second room, but more importantly it was having a place to get out of the house and to go to, having that separation, also socialising at work and being around people doing other things, it’s expanded my filmmaking skills. I definitely won’t go back to working from home. We’ve got a community in our office.
Bollinger and McDonald’s studio is a large shared space on level nine known as ‘Chantilly Bridal’, after the dress-makers who formerly worked there. The suite is a loose collective managed by film and events producers David Frazer and Hannah Moon. ‘I was obsessed with the Nicholas Building,’ Frazer tells me as we sit and look over the remarkable view:
I visited a studio here and thought, this is sensational. One of the reasons I fell in love with the place, I went past a [room] and it had PRIVATE DETECTIVE written on the door. When we tried to get some space, I walked every floor, just checking it out. The history of this room, before it was Chantilly Bridal, it was called the Victoria League, and they were a bunch of war widows who used to come up here and eat cucumber sandwiches, play bridge, and they had it for years. It’s a funny building in so much as it doesn’t really make sense why it has been left to rack and ruin, in such a location.
For all its rich history, the future of the Nicholas Building is uncertain. Maintained commercially, with no government support and no particular regulatory recognition beyond a heritage listing, its unique collection of artistic enterprise depends on the whim of the owners, whom at the time of writing I have been unable to contact. It is ironic that, for all the rhetoric from governments, academics and planners about Melbourne’s special creative qualities, rough diamonds such as the Nicholas Building occupy an equivocal and liminal space in the broader urban fabric. Perhaps that is the only way they can exist.
I’m sitting on the roof of the Nicholas Building in bright winter sunlight, talking to one of its most charismatic inhabitants, the lift operator Dimmy. Dmitry Bradas is a visual artist. He had a studio in the Nicholas Building for several years, before Joan McQueen asked him if he wanted to be a lift operator. ‘I used to run a gallery in the building part-time and that closed down, and Joan had remembered that I had asked her about a job here years and years ago, and one day she asked me if I was still interested, so that’s how I got it, Joan remembered that I had said to her “I’d like your job”.’
With his pince-nez, clipped moustache and waistcoat, Bradas and his eclectically decorated elevator are among the most recognisable aspects of this curious building. ‘You know, I just love creatures and at the moment I’m liking space creatures, so I jump from one creature to another, it could be the undead, it could be from the skies … I still have the duck,’ he says, pointing to the stuffed duck hanging from the ceiling of the lift.
‘There’s a lot of fame that the job brings because of the uniqueness of it, because we’re the last lift operators, it draws a little media attention—which I shun and shy away from.’ Dim’s unique style, it turns out, has often attracted the attention of filmmakers. ‘They always want to use you as a subject, they think, oh yeah, Dim would be great. They all want to do this piece on you. But they’re not willing to pay, and what do we get? Our big fat heads on television. No, thank you. If I wanted to be an actor I wouldn’t be sitting in a lift.’
What makes the Nicholas Building so artistic? ‘I don’t know, I suppose it’s cheap rent, or it was cheap rent. It still is, considering, even though the rent’s gone up recently. It’s a bit of a ghetto, an artists’ ghetto, but that’s changing.’ Joan joins us on the roof as Dim tells me about the different types of rats that live in the building. ‘The rats, they’re actually roof rats—bigger ears, longer tails, unlike your sewer rat [that’s] a short stumpy thing (Joan says they’re river rats too). They live around where the cafés are, and in the alleyway where Banksy had his print. If they hadn’t gone and put a perspex thing there it would still be here today.’
‘Idiots around, that’s the problem’ says Joan.
This essay began with a reference to a Parisian novel about the irreducibility of the creative impulse. Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to impose a single narrative on a site as diverse and rich as the Nicholas Building. As Melbourne architect and urbanist Anna Tweeddale points out to me, the random but particular connections between people are what make this place so interesting.
One of the things that is so special about a vertical space like the Nicholas space is the unplanned interactions that happen in the communal spaces, and that’s very much the way that cities work, those unplanned interactions in the streets are really important ways of interchange and exchange. One of the things that is special about Joan is that she then provides an extra sense of connectivity in that space.
But if there really is a central character in the evolution of the Nicholas Building into its current form, it might be Vali Myers. The Melbourne artist, an icon of the 1960s, lived for a long time in Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Hotel before returning to Melbourne in the 1990s and starting a gallery in the Nicholas Building. ‘In a way,’ Dim tells me, ‘Vali established it as an artists’ studio place. Once Vali moved in, every other artist and his dog wanted to move into this space, because I remember there were not many artists before she moved in, it was mainly craftspeople, jewellers and the like.’
Kate Boulton also remembers Myers fondly. ‘I just loved the way when people came into the arcade, for those people who didn’t know Vali, she’d tinkle up the arcade with her bells, you’d just see on their face “What a weirdo”, and I thought, if only you knew what a beautiful person she was.’
Myers’ final interview, with James Norman in the Age, exemplifies her approach to life and, to a certain extent, the chaotic but irresistible creative impulse that seems to animate the Nicholas Building. ‘I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years,’ she told Norman from her hospital bed. ‘It doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all. I put all my effort into living; any dope can drop dead.’
Ben Eltham shares a studio in the Nicholas Building. He would like to thank the tenants of the Nicholas Building for their assistance with this essay.