Denton Corker Marshall’s new office tower to house the Brisbane City Council ekes every architectural and civic opportunity out of a standard commercial high-rise project.
CAVEAT Despite sporadic outbreaks of architectural elegance and invention, the contemporary city is stultified by low-grade, high-rise buildings. As these dumb and dumber buildings proliferate, they leach variation and spirit of place and inject bland homogeneity. Most high-rise buildings ignore climate and waste energy. Their hermetic environments enervate rather than energize. They cannot foster connectedness with the seasons or locality, activate the senses, or promote wellbeing. Nor can they enliven or ennoble the public realm.
HIGH-RISE TYPES Contemporary high-rise office buildings broadly conform to one of two types: the generic high-rise – straightforward, commercial, designed to meet the market as cheaply as possible – and the more expensive emblematic headquarters type that aims to make a mark on the city.
High-rise office buildings of the plain vanilla, commercial variety are essentially curtain-wall extrusions with a bit of money thrown at the entry and a bit more spread around the lift lobbies on each level. Architects’ fees are usually squeezed down to the last pip; and few architects can afford to “waste” time with “unnecessary” experimental design development. The consultants that architects must collaborate with incline to timid and retrogressive mindsets. Floor plate layouts are dictated by letting agents, environmental performance standards are mostly minimal, structural systems are clumsy, if safe, and the civic realm hardly rates as a design issue.
The emblematic high-rise corporate headquarters type avoids the blandness of its poorer commercial cousin. Designed to be on parade, such projects express distinction in ways not available to most standard high-rise buildings: formal invention, rich materials, spatial and experiential experimentation, new technologies, responsible environmental systems, and generous allocations of space. This singular, representational building type strongly projects identity and creates place and destination.
It often assumes a civic role.
We recognize the emblematic type immediately: Norman Foster’s Gherkin is a quintessential example. With cutting-edge glazing technology, state-of-the-art environmental control systems, ingenious structural engineering, and a brazen form, the Gherkin makes a provocative statement in the City of London and commands international attention.
“Gherkins” are usually the work of leading architects pushing the technical and aesthetic boundaries of high-rise buildings. This is possible because these architects have progressive clients, big (enough) budgets, the necessary fee structures, and sympathetic consultants that enable them to succeed. If the architectural outcomes look novel or strange, it is because they are experimental. In Australia, no emblematic high-rise office building of this stature has yet been built.
Some designers of generic commercial high-rise office buildings would like to imagine themselves as able to achieve the desired identity statement of the experimental and emblematic type within the narrow limitations of an ordinary commercial brief.
But the deck is stacked against them. You can tell the ones that struggle to break out of the box and attain a modicum of distinction by the projecting angles, applied curves and other aesthetic tics that mimic alluring images posed by widely published architecture (usually from elsewhere). Look around.
Cities are filled with the evidence. Only the most cunning architects contrive to resolve the impossible tensions of the niggardly briefs that produce most commercial developments to achieve a more competent aesthetic urban contribution.
BRISBANE SQUARE For all the drama of its dynamic lines, eye-popping coloured forms, and shimmering skins of sun-screening, Denton Corker Marshall’s Brisbane Square is not a Gherkin. It is an (uncommon) example of the standard commercial high-rise type.
The building occupies a prime gateway site.
Located in the heart of the city at the river end of Brisbane’s main shopping strip, Queen Street (a pedestrian mall), this privileged site faces both the city and the river. The Victoria Bridge, leading to the arts precinct on the opposite bank of the river, lands on the south-east corner of the site, and the building enjoys extensive river views. The dignified Italianate Treasury (1883, now conserved as a casino) defines the eastern edge of the site, and the courts precinct is to the west, across Adelaide Street. George Street on the north, which leads down to the Parliament and Botanic Gardens, is the main address.
Brisbane Square is the new public face of the Brisbane City Council. The lower levels contain customer services and a library; cafes and food outlets on the ground floor open onto a public space in front of the old Treasury, and council offices are above, behind the sun-screens. The top levels of the tower house offices of the building’s owners, Suncorp. The changes in tenancy and use are registered in the formal expression.
Brisbane Square is not a square. Like Australia Square in Sydney and City Square in Melbourne, it is residual commercial space with civic aspirations.
The city block site had stood vacant for many years, a dusty patch of withered grass. Along the Queen Street edge, the gaping maw of a bus tunnel imposed a visual and physical barrier to a potential Queen Street address and to the Treasury.
Several earlier proposals to develop this site were based on maximizing returns and eschewing any civic obligations. They all envisaged a podium extending to the boundaries, packed with retail, with a residential tower rising from the centre.
When Brisbane City Council sought tenders for new administrative office space, Suncorp – which had acquired the site – saw the opportunity for an ideal institutional tenant as the economic anchor for a commercial development. They commissioned Denton Corker Marshall to produce a building that satisfied both the council’s brief (30,000 square metres of office space and public interface programmes) as well as providing office space for themselves. This design, with its proposal for a major public space, won the tender.
