The super-skinny 338 Queen Street

What began as a super-skinny office tower lodged for assessment during March 2014 recently progressed to a VCAT hearing in order to determine its worth. Designed to replace Queen Street's former Ironworkers Building, the commercial tower recently fell foul of City of Melbourne with notices of refusal posted both on September 17th and October 10th according to their online platform.

Last week Fairfax reported on the VCAT hearing in which City of Melbourne was shown to have concerns regarding the proposals lack of setbacks and excessive height.

Project summary

338-344 Queen Street as is. Image courtesy Mulcahy & Co
  • 338-344 Queen Street, Melbourne
  • Current use: four level office building
  • 36L tower at 130 metres
  • Developer: 338 Queen Street Pty Ltd
  • Architect: (understood to be) JAM Architects
  • Value: approximately $100 million
  • Site area: 290sqm
  • 11.000sqm office space
  • Typical floor plate: approximately 220sqm
  • VCAT decision pending

Slender does it

Given the tight dimensions of the tower floor plate, essential design requirements such as lift, stair and service core are located along the eastern boundary in order to maximise leasable/sellable space. Even so the tight dimensions suggest the tower if approved would be pitched toward strata owner/occupiers, as larger corporations have drifted toward larger open-plan office layouts in years gone by.

A tree motif has been designed into the eastern facade which predominantly consists of concrete. The tall, thin perimeter boundary is not the first design to employ such a method in order to provide a degree interest to a non-active wall; Most recently 168 Lonsdale Street and Swanston Square have received similar treatments to their exterior.

Images courtesy Approval Systems


Of most interest are the comments reported on by The Age last week quoting David Lock Associates Principal Mark Sheppard during his presentation to VCAT. "This is an office building, not a residential building. I think it is really important that we don't expect it to look like the Republic Tower."

The clear inference of the article was suggesting that CBD office towers don't have to be as attractive as residential developments. Without being at the hearing it's hard to determine the exact context in which Mark Sheppard's comments were delivered, but it's hard to swallow these comments as they were presented in The Age.

When in doubt I assume the truth always lies in the middle: a highly experienced urban design expert using every trick to gain ascendancy on behalf of his client and a media outlet doing what they do best, maximising the most out of a non-issue to garner an emotional response.

Does anyone actually think 338 Queen Street is aesthetically a terrible design? The design carries enough articulation to place it on par with many other Melbourne office projects such as 405 Bourke Street, 727 Collins Street and 150 Collins Street; or are we just conditioned to the office tower being a glass box?

If there is an issue it's not 338 Queen Street or Mark Sheppard's comments per se, but the overall quality of all office towers within the city centre. And just like residential towers there are varying degrees of what individuals consider to be poor, good or excellent design.

One person's Republic Tower is another's concrete jungle.


Rohan Storey's picture

Nope it's fine aesthetically, there are certainly far less interesting designs around, whether offices or apts. Setbacks would be preferable however. But then there's a v boring central equity tower with no setbacks from street or side boundaries only a short distance away on cnr of franklin. One that got its permit from the CofM in about 2007. The CBD needs some firm guidelines!

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Bilby's picture

I'm happy to say it's a lacklustre design, Mark - forget Republic Tower (which it barely resembles in material terms). As glass boxes go, it's no Seagram, either, is it? The curve on the corner in particular is just fussy.

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Riccardo's picture

Let's get this building moving.

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Bilby's picture

Let's get a better designed building moving. Why settle for second rate when you could have great?

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Riccardo's picture

Well Bilby, you front up with the several hundred million, employ your own designers, you too can design your own aesthetic wonder and try to sell it.

In the meantime, everyone else who doesn't have skin in the game should keep out of the way, let market participants get on with lawful activity without unnecessary interference,

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Bilby's picture

The government of this country is responsible to its citizens, Riccardo, not 'the market'. So their voice in this particular western democracy hardly qualifies as 'interference' in my book. And anyway, even if I did decide to build my very own skyscraper, it would hardly solve Melbourne's urban design issues, would it? We need proper planning legislation and processes for that.

