113 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Walter Burley Griffin and
his wife Marion Mahony
Griffin together with local architects Peck and Kempster, Capitol House
stands opposite the Town Hall in Swanston Street. It adheres to the (then)
height limit of the street and its 'Chicago style' looks somewhat austere
compared with its more ornate neighbours. However, it handsomely repays
It was designed to house shops, offices, cafes and the
centrepiece of the theatre. This now-familiar design concept of an
entertainment centre was unusual for the 1920s. Less obvious to the eye is
its thoroughly modern construction - the whole of Capitol House is
constructed entirely from steel and concrete.
Robin Boyd described
the Capitol Theatre as "The best cinema that was ever built or is ever
likely to be built". The Griffins chose to call the building The Capitol
after the landmark building they had designed for Canberra. That building,
along with most of the Griffins' plans for Canberra, was never allowed to
happen - thwarted by self-important bureaucrats. The crowning glory of the
Capitol Theatre is its ceiling of coloured lights reflecting off intricate
mouldings as designed by Marion.
Like many cinemas of that era, the changing technology of
movies led to many changes over time to the original building. The addition
of sound to accommodate the 'talkies', the widening of the proscenium to
accommodate Cinemascope, additions for surround sound, and additions of
carpet and modern seating have all altered the fabric of the cinema. But the
largest changes came with the falling audiences following the advent of
television in Australia. The stalls and entry foyer were demolished and
converted into the current shopping arcade.
The Capitol Theatre is now owned by the RMIT who are in the
process of restoring as much as possible of it to its former glory. Access
is currently limited to special events and some tours.
The Burley Griffins are best known for their design of
Australia's capital - Canberra.
Please note that the tours of the Capitol Theatre which used
to run every Friday no longer operate.