Melbourne reaches for the sky

The most suburban city in Australia wants to build the world's tallest tower block. Or does it?

The world's tallest building was given the go-ahead this week. Standing at 1,840ft and 120 storeys, it will seize the height trophy from Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers (1,480ft), the forthcoming Chongqing Tower in China (1,500ft), and dwarf the Empire State Building (1,250ft). Rising at least a quarter of a mile high into the sky, the building will be visible from as far as 50 miles away - on a clear day. On a grey one, its summit will be in or even above the clouds.

The building's size is arresting enough. What makes it truly astonishing is that it is being built not in New York or Hong Kong - or any other densely vertical city where the only way is up - but in wide, open Australia where space could hardly be at less of a premium. And it's going up in Melbourne, the city which traditionally considers itself the polite, cultured counterpoint to beautiful-but-brash Sydney.

Melbourne is elegantly built and eminently livable-in, but it doesn't have an icon. Bruno Grollo means to change that. The well-known construction magnate wants to give his hometown a landmark that will do for Melbourne what the Opera House does for Sydney. So he dreamt up the Grollo Tower, a building so huge that it will not only put Melbourne on the map but also put all the other towers of the world in the shade.

If it's odd that the world's tallest building is being built in flat, genteel Melbourne, it's odder still that it's happening now, just when gigantism seemed to have gone out of fashion. The 1980s saw a surge of skyscrapers and the early 1990s saw a race to build higher and higher with Asia entering most of the runners, and Malaysia winning with the twin Petronas Towers in 1996. Then it was Dr Mahathir who got the chance to say - so to speak - "Mine's bigger than yours".

Bruno Grollo conceived his icon in 1994, and began to plan a tower containing, from the bottom up, a shopping plaza, offices, apartments, hotel and panorama deck. For a design, Grollo went first to Harry Seidler, the Austrian emigre who has been, for 50 years, Australia's leading modern architect. "The idea sort of tickled us, and we had a lot of experience in tall buildings," says Seidler, whose latest building is the huge white Aaltoesque Horizon apartment block in Sydney, developed and built by Grocon, the Grollo family firm.

For the Melbourne project, Seidler designed a 120-storey tower consisting of a reddish-gold glazed core held up at its corners by four pylon-style columns. A model of this marvel of engineering was produced in 1995 but, six months later, Grollo asked the well-established Melbourne architects Denton Corker Marshall to provide an alternative. DCM came up with a slender silver obelisk in glass and steel whose "legs" give it the appearance of a rocket. In 1996, models of both designs were displayed in "Victoria on Show" and visitors to the exhibition were polled for their reactions. Of the 35,000 respondents, 70 per cent said they wanted the tower to be built in Melbourne and 70 per cent of those preferred the DCM design.

This is the tower that Grollo intends to build, in the wasteland of Melbourne's old docklands, within five years and at an estimated cost of A$1.5bn. Last Monday, after a long bureaucratic and political vetting process, the project got the green light from the Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who has made it his mission to make Melbourne a world-class city. Harry Seidler, meanwhile, is maintaining his prior claim. "I have a contract to build the Grollo Tower," he told me this week. "But I think the politics were such that a design by somebody from Melbourne seems to have gone through. Bruno Grollo is a naughty boy as far as I'm concerned." Seidler has a bit of a reputation for irascibility, but he didn't sound too cross about being sidelined. His relationship with Grollo goes back many years.

Now that the Grollo Tower is no longer just a pie in the sky, the realities are dawning. Not so much a skyscraper as a cloud-piercer, the tower will be twice as tall as an earlier Grollo project, the Rialto hotel, which is currently Melbourne's tallest building. And the shadow is lengthening: its radius will be 10km, its average width 50m. It will fall across and down the Yarra river casting a swath of shade over the city's eastern and south-eastern suburbs. Flight paths may have to be changed. The cost to the environment is hard to predict. And who knows if the building will have a viable life?

Deposits are rolling in for the apartments, but public opinion seems to be turning against the project. On Wednesday, Melbourne's broadsheet, The Age, ran a leader headlined "The Grollo Tower should not be built", arguing that "Melbourne does not need the world's tallest building to attest to its greatness". The tower knocked the "baggy green shame" of Australian cricket off the opinion page: the paper reprinted 26 letters on the subject, all but three of them damning it. According to readers of The Age, the Grollo Tower is unwanted, unnecessary, a futile attempt to compete with the world's greatest cities, an environmental hazard, a white elephant (inevitably it will not be the world's tallest building for long), and little more than an egomaniacal bid by Bruno Grollo and his family to immortalise themselves with a gross phallic symbol. (Several people couldn't help mentioning Viagra.) In short, the Grollo Tower will be an embarrassment to Melbourne.

One Age reader, Chris Keating, took a more detached view, pointing out that the Grollo Tower may never be the tallest building in the world. "That honour will be claimed by India with the Centre of India Tower [which] will rise to a height of, roughly, 670m. It is being constructed as a religious centre for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and will be occupied by 100,000 Hindu sages," he wrote. Is he right? I suppose it all depends on who gets it up first.

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