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Feature article

OVGA Message

‘We risk losing the essential fabric of one of the great Victorian cities of the world, as developers continue their reach for the sky. Apart from the visual impact, we have to contend with more shadows and wind tunnels. The city is becoming a colder, harsher place.’

‘Apartment towers are killing the world’s most liveable city’ by Shane Green

The Age, October 5, 2013

There’s a concern about tall buildings that has been gaining momentum. Certainly the ongoing appetite for high-density development in Melbourne, culminating in the Victorian Government’s ‘Super Tuesday’I media release earlier this year that announced the approval of five tall buildings in the central city area, has had a galvanizing effect. Rigorous discussions around issues of urban design, architecture, density, scale and impact have segued seamlessly into a debate about the quality of the built environment and the future form of the city.

Inextricably linked to this debate is the development of a metropolitan strategy for Melbourne. The focus of our previous OVGA Message was on the release of a number of reports and policies by the Victorian Government discussing Melbourne’s future. In the draft version of Plan Melbourne, we identified a number of initiatives promoting design excellence and some promising concepts around ‘distinctiveness’, ‘housing choice and affordability’ and ‘transitioning to a more sustainable city’. Reconciling these ideas with the document’s strong emphasis on growth and investment was a more challenging proposition. Inevitably we had a number of questions: How is this growth tempered and spatially organized? What does it look like? How does it feel?

The current ambition is to grow the capital city but not necessarily at the expense of Melbourne’s liveability. The idea of a small footprint and locating density in areas with excellent services and infrastructure makes sense offering both environmental and economic advantages. In recent years however, with the emergence of super tall buildings sometimes located on very small sites and increasingly in close proximity to one another, there is an overwhelming sense that without careful monitoring of policies we may reach a tipping point. In some pockets within the central city residential densities are reaching levels well in excess of those in comparable cites around the world. This may well impact on amenity, quality of life and the very liveability that is currently being leveraged.

Certainly our roleII  in developing standards for residential apartment buildings dwellings has been motivated by a desire to make sure this does not happen. Securing an appropriate level of residential amenity for a growing number of households who will be living in higher density housing will help ensure that a legacy of quality housing equips Victoria for a sustainable future.

Tall buildings have a real physical impact on usIII.  Our design review work with the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure in the development approvals process bears witness to this assertion. We often review projects in the city that are significant because of their site, context or complexity or because they may establish a precedent for development in a new place. What often emerges in the review process is a tension at the intersection of the public and private domain. More often than not however we find that the earlier the engagement, the more rigorous the analysis of context (physical, social and policy) and the more open and interactive the review process – the better the design response.

The conversation is less hindered by concerns around impact (these will have been well researched, considered and managed) and more focused on the contribution that the development makes to its context. This contribution may be shaped by added activity, complexity and interest at street level and for more distant views, perhaps a more sophisticated rendering of form and architectural expression, reinforced by an attention to detail and materiality.

At a cityscape level, a single tall building or collection of tall buildings may contribute to an enhanced reading of the city. More often than not the success of this reading is amplified by contrast and diversity. For example the edge of the Hoddle Grid from the east along Spring Street is accentuated by the concentration of higher built form on one side of the street and opposite, the refined and relatively lower built form of the Treasury Reserve Precinct and Treasury Gardens. This ensemble contributes to the legibility and image of the city. IV

As we turn our attention to planning and designing emerging precincts, such as Fishermans Bend, Federation Square East and E-Gate, articulating the qualitative aspects of a vision and translating these into a visual and spatial framework to guide future development remains a challenge. The tall building will play a role in this future and it’s up to all of us to define what this will look and feel like. Let’s ensure that the liveability, quality and future form of our city remain central concerns that continue to be championed to create an enriched experience and appreciation of our urban environment.

Sophie Patitsas

with thanks to Rowena Hockin


1. ‘Super Tuesday, Approved!’, Media Release, Premier of Victoria, February 25 2014,

2. The OVGA has partnered with the City of Melbourne, City of Moreland and Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure to develop design standards for residential apartment buildings.

3. OVGA Message, Summer 2007.

4. The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch, MIT Press 1960.