Denton Corker Marshall’s strategy was to make an emblematic gateway structure – a tall, slender tower – and to open as much of the ground plane as possible for public space. In their initial proposal, the tower was much more slender than built, and the incursion of the building footprint on the “public” ground plane much smaller.
Locating the building along the western edge (Adelaide Street) makes room for the large east-facing piazza. This civic space establishes a new setting for the Treasury by creating the semblance of a forecourt to the graceful historic building. A glazed balustrade mitigates the interruption of the bus tunnel. The stone-flagged ground plane flows into the new building, registering inside as public space.
The east-facing piazza captures the prevailing cooling summer breezes off Moreton Bay that are funnelled up the river.
Four brightly coloured horizontal elements strike a counterpoint to the verticality of the office tower.
These long rectangular volumes appear spatially and programmatically independent of the tower, and relate the public podium to the scale and direction of the streets.
Abstract modern forms, the hovering horizontal bars contrast with and defer to the deeply modelled Treasury facade. Windows in the horizontal coloured volumes are expressed as diagonal slashes.
Externally, the slashes allow the horizontal volumes to read as solid blocks. Internally, the diagonal windows provide interesting and unexpected sliced views out. (The interior fitouts are not by Denton Corker Marshall.)
For more than twenty years, Denton Corker Marshall has been refining a strategy for dealing with the scale of high-rise office towers. Melbourne’s 101 Collins Street (1986) expresses three scales: the streetscape, in this case about four storeys; the mid-scale of the older high-rise city, about twelve storeys; and the overall scale of the modern high-rise cityscape. The three-scale strategy also informs the articulation of Brisbane Square. The public elements of the programme – lobby, library, customer services, cafes and retail – are located in the horizontal coloured bars that form the street-scale component of the design. Above them, registered by the floating skins of sun-screening, the council’s offices occupy the mid-city scale. Higher still, in the zone of the cityscape, are Suncorp offices.
The planning of high-rise office towers is strongly influenced by the location of lift cores.
Conventionally, the lift core was located at the centre of the floor plate, but more efficient office planning has shifted cores to the side or across the narrow ends of buildings. Brisbane City Council favoured an end-core layout to maximize office planning flexibility and views. Suncorp favoured a side-core layout that better suited its office systems.
With some ingenuity, Denton Corker Marshall combines the two lift core types. (The lifts servicing the council offices are located on the east and west sides of the building and extend only as far as the top level of the Council tenancy. Suncorp’s lifts are in the centre of the core, with toilets and plant to the west to form a side core.)
This superimposed dual arrangement of lift cores permits the floor plates of the Suncorp levels to extend beyond the cores to the George Street alignment. While possible, it would have been inefficient to similarly extend the floor plates to George Street on the council levels because this would require a doubling of security at each level.
The resolution of the provision of two types of lift core has resulted in the peculiar form of the building. A glazed topknot projecting out towards George Street is supported by three improbably tall, slender metal columns stabilized by struts, aesthetically caught between the emblematic and the pragmatic.
In accordance with the brief for an economical high-rise, Denton Corker Marshall designed the building as a glass box with state-of-the-art curtain wall glazing technology that achieves a five-greenstar rating (considered an appropriate commercial standard). However, Brisbane City Council, feeling the need to demonstrate green credentials and to visibly express the subtropical climate, required additional sun-screening. Denton Corker Marshall treats the imposed sun-screen panels on the east and west facades as “billboards”. They are formed from perforated galvanized metal panels with folded edges; pressed metal tapered struts hold the panels off the building just far enough to accommodate window-cleaning apparatus. But these panels are more than window dressing: they enhance the environmental efficiency of the council tenancy zone.
EXEMPLARY PUBLIC BUILDINGS? The public authorities that built the Treasury and the Brisbane City Hall (designed ca.1917) were clear about their central objective: to grace a fledgling capital city with significant civic monuments. They spent public money judiciously to this end. Contemporary governing authorities tend to exhibit neither interest in the civic realm nor leadership in contributing to a vision of the city. Instead of commissioning buildings of architectural and urban significance, authorities commission or rent standard commercial buildings. Brisbane Square is an example.
Priorities are different from nineteenth-century notions of the civic, yet contemporary authorities still have the clout to influence how the city develops.
Rather than limiting the briefs for new buildings by short-term, economically driven policies and meagre performance standards, all governments should be mindful of (if nothing else) their responsibility to lead by example and to encourage experimentation to develop alternative building forms that use resources and energy frugally, perform climatically, promote wellbeing and health, and cultivate the public domain. Every twenty-first-century public building, by definition, should be a showcase of the best design thinking in environmentally sustainable systems, as well as being appropriately civic.
Only the Melbourne City Council so far has shown a lead in this direction, by commissioning Mick Pearce to design CH2 in Swanston Street.
This little tower is not a generic office building but a highly experimental demonstration of state-of-theart, sustainable, climate-control technology.
Brisbane has a new, elegant, generic office tower which, through the efforts of the architects, provides a handsome civic space. But Melbourne has its own little Gherkin.