High-rises can work with the public realm

Focusing on the height of a new development has become somewhat of a sport in Melbourne of late. Yesterday was no exception with the Associate Editor of The Age Shane Green writing a column titled High-rise utopia or another pie-in-the-sky pipe dream?

In it, Green states "The real risk he [Planning Minister Matthew Guy] faces is that this [Fishermans Bend] will be another Docklands - our last big urban renewal idea that was so poorly executed that it has become a case study in what not to do, and a byword for unmet potential". Notwithstanding the organisation Green works for has been every much a part of the real problem with Docklands (Fairfax's Media House like many other new Docklands / CBD fringe offices - we call them groundscrapers - consume more land than an office skyscraper in an attempt to flatten organisational hierarchies yet these buildings occupy prime sites which are for the most part inactive outside of normal business hours), the comparison of the supposed non-success of Docklands and his main point "there are early signs it will be a place where high-rise is king, in keeping with the government's love affair of all things tall in the rest of Melbourne" is dubious at best.

I know Urban Melbourne has only been live since March, but like the comment I made at the time in response to the op-ed written by ABC producer Daniel Ziffer and published in The Age a few weeks ago (my response, response by Nick Harrison), I'd like to point out Green's statement "in keeping with the government's love affair of all things tall in the rest of Melbourne" can be negated by spending just a few short minutes on our project database. The "rest of Melbourne" has a very healthy mix (in built-form, use and height) of urban developments proposed, before planning authorities (local and state), at sales or under construction.

Human scale means different things to different people

Green needs to define what "human scale" means to him and what exactly his definition of a high-rise is otherwise the debate about our future development is going to be muddled in a large cacophony of hurbis. Quoting trusty (tongue-in-cheek intended) old Wikipedia:

Humans also interact with their environments based on their sensory capabilities. The fields of human perception systems, like perceptual psychology and cognitive psychology, are not exact sciences, because human information processing is not a purely physical act, and because perception is affected by cultural factors, personal preferences, experiences, and expectations. So human scale in architecture can also describe buildings with sightlines, acoustic properties, task lighting, ambient lighting, and spatial grammar that fit well with human senses. However, one important caveat is that human perceptions are always going to be less predictable and less measurable than physical dimensions.

Wikipedia: Human scale

Focusing on the cultural factors, personal preferences, experiences and expectations part of the quote above - we have a problem in Melbourne with regards to our shift toward a higher-density future. Like many Anglosphere cities, we are overwhelmingly suburban and we've had at least 3 generations of people growing up with cars as their primary mode of transport. "Human Scale" to many of the good burghers of Melbourne will mean the single family dwelling on its own land title with distant retail, employment and social destinations. If we only frame the future urban development debate around this mindset we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot.

Further quoting the same Wikipedia page:

Human scale in architecture is deliberately violated for monumental effect. Buildings, statues, and memorials are constructed in a scale larger than life as a social/cultural signal that the subject matter is also larger than life.

Wikipedia: Human scale

In 1889, the APA Building was completed and with its completion a title of being one of the world's tallest skyscrapers at the time. Can you imagine what Melburnians thought back then? A new 12 level building towering over everything else when the majority of the Hoddle Grid was in the 4-5 level range? The gall of it all, stop the press we have a crisis on our hands! Fast forward more than a century, design, construction and overall engineering capability has evolved to allow us create buildings such as Eureka and Rialto and with it, theoretically, our sense of what human scale means. These two towers are the leaders of the pack, they are not the norm and we shouldn't expect Fishermans Bend to be entirely comprised of buildings in this height range.

A modern story of progress, focusing on where all humans interact: the street

Back on the 2nd of April we reported on a planning application which depicts 3 high-rises sitting atop an active podium which would be completely out of place in the adjacent Southbank precinct. Why? Because the architect has taken a leaf out of the City of Port Phillip Montague structure plan and incorporated the design principles for streets and public areas. It's hard not to have high hopes for the wider precinct when 123-125 Montague Street has a strong focus on providing non-residential spaces to an area which is currently semi-industrial - new residents in the podium and towers above and the wider precinct, as it is developed, will benefit immensely from the mooted supermarket space and 16 other retail spaces at ground level.

