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A green solution to an unsightly problem

Two inactive walls spanning 100 metres in a highly visible corner of Melbourne's CBD. Is this really the best design outcome all parties involved could conjure? Maybe it is, but it is a blight on Melbourne's skyline.

Notwithstanding the likelihood that the project in question at 560 Flinders Street will receive a serious paint job, the blank edifices to north and west are ghastly and a reflection of a poor design outcome sanctioned by those vested in maintaining Melbourne's design standards. 560 Flinders Street isn't exactly alone either when it comes to creating vast blank spaces in Melbourne's skyline.

109 Clarendon Street on Southbank, for instance, maintains a precast eastern elevation set back from the podium, thus forever remaining exposed - this is sheer planning stupidity!

Granted certain development sites with common boundaries should maintain blank walls with an eye towards future adjoining development, but there are many which will remain exposed indefinitely. 560 Flinders Street, for example, is surrounded by the 1920's Markillies Hotel to both inactive elevations; the prospects of both blank walls remaining visible permanently is very real.

A blight on our fair city; 560 Flinders and Marco currently under construction

Planning Minister Richard Wynne's move last year to tweak planning laws will go some way to eliminating these poor design outcomes, with minimum tower separations set in place which will encourage active elevations to all sides for future developments. Simultaneously these planning changes will also highly likely lead to existing blank walls remaining so.

So how should this blight be addressed? Logically no inactive precast walls/elevations above the podium levels is a no-brainer!

Yet how to address certain existing projects with retrospective design changes? Setting aside prohibitive cost and engineering issues for a moment and stepping into a utopian outcome, could green walls be fitted to precast elevations which have no prospect of being covered?

Contemporary and creative but not compulsory. Image: Minimalisti

Seen above is a prime example of what can be achieved on a grand scale regarding greening a large elevation. Various examples exist around Melbourne on a smaller scale, with Triptych Southbank's south-facing podium a premier example; could this just not be extended to cover an entire elevation? The equivalent green wall applied to a Melbourne building would be stunning.

Perhaps this strategy could be jointly adopted by the City of Melbourne and the State Government by contributing to initial costs of implementation, with body corp to assume ongoing costs thereafter. City of Melbourne is already encouraging greening existing roofs, walls or facades. Why not take it a step further?

Like most problems, if enough money is thrown at it an outcome can be found. But can the outcome justify the expense?

Venturing back to the land of reality, such a scheme would be hamstrung by a variety of factors including structural integrity, safety, drainage, wind forces and of course cost. Yes, the logistics of implementing this idea of retrospective green walls to inactive high-rise elevations is verging on impossible, but it's a far more palatable outcome than some of the precast visual pollution Melbourne has and is being subjected to.

Lead image courtesy Minimalisti & Oh-Yes-Melbourne

11 comments

Bilby's picture

Why would this present a structural problem? The additional load is directed down the structural wall to the footings. You would need to calculate for the loading of the growing medium itself (minimal) + water (quite a bit) and plants (which are mostly water, too). So it's not impossible to calculate the mass of the addition. We are not talking about converting roofs, which are indeed more problematic from an engineering perspective - I see no great obstacle to installing a system like this on a precast wall. E.g. http://www.elmich.com.au/products/vgm-greenwall/

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SYmlb's picture

I remember years ago when Shell House was completed, and thinking how I hope it could be used as an example of what not to do. Look at how long that has sat with a 130m exposed concrete wall visible from Southbank, Fed Square and Flinders St Station with the site next door remaining undeveloped. That blank wall ruins the eastern end of the skyline and still remains nearly 30 years on.

But at least Shell House is a Seidler design, where as 560 Flinders is absolute rubbish, has two blanks walls and even less chance of next door being developed. At least Wynne has taken some basic steps to help stop these planning disasters.

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3000's picture

I'm glad this problem is getting attention. Blank walls seem to have become something of a common occurrence in recent years in Melbourne.

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theboynoodle's picture

Simultaneously these planning changes will also highly likely lead to existing blank walls remaining so.

Surely if a site with an adjacant blank wall is being developed, the new rules would not mean that a setback was applied to that wall. It's in all relevant interests to build up to the blank wall, and increase the setbacks elsewhere (thus maintaining the ratio). Would the rules really hinder that?

In fact, might they not even make those sites more attractive because one side of the development should need no setback.. so you get additional setbacks elsewhere for free?

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Mark Baljak's picture

I guess it depends on the size of the site, but I can't imagine a scenario where every blank wall in town is covered by future development.

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SYmlb's picture

TheBoyNoodle; using my example of Shell House, there is no guarentee that any blank wall will ever get covered up.

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theboynoodle's picture

I guess it depends on the size of the site, but I can't imagine a scenario where every blank wall in town is covered by future development.

TheBoyNoodle; using my example of Shell House, there is no guarentee that any blank wall will ever get covered up.

Ok well I'm *pretty* sure I didn't suggest either of those things. I was just questioning the notion that the new planning rules will make it less likely that existing blank walls will be covered.

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SYmlb's picture

Yeah I get what you're saying, but at least these new rules can help prevent there having to be blank walls to cover up in the first place. Not much that can be done now, my point was more to just point out how for 30 years a blank wall has existed and with the old rules, never got covered up, so it made no difference to whether the sites get developed in the end.

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Peter H's picture

Given achoice between a cost neutral blank wall, an ongoing maintenance cost of a green wall, or a significant income stream from a billboard, I think I know which way the OC will go.
Something like this: http://static.domain.com.au/domainblog/uploads/2015/08/07061405/3_giu1tf...

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Melbourne_Fragments's picture

Yes Peter, all planning decisions should be made with short term profit in mind, not long term liveablity

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Melbourne_Fragments's picture

Blank walls don't HAVE to be bad btw, if they are part of the form and aesthetic of the building (like Brutalism), it's just that we have too many cost cutting developers and lazy architects to do anything like that.
Even texture can be good ,or murals like the back of the new Greek Cultural centre

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