The Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens, as the main extant survivors of a Palace of Industry and its setting, together reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement showcased technological innovation and change, which helped promote a rapid increase in industrialization and international trade through the exchange of knowledge and ideas.
The great international exhibitions of 1880 and 1888The complex was designed for the great international exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 in Melbourne. The building, designed by Joseph Reed, is constructed of brick and timber, steel and slate; it combines elements from the Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance styles. The property is typical of the international exhibition movement which saw over 50 expositions staged between 1851 and 1915 in venues including Paris, New York, Vienna, Calcutta, Kingston (Jamaica) and Santiago (Chile). All shared a common theme and aims: to chart material and moral progress through displays of industry from all nations.
The scale and grandeur of the building reflects the values and aspirations attached to industrialization and its international face. The Building boasts many of the important features that made the expositions so dramatic and effective, including a dome, a great hall, giant entry portals, versatile display areas, axial planning, and complementary gardens and viewing areas. Unlike many international exhibitions, the Building was conceived as a permanent structure that would have a future role in the cultural activities of the growing city of Melbourne.
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Despite the great impact of the international exhibition movement worldwide and the impressive nature of the many buildings designed and built to hold these displays, few remain. Even fewer retain their authenticity in terms of original location and condition. The Royal Exhibition Building, in its original setting of the Carlton Gardens, is one of the rare survivors. It has added rarity as the only substantially intact example in the world of a Great Hall from a major international exhibition.
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Carlton Gardens are in two parts: an axial garden layout in the southern part of the site and a northern garden that was landscaped after the close of the two great 19th century exhibitions. Bounded by Victoria, Rathdowne, Carlton and Nicholson Streets at the edge of Melbourne's city centre, the entire block remains intact as originally designated by the Victorian Parliament in 1878. During the 1880 and 1888 international exhibitions the southern portion of the garden became a pleasure garden, with many attractions. The South Carlton Gardens, as it is now known, continues to be used for parkland and exhibition purposes. The southern entrance to the building, on the city side, is the apex of the design. A level promenade was created along the front of the building, and a semi-circular space has as its centrepiece an ornate fountain. A ceremonial approach is provided by a 24 m wide avenue, and two other paths form a radiating axis from the fountain. In 1888 another fountain, the Westgarth Fountain, was added.
The aesthetic significance of the Carlton Gardens lies in its representation of the 19th-century Gardenesque style. This includes parterre garden beds, significant avenues including the southern carriage drive and Grande Allée, the path system, specimens and clusters of trees, two small lakes and three fountains. The formal ornamental palace garden, which was the context for the Great Hall of the Palace of Industry, is substantially intact.