Getting beyond the ‘height hype’

Building heights. They’re in the news again. The same rehearsed positions are aired; always in relation to a single development, and rarely in the interests of genuinely engaging in a deep analysis of the issue.

It’s called ‘height hype’. Somehow it seems to tap a vein of insecurity and so we go around again. But it does throw up some interesting issues that might be worth exploring. Along the way, I suspect we might also need to move beyond height as the sole proxy for the more interesting and substantial.

It’s true that the factors influencing height might deserve a recap. Traditionally, building height is a factor of land value. And land value is linked to land availability. In a city bounded a non-negotiable growth boundary like the parklands, you’d expect land availability to be a major driver in the CBD; placing pressure on land price and encouraging height. But while ever there are large swathes of under-developed land, we have a way to go before availability is restricted. And that’s an opportunity to agree the parameters for an urban form that suits our needs.

As any planner knows, another influence on ‘height’ is the flight path approach to Adelaide airport. And, according to many in West Torrens, the city and North Adelaide, some of the current thinking behind the flight paths could do with a refresh. Is the flight path profile framed around the latest aircraft technology? Many suggest not.

So why is height such an issue? There are currently tall buildings with approval to proceed, that probably never will. And this has nothing to do with Council approvals, or lack of community support. Or what we can or can’t handle in this city. But it has everything to do with economics. Most tall buildings proceed only once an anchor tenant has been secured. Traditionally in Adelaide, government agencies have been the best anchor tenants. Anchor tenants take a sizable area of a new building; underwriting the project to proceed. Government has sensibly used this lever to promote more sustainable buildings like the 6 star SA Water building in Victoria Square, or the 5 star ANZ Building in Waymouth Street, anchored by DFEEST. But increasingly, workplace theory encourages larger single floorplates on one level in preference to many smaller, stacked vertically. Larger floorplates promote a more collaborative team environment; less likely to be siloed according to business unit. Gone are the days of visiting ‘Accounts’ on Level 11.

The 21st century workplace values larger floorplates. And to address this need, Adelaide will need to come to terms with land aggregation. Bigger lots being joined to allow a ‘long & low’ model of development. The market is moving to what’s called “high density mid rise”. Those buildings with smaller floorplates may well struggle to attract these crucial anchor tenants. In answering the call for this kind of development, we’ll see a range of positive opportunities for the city. Longer, lower buildings often relate better to the street. Longer frontages allow a more consistent approach to footpath and retail activity. Lower buildings are more able to open to the street, better suited to natural ventilation (wind pressure generally means anything over 10 storeys is sealed). This means they can be activated with balconies and operable shading.

So is height bad? Not at all. The Balfours site development – aptly named Altitude – shows that height can work. Taller, slender towers set in a field of mid rise might be a reasonable model for the CBD generally. A ‘both/and’ model. Select, sculