RMIT's 130 year anniversary is the perfect time to discover some of the stunning architecture on campus.
On 20 September RMIT City campus will host a street party to celebrate the University’s 130th anniversary. While the event will mark the opening of the highly anticipated New Academic Street precinct, designed by several alumni, it will also celebrate RMIT’s incredibly rich history.
As highlighted in A Skilled Hand and Cultivated Mind: A Guide to the Architecture and Art of RMIT University written by Harriet Edquist & Elizabeth Grierson, RMIT has a “natural affinity with architecture and art." This is due in large part to its historic roots beginning as the Working Men’s College and its original philosophy to “focus not only on the intellectual but also the practical.”
And a great way of getting a true sense of this history and philosophy is through the University’s eclectic mix of stunning architecture; from the Old Melbourne Gaol and Francis Ormond Building, to the Design Hub.
However, the one gem you might not know about is the Capitol Theatre.
Chances are you’ve walked past the Capitol Theatre, located on the corner of Swanston Street and Collins Street, over a hundred times without noticing it. This is in large part due to the fact that to truly enjoy, and understand, the beauty of the Capitol Theatre – you must step inside.
Opening in 1924, the Capitol Theatre was designed by renowned architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, who also designed the city plan for Canberra. The theatre is considered the Griffin’s greatest interior design work.
The Capitol Theatre was designed to evoke a crystalline cave, with a spectacular geometric plaster ceiling concealing thousands of coloured lamps within a complex three-dimensional design. If you are lucky enough to have been inside the building, you can’t help but look up in awe at this work of art.
During the theatres early years, lightshows flared at key times during the silent monochrome movies of the era, often playing alongside a full orchestra and built-in organ, giving audiences something they’d never experienced before – film with colour and sound.
From 1925, each main film was preceded by a short piece of live theatre. Before this, the orchestra would play a musical prologue to end the screening.
Originally run by The Phillips Brothers, and then Paramount Pictures, Hoyts took over the lease of the theatre in 1941. In 1963, after Hoyts allowed their lease to lapse, it was feared the Capitol Theatre would be demolished or turned into shops and offices.
Thankfully a public outcry and campaign to ‘Save the Capitol’ began, organised by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), and succeeded. This included the efforts of RMIT alumnus, and architectural critic, Robin Boyd.
What followed was an extensive refurbishment which saw the seating reduced to around 800, and the beautiful street level entrance foyer demolished.
RMIT first bought the theatre in 1999, saving it from a certain demolition. Under RMIT’s custodianship, the Capitol Theatre celebrated its 75th anniversary which saw the re-lighting of the crystaline ceiling. Rerfurbishment also allowed new audio-visual equipment to be installed – and its use as lecture hall and conference centre continued.
The Capitol Theatre has had several past lives, however it’s the close ties in recent history under the watchful eye of RMIT, which has allowed the culturul icon to survive.
Story: Ally Forward