Saturday, March 16, 2013


The Courier Mail report illustrated the latest concept proposal for the new Queensland Government office tower at 1 William Street in Brisbane. The building is astonishing, even in the context of a central business district that has prided itself on its ever-increasing height. Brisbane is the world’s largest local government district, such is its random sprawl, but the core of the city self-consciously stretches unusually high in stark contrast with its spread. Its form matches the worst of modernism’s vision of what a city might be: a symbol of power, authority, identity and success. The new metallic cylindrical - or is it elliptical? - tower with its truncated wedge-formed top cut like a salami, has a flashy Dubai smartness about it: the hype of the grandest, the most extreme, the most excessive; the most slick. Why? What is the plan for this region of the city? What is the controlling vision? Is this area to become super-high, high density to compete with the remainder of the development behind it? Surely we are not back to the ‘build it high and higher’ idea just for the sake of, well, height - the height of madness that might declare, as a child’s game does, ‘me and my might’: I am the greatest, the highest of them all?

Treasury Casino Building, Brisbane

The tower is the idea of the new, recently elected LNP (Liberal National Party) State Government. Is this proposal the classic ‘Taj Mahal’ syndrome where uncertain politicians seek grandeur, pomp and status for themselves in built form? Sadly, this cliché question belittles one of the world's great and most beautiful buildings. The point to be asked about this development proposal is: why is it needed? Why is it needed in this location? One should never just place a scheme in any position without considering the region it stands in: its context - the impact of the new on the existing, and vice versa. What has happened here?

In this particular location that is surrounded by government buildings both new and old - recent refurbishments and heritage buildings - it is astonishing that such a brash scheme could be developed as a stand-alone item, perhaps without careful consideration of its surroundings. Has this occurred? What is the master plan for this southeastern corner of the city? Is there one? There was once an idea that this eastern portion of George Street and its neighbourhood would be the government precinct of the city. This idea gave some ambition for and control of this zone that could become the starting point, a conceptual reference, for future developments; but what is the latest idea for this place? Is it just to have a very tall, slickly smart, flash tower? One hopes that the grand tunnel visions of this premier have not become externalised into a vertical solid rather than remain as horizontal hollows that have become such economical disasters for investors. Engineering possibilities, no matter how grand, might be possible, but are they desirable? Are they affordable? Will this tower be an urban planning disaster for the city? Will it set a terrible precedent for more of the same, uncontrolled boasting?

Parliament House, Brisbane

I must admit to having had some interest in this portion of Brisbane. I have prepared a master plan for the area around the Executive Building; I have prepared a scheme to refurbish the Executive Building (that was promptly shelved); I have prepared a scheme to redevelop the nearby heritage courtyard (both schemes were similarly ignored). I designed the entrance to the refurbished Science Centre (that was redecorated by the client); and I have refurbished the buildings opposite the Executive Building, joining the old health building to its neighbour so as to create one new office complex with a new public identity. What soon becomes clear is that this region has problems that need to be attended to with thoughtful ideas and subtle, sensitive planning on a fine scale. It needs links; connections; more permeability; more places for people; more small, intimate public spaces. While there are numerous open areas around 80 George Street, these are more thoroughfares than places to stop to enjoy, or to pause in for a break.

The site that the tower is on has been the location of many schemes for a new government office block. For many years it has been used as a government car park for government vehicles and a few selected private cars. One’s use of this car park site over time has highlighted issues with its functionality. The site is unique in that it is located beside the major city riverside freeway, between two major on/off freeway ramps that provide entry into the city and exit from it. The other free edge is William Street, a busy city access/egress corridor. Pedestrian and vehicular access to the site is very restricted. Although it is at the river’s edge, well, nearby, it enjoys nothing of the possible benefits of this location. Rather it opens out to a grim under-freeway space that has a narrow fenced track through more car parking that leads to the ferry pontoon. It is the least inviting of any ferry access point in Brisbane.

There is no joy here. Above this concrete strip, the site opens up to the roar and pollution of the freeway, revealing a prospect that might be of interest only to a manic traffic engineer or a car spotter. Has this site been chosen just because it is there? One wonders what has happened to the concept of John Morton's vision for a low-rise CBD. This talented architect proved that densities equal to any high-rise development could be achieved with a low-rise building. It was a strategy nicely repeated in the new William Street development, the Neville Bonner Building that took its clues from John Morton’s concept as well as the old 1960’s city library building further along the river. This sensitive approach by Donovan and Hill, along with the clever stepped planning of such a large complex, enriched the possibilities for this precinct and showed it some respect. This project established an example for its future growth.

