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Pubdate: 19-Mar-1996

Edition: Late


Subsection: Arts

Page: 12

Wordcount: 873

Bigger is better in Melbourne

E.M. Farrelly E.M. Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture critic

FIRST, the world’s loudest car race (no, no, I don’t mean decibels) and now the world’s tallest erection. Could it be that Melbourne, ever more-cultivated-than-thou, is changing its image ?

Early histories of the skyscraper typically conjure a frontier mythology, played out in an America “a-throb” said architecture critic, Alfred C. Bossom, “with the pioneering spirit”. The men who built to the skies were some of the earliest anti-heroes, self-made adventurers and establishment rejects who arrived in Chicago and New York still sweaty from the gold rushes or Cape Horn. And, although the first scrapers were simply standard city buildings writ tall, the genre was considered to have arrived only when it could claim a structural and aesthetic lexicon all its own.

It was about starting over. History was anathema, as was locale; the skyscraper was always about discontinuity, in space, as well as time. When Le Corbusier first saw Manhattan in the 1920s, he complained – piqued not to have invented it himself – that the skyscrapers were too small, and proceeded to redesign Paris as a hegemony of towers arranged at the intersection points of a vast Cartesian grid. No boulevards, bookshops or ancient abbeys; no connective tissues. Just towers: essentially isolated, individualist and, yes, male.

Thus, the size thing. Is it important and to whom? For Bruno Grollo, apparently, it is everything. His world’s-tallest proposal for lucky Melbourne, first designed to sit over the Jolimont railyards but now mooted for Docklands, will outmeasure not only the long-standing record holder, Chicago’s Sears tower, but also its recent eclipser in Kuala Lumpur.

In an unusually gladiatorial twist, Grollo has two architectural aspirants in the pit, long-time Sydney towerist Harry Seidler, and local heroes DCM (Denton Corker Marshall), who designed 101 Collins, as well as Sydney’s Governors Phillip and Macquarie. The two proposals have been on show in Melbourne and Grollo promised to go with public preference on the matter. Of 6,500 visitors, apparently, about 80 per cent preferred the DCM scheme.

Seidler’s is the smallest of the two – although this is strictly coincidental – measuring-in at a mere 500 metres, or 120 storeys. Compare this with DCM’s 680-metre (or 137 storey) offering, and with Sydney’s tallest, Seidler’s own MLC, a tiny 60 storeys.

What the Seidler vertical lacks in quantity, however, it makes up in sheer bravado. Arguing as he has for 50 years that pedestrian congestion is the primary cause of urban disenchantment, which only widely spaced towers can solve, Seidler proffers the “immeasurable advantages” of the high-rise city as a basis for “a superior city pattern of the future”. It could be Le Corbusier arguing all over again to raze Paris.

Seidier’s rhetoric drew down precisely that blend of tight-wrapped positivism and wild romance that has always fed skyscraper mythology. Here was a design based on no mere aesthetic judgment, but on both “the unassailable physical truth of statistics” and “the immutable and irrevocable laws of nature”. Beat that for authority.

The submission was accompanied by the usual pictures of medieval Italian “towers” (Bologna, not San Gimignano, but the sophistry’s the same) conferring a primal stand on the act of building tall. Then, for the hardened sceptic, the rather stiff polygonal plan was likened to an opening flower.

These comparisons were strictly visual and the likeness strictly passing. No-one would seriously suggest, of course, the building offered anything like the mystery, complexity, structural elegance or plain old beauty of your standard flower, open, closed or out to lunch.

But you get the point. Tower building is an activity sanctified by both nature and culture, both poetry and reason. Practical, to boot – and that’s before you even get close to the dollar question. Hell, tower-building is practically a vocation; and the taller the tower, the faster and more furiously all these benefits flow.

Not that the DCM building, which seems to have got the gong, is their most mature work to date, either. But it is at least elegant and simple, bearing in mind there’s a limit to how far you flossy up such a monster. The building will sit in a new “urban park” at the end of Collins Street, extended (as proposed) up and over the Spencer Street station. Its first tower’s level hovers about 3 metres above park level, allowing “copses of trees and planter beds … to flow under” so that the whole will appear, says the blurb, as a public monument within a public park. (Ask the public if they’d rather have the park without the monument.)

Where Seidler’s – brown – tower is garnished by a gratuitous-looking mast, after the style of his Capita building in Castlereagh Street, the DCM tower, a shimmery silver-blue, is topped by a 110-metre glass “light pinnacle”, translucent during the day, internally lit at night. It sounds fanciful, but DCM has done interesting things with light before – admittedly on a different scale – and maybe, just maybe, it can pull it off.

There is an underlying Sydney-Melbourne theme in all this. More than a hundred years ago, Melbourne boasted Australia’s first “tall” building, the 12-storey APA building in Elizabeth Street, decades ahead of Sydney’s Culwulla Chambers (1912). And although Sydney streaked ahead in the 20th century, the threat that Melbourne may again steal a march has been invoked repeatedly, from the ’50s on, to spur Sydney authorities into endorsing controversially tall towers. Now, again, although Melbourne has fewer individual stalks, its tallest, the Rialto, has a good 14 metres over Sydney’s champ, the MLC.

Seidler, in particular, has raged repeatedly at Sydney City Council for not doing more to encourage ever taller and more glorious erections in the CBD, arguing that unless Sydney sees sense and embraces progress, all the really big, juicy ones would go to Melbourne.

Sometimes it’s just so hard to distinguish between the stick and the carrot.


Illus: The people’s choice … 80 per cent of visitors to see the proposals preferred this 137-storey building by Denton Corker Marshall to the 120-storey Harry Seidler entry.


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