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Riccardo's picture

Bilby representative government might be a passing fad. The rule of law is hundreds of years old, the law of land being one of the older parts of our law.

When you buy land, you buy its control and exclusivity on the surface, and in a cone shape towards the centre of the Earth and up to the skies (these last two rights have been modified by mining and aviation laws). What you do not buy is the right to interfere in other people's decisions about their land.

And using your thug mates in 'government' does not make it any better.

For mine, I look to Her Maj's Crown Colony. China was basically ungovernable in the second half of the Qing Dynasty. Lost control. Her Maj's Great Grandmother did the impossible, carved off a piece of China and actually made it function.

What was the secret of her success? The rule of law, and limited government limited by law. Hong Kong wasn't built by its government, but the people who built HK could only do so because it had effective government, effective because its mission was limited.

338 Queen meets all my objectives as a citizen (and not as a subject of socialism): safely built, consideration of impacts on public assets like roads, firm title over the strata units guaranteed by government. That's enough for me.

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Bilby's picture

Ok, but don't forget that it is the government who makes the laws. Isn't it the case that in NSW strata title may soon not be as 'firm' as many of us might like? Strata title is really like being part of a union of buyers or share holders, so it's hard to say how secure it might be into the future in Victoria:

Ultimately, the same goes for other kinds of title, as we have seen with East-West link and the compulsory acquisitions happening there. The 'rule of law' hasn't helped in that case, either - hence why we need more community activism and involvement in urban planning issues in this state.

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Melbourne Planner's picture

For anyone interested this application has been refused by VCAT. The date of order is 7 November 2014 but it doesn't look like this has been published online just yet. There are however some interesting comments on the interpretation and role of the Melbourne Planning Scheme and the role of the Tribunal (and by inference decision makers whether City of Melbourne or the Minister) in applying the Scheme in the central city.

Including this extract (paragraphs 31-34):

"31. Before explaining our detailed findings, it is necessary for us to comment on several points that underpin our assessment.

32. First, our role is to assess the proposal having regard to what the Scheme is seeking to achieve and what it is seeking to avoid. We make this point given questions asked rhetorically at the hearing such as "what does it matter?, "what is the harm?" and "why not?". It was also said that decisions such as the one we are required to make in this proceeding are not ones of "life and death". That may be true. However, our decision must be founded on the outcomes sought by the Scheme. It is not founded on personal or individual preferences. Nor is it appropriate to override outcomes sought by the Scheme unless balancing competing objectives to achieve a net community benefit.

33. Second, planning is about managing change. A single development application may not, alone, appear to have a substantial consequence but the cumulative impact of decisions can work to undermine the desired objectives.

34. Third, it is common ground that the proposed building cannot be modified, such as by permit conditions, to provide setbacks or a podium by setbacks. That would "kill" the project because it would leave too little net lettable floorspace on each level when also taking into account the need for three lifts as referred to by the project architect in describing the plans at the hearing".

Paragraph 51 appears to sum up the reasons as follows:

"51. Overall, it is self-evident that the proposal does not adopt the typology preferred in policy and has no scope to do so. Having assessed the design response and the physical context, as well as approved and likely development outcomes, we are not persuaded that the sites circumstances on a main street corner in the Hoddle Grid, or the merits of the architectural response, would enhance the public realm. Rather, we find the approval of this permit application would result in an outcome that would detract from the pedestrian experience. This may be in an incremental manner, but each permit application is, in its own way, required to contribute to the outcomes described in the Scheme to achieve a net community benefit. On our assessment, other positive elements of the permit application are not outweighed by the disproportionate physical impact of the proposed design and form in the sites physical and planning settings."

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Alastair Taylor's picture

^ thanks very much for posting that.

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