Neville Bonner Building, Brisbane

John Morton did achieve his aims in his award winning building that bridges Margaret Street and stretches over two city blocks surrounded by open green spaces: 80 George Street. It is the building that sits between the Executive Building and Parliament House that appropriately accommodated Project Services, the Works Department of the Government that has been much reduced in size by the new government. I worked in the building for years. It was pleasant but not without some problems that could easily have been addressed. One can only surmise, but perhaps John Morton was forced to modify his ideal in its implementation. Government bodies are notoriously difficult to deal with. There are always more experts than can ever be useful. John Morton came to Australia as a young architect from England. He and his English colleague Morris Hurst had a significant impact on the local scene. They worked together for years at Lund Hutton Newell. They signed their drawings ‘JMMH.’ There are not too many architects who have had such success. John Morton won three civic centre competitions nearly within as many years. His energy and enthusiasm for architecture was such that the folk who worked for him showed their great respect for him by copying his remarkable script lettering. John Morton was committed to everything he took on. He enthused people and gained their enduring respect - even that of his clients.

80 George Street, Brisbane

Is John Morton’s vision still possible? Desirable? Is this region of the city the best place to throw in some grand towers, for they only ever seem to come in competitive sets? The question raises the matter of the grand plan for Brisbane. Is there one? What is it? The current premier used to be Lord Mayor of the city. He should know. He should be aware of the city’s potential and should care for the city; or did he limit his ambitions to tunnels? One is left wondering just what guided the development approvals that were granted during his tenure? Whim? Surely not!

What is the vision for Brisbane? If everyone is just going to put the tallest of ideas anywhere just be cause it can be done these days, what hope is there for civic quality? What vision is there for this river city? Is the freeway going to stay? Will it be built over? Under? What is going to happen to the river? The graphic promotional video for this new tower that came with The Courier Mail report was introduced with dramatic ethereal music - Star Wars came to mind - that culminated in a crescendo of collaged details that faded into the night. One interior image showed clever graphic reflections layering and smudging ordinary city views in an apparent attempt to make things more ‘interesting.’ This is a problem. If the graphics have to play games to make the eye dance with happy intrigue, and music is needed to heighten the experience, to make it convincing, what is really going on with this scheme? What is it really about if it has to use tricks - enhancements? Is this scheming so awkward that it needs clever distractions that are irrelevant to its true experience as form and place?

It is critical to have ideas for a city and its parts prior to placing one of the potentially tallest parts anywhere within its existing fabric, especially in such a restricted, boxed-in corner recess of our CBD. Infrastructure needs to be considered and explicit. Words may blurb on about access, linkages, public space and the like, but where are these? How do they work? The talk of the casino moving into this area out of its historic Treasury Building refurbishment that apparently limits its needed expansion, is just another concern. What has been agreed? What has been spoken about? What will become of the heritage Treasury, one of Brisbane’s best? What will become of the Executive Building - that wonderful example of early high-rise building in Brisbane? What will become of 80 George? With a government that wants money, (it has sacked, or wants to sack, about 14,000 public servants since coming into power), future development plans are critical so that the city might come together with some integrity rather than as a series of ad hoc, grand serial gestures to suit political wills and budgets that look after and promote only themselves. The other concern is: what has the LNP promised its business/developer supporters? Anything?

I have used this area for years: the John Morton building; the car park; the nearby government buildings; even the QUT. I have repeatedly travelled to and from this corner of the city on a daily basis. It is remote. The site for this tower is one of the remotest sites in the city, certainly in this zone. It is a twenty-minute up-hill walk to Central Station; less as a rush. The planned train station at the Park Royal site on the under-river city rail link will help bring transport closer if it goes ahead, but the site remains remote. The site lies on the inner- city limits, framed by the freeway, on/off ramps and busy William Street that serves as a main road to and from the city. It is a traffic island.

