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    Australia’s tallest tower approved in Melbourne, architects say we must get public realm element right

    Nathan Johnson

    The first Melbourne project for UK-architecture firm Wilkinson Eyre has received a permit and is set to become Australia’s tallest tower.

    The Victorian Government approved the $1.75 billion six-star hotel and apartment development to be situated near Crown Casino in Southbank following what it called a “careful and considered process”.

    It took less than 12 months for planning to give the nod to the 323-metre tower and seal its destiny to become Australia’s tallest building. The state government claimed its approval as a win for the economy, jobs, investor confidence and the people of Melbourne, but others aren’t convinced.

    One Melbourne City councillor says it "makes a mockery" of new rules for skyscrapers introduced by the government last year, while RMIT planning academic Michael Buxton believes that the project’s developer, Crown Group, has created its own rules for the site.

    In a way, both are only half correct, depending on your definition of ‘mockery’ and your opinion on rumours surrounding Crown’s political influence.

    The development may exceed the plot ratio and building setback controls set in the Amendment C270 to the Melbourne Planning Scheme last year, but it was assessed under a different regulatory regime. Even if the mandatory plot ratio restrictions of C270 come into effect, they are not retrospective. The project was designed several years ago when planning envelopes were not defined.

    The tower was also considered ‘State Significant’ by the government, meaning it was exempt from the normal planning approval process. It was not assessed by the Office of Victoria Government Architect (OVGA) design review, nor was it put to public consultation, but that’s not to say the project was exempt from scrutiny and consultation.

    Willkinson Eyre’s tower was the winner of an international design competition announced in 2015, and was selected by a panel which included expert architects. Its public realm design and human scale experience also received project guidance from the OVGA in the ensuing years.

    But at the end of the day, the state government did have authoritarian control over its approval.

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    Wilkinson Eyre’s solution for the Queensbridge Tower will be created by three interlocking plectrum shapes to provide a sculptural composition. The glass façade will be modulated with faceted stone blades for the gentle repeating curves of the three forms to catch and reflect light across their surfaces. Image: supplied

    A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR MELBOURNE

    Vanessa Bird, Victorian Chapter President of the Australian Institute of Architects, was reserved in her comments about the project, but she did say that at least its proposed public realm aspects looked to fit in with the general character of the city.

    The development, Bird explains, presents a great opportunity to transform a site with a mountain of problems into an enlivened place for the people of Melbourne.  

    “The firm engaged are skillful architects and design thinkers, and produce work of design quality,” she notes.

    “The area has wind problems to ameliorate, accessibility problems, traffic issues and tram issues…This is an opportunity to fix Queensbridge Street, Queensbridge Square, the bridge and to enliven Freshwater Place and the pedestrian thoroughfare along the riverfront and create a destination.”

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    Proposed public realm upgrades. Image: supplied

    A condition of the project’s approval is that Crown and developer Schiavello Group pay $100 million towards a community package that will be distributed to upgrade Queensbridge Square, Sandridge rail bridge and the Southbank Boulevard.

    Bird stressed the importance of getting this upgrade right.

    “The ground plane – the public realm and its linkages – will have significant impact on the people of Melbourne,” she notes.

    “It is important that the design outcomes look like public space not private space.”

    The proposed public realm upgrades, which Bird says look as though they have a ‘City of Melbourne’ character, will include landscaping improvements on Southbank Boulevard, new landscaping and cafes for Queensbridge Square, and new street furniture and additional trees along Queensbridge Street.

    The project is Wilkinson Eyre’s first Melbourne project and its second in Australia. It is also the team behind the design of Crown’s Barangaroo tower in Sydney.

    It is believed that it will become a significant tourist attraction and will bring new strength to arguments emphasising the value add of good design to the economy.

    Construction on the project is expected to begin next year.

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