The changing face (and height) of Australian high-rise

From colonial constructions to postmodern monoliths, Australian high-rise builds have come a long, long way.

Before Australia was falsely declared “terra nullius” and claimed by the British, Indigenous Australians had an architectural history of their own. Evidence throughout the country shows that Indigenous dwellings varied from temporary huts with thatched roofs to more permanent constructions made from slabs of sandstone.

When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, they faced a lack of skilled craftsmen and familiar materials, therefore architectural styles skewed towards functionality rather than design. As a result, early colonial architecture followed Georgian principles dictated from England and moulded to the climatic extremes and unfamiliar materials of the new colonies.

Soon enough, an Australian vernacular started to develop – and heights started to climb. Some of our earliest “high-rises” were low-lying buildings limited to two storeys but in the early 19th century, buildings such as St James’ Church and Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney began to reach a little higher.

Photo: Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.

As more skilled builders arrived in Australia, architectural styles became more sophisticated and dynamic in our booming cities. Sydney’s impressive Chief Secretary’s Building was constructed in 1873-1893, reaching a height of 30 metres, and the tower of the General Post Office, completed in 1887, reached 73 metres.
However, building height was somewhat restricted until the arrival of the elevator in the late 1800s. Built in 1889, Melbourne’s Lombard Building had one of the early passenger lifts, servicing all seven floors. That same year, Australia’s first “skyscraper”, the now-demolished Australian Building (or APA Building), was completed – reaching 53 metres over 12 floors.
The title of first high-rise in Sydney is often credited to Culwulla Chambers, constructed in 1912 to a height of 50 metres. Influenced by the high-rise architecture of New York and Chicago, it featured revolutionary high-speed lifts, internal fire escapes and roof-top water storage.
Its height concerned the NSW government, which feared a race to construct the highest building, and shortly afterwards a 150-feet (46-metre) height limit was introduced.
Large-scale construction virtually halted during the war years, with Australian architecture finding its feet again in the 1950s. However, it was during the 1960s and 1970s, when reinforced concrete and steel became more available and affordable, that high-rise commercial and residential buildings began dotting the skylines of our capital cities.

Photo: Sydney’s skyline features the old and new.

Influenced by the contemporary architecture of New York, the high-rise architects of the 1980s and ’90s introduced large glazed-glass panels to their designs to let in light and create space.
Over the past decade, critics have complained about the homogeny of the prevailing high-rise architecture in Australia and worldwide, though this trend is slowly reversing. In New York, for example, a distinct move towards masonry, brick, concrete and metal is returning in new and planned high-rise builds.
In Australia, high-rise architecture has also evolved, incorporating answers to our varying climatic demands, as well as global trends and the Australian aesthetic. Most recently this can be seen in the use of brick – both for design and durability – in several new high-rise constructions.
Sydney’s Arc by Crown Group is a notable example. Designed by Koichi Takada Architects, the building reflects not only the heritage architecture of the CBD but also the new trend for using brick in decorative applications to soften the edifice. From the street, a series of brick arches on the façade invite the city in, while framing the building and its contents within.

Photo: Arc by Crown. Image credit: Martin Siegner.

Another example is the Spire Residences by John Wardle Architects, in Brisbane’s reinvigorated wharf district. Surrounded by buildings in both classical colonial and Arts and Crafts styles, Spire Residences pays homage to them via the matching colourings and materials of the brick façade. The adjoining brick podium not only references the height of the neighbouring buildings but also the style and colour of the brick as well.

Photo: Spire Residences. Image credit: Christopher Frederick Jones.

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