Why drag more and more people into this corner? How does one get folk there? How does one get folk back out? Will it thrive as an urban place? I have made a few proposals that might make a difference but these are ignored. Political thoughts get distracted easily and architects find it difficult to consult and discuss, to co-operate. Everyone wants to be the lone genius, keeping all others at bay so that the opportunity is never watered down or confused as anything but MY work. Who knows when the masterpiece might consolidate, appear? I recall a colleague who gave his children only quality paper to draw on in the off chance that something good might randomly appear. Are architects like this too? How many clients have become the innocent playthings for architectural ambition and chance?

  Treasury Hotel, a part of the casino complex

If Brisbane is to become the most liveable city that the ex-Mayor Premier liked to promote is as - just what the jargon really means is unknown; one has to guess - then the city needs much more care and attention that any grand gesture can give, because this grand gesture looks like it is giving the rest of the place ‘the finger’ while turning its back on it. Brisbane needs to be considered primarily as a place for people. The river needs to be loved, not seen as a highway for ferries and a place in which to build freeways for vehicles. It needs to be refurbished rigourously; brought back to life. Streets, lanes, corners, small spaces, large spaces all need to be thought of as places for people to enjoy. The in-between needs shaping, not just the big gestures. Brisbane had its Isles Lane, a quaintly intimate busy little thoroughfare with tiny shops and clutter; but it went: what now? Its streets are clogged with traffic. The ex-Mayor’s 40kph limit only reinforces the traffic/people problems rather than solving them. It is like a dressing on a wound that will not heal. The mall is supposedly a people place but its spine is the thoroughfare for emergency and service vehicles. The mall space is shaped by and framed by the old Queen Street frontages, alignments that have no necessity now when street remembers street, not people. Nothing sings for people other than performers on the stage used for promotions. Brisbane needs better than tall; better than tunnel. Is it our convict heritage that creates Brisbane’s harsh authoritarian brashness? - see

If it is to be a vibrant place for people - what else should a city be? - then grand visions of power need modification so that places for friendly welcome and relaxed enjoyment can be made and extended as filaments throughout the city: the CBD and the suburbs. Just placing a few narrow strips of bitumen and calling these bikeways does not make a good city; or a good bikeway. It will not make the place more ‘liveable,’ even though the mathematics might give good outcomes for measured lengths of bitumen for bikes that can be bragged about. It is simply a farce!! - see and and and  Care and love are needed. Can politicians provide this? It is difficult enough to ask this of anyone, but with little men pushing their authority boldly as a sergeant major might, one wonders if this proposed tower might merely be the expression of desired personal power; a mark of self-importance for those fundamentally unsure of themselves - for history; for me; of my government? Grand designs carry their own intrigue: see ; but more is needed if a city is to blossom: more co-operation; more effort; more commitment; more shared involvement; more listening; more humility. We all know that pure power, and the impure, perverts. We should also know the problems with tall buildings too. I thought we had learned this. We once accepted that there was value in low rise, high density working and living, but it seems that perhaps this more gentle thinking will not give the grand gesture that seems to be sought. Will politicians ever listen? It seems not when power is involved. We need to do better than this tin tower; Brisbane deserves better; it needs better.

Let’s start with a plan for the whole city. No, not a Town Plan that stitches up the legal aspects of development, but a plan that can frame a rich and fertile future that does not have the drama and trauma that modernism brought to the world. We need words, guidelines, concepts and rules that can achieve the outcomes they promise. We can start on the small places and pieces in various locations and slowly bring these together to make the big in which each detail can be carefully considered and formed for fine feeling. We must never forget how quality and value reside in the tiny things, the small and apparently insignificant parts of our built environment, no matter how impressive the big things might be. It is just too easy to build the large and crass: the screams of the brash and bold grab more attention than the whispers of the quiet and meek.

 Just two days after this report in The Courier Mail, ABC News carried this alarming headline: 'Tallest building in the southern hemisphere approved.' The only concern that anyone appears to have had with this proposal was whether it might cast a shadow over the Shrine of Remembrance. Alas. Is no one asking about other shadows; other impacts? Sadly it seems that everything will be fine if the trustees of the shrine are happy.

With this building that has apparently taken its inspiration from the Australian flag, perhaps the only comment that can be made should come from Australia's folk hero, Ned Kelly: "Such is life" - but must it be so? : see:  The cynic might ask: what will Queensland's premier think of this? Fancy being outdone by Victoria! 

21 May 2013
The tower is approved.
But this is not all: Brisbane is to get another tower complex - see:


When will we ever learn? 
Why do the little men in power always seek grand monuments?
 Why will politicians never listen?

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