Ground landscape plan with ground floor uses © Peddle Thorp architects

Peddle Thorp have also incorporated a public laneway - attempted in Docklands, unheard of in Southbank - right through the middle of the site which can conceivably be the start of a network throughout other sites to the north and south.

The podiums have engaging facades which will wrap around the entire site allowing the car parks located behind them internally to be "out of sight, out of mind" (as they should be) - this concept is not new and has been deployed in many new developments in Docklands and Southbank.

Engaging podium facade and calm street - exactly what we want for Fishermans Bend © Peddle Thorp architects

Here's the current view looking East along Thistlethwaite Street

View Larger Map

And this, straight from the planning application, is what Peddle Thorp have put forward for Thistlethwaite Street of the future, noting:

  • the strong emphasis on providing places for people to sit and converse with each other - you can't do that on City Road or Queensbridge Street.
  • the significant reduction in space available for vehicular traffic which will calm the street even after new residents move in allowing dedicated bike lanes and urban greenery to become a signature piece of the street - you won't find that in Southbank when you step back from the Yarra promenade.
Proposed Thistlethwaite Street cross-section © Peddle Thorp architects
Thistlethwaite Street - Peddle Thorp's vision © Peddle Thorp architects

Here's the issue: Shane Green was oversimplifying what expanding the Capital City Zone means when he stated "the minister will be responsible for approving plans for projects over a certain size - high-rises". You will note I have intentionally left out the renders of the towers associated with this proposal (you can view them in the original article) for the simple purpose of highlighting: attractive, calm, urban streets and high-rises are not mutually exclusive. High-rises are very much a part of the solution for housing a growing population in appropriate areas - and I can't think of a more appropriate area than blank canvas Fishermans Bend - because at the end of the day, if you get the most important aspect of redevelopment right - the public realm - its attractiveness will lure people regardless of the usual negative connotations associated with high-rises: some overshadowing at certain times of the day and wind tunnel creation.

Just look at Queensbridge Square and Freshwater Place, an area prone to large wind gusts created by the towers behind and the East End of Collins Street which is perpetually in shadow throughout the day - both hyper-density precincts with a lot of localised activity owing to the attractive public realm created over the years.

The recently released PTV plan shows a rail line entering Fishermans Bend linking it with the CBD and the rest of the rail network which in turn will support residential and employment densities in the redevelopment zone well beyond the 200 people per hectare figure Green states in his comment piece. I believe the State Government was right to expand the Capital City Zone to Fishermans Bend with one caveat, and mentioned by The Age's Associate Editor, the structure plan should force all new development in the Fishermans Bend zone to have a strong public realm emphasis like 123-125 Montague Street does, and developers should be free to incorporate a diversity heights in their developments, excluding transition areas.

We should never aim to plan ourselves into a restrictive corner - we must resist the temptation to oversimplify what's actually happening and we must also not restrict architectural diversity via arbitrary height limits in areas which scream for more diversity - as they say in the financial world and how 123-125 Montague Street superbly illustrates: past performance is not necessarily an indicator for the future.


Chris Peska's picture

Fantastic article. I enjoyed reading that very much. Nail on head.

Observe. Design. Build. Live.

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Mark Baljak's picture

smashing article

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Laurence Dragomir's picture

Firstly an excellent read and rebuttal. For mine this comment stands out the most in Shane's article:

"As the Docklands experience shows, what is most important is not what happens 30 storeys up, but what happens on the ground."

in a way it inadvertently supports our argument - height is irrelevant if the building engages with the street at ground and podium levels. It has been well documented that the City of Melbourne's Southbank Plan pushes for the introduction of a 100m limit - the height of many of Southbank's Central Equity towers which fail to provide any meaningful interface with the public realm.

The flipside of this is Freshwater Place, a development that is twice the height of the controls CoM wish to introduce yet is one of the most successful Southbank development's at street and podium level particularly to the riverside.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

Yes, but they are still just too tall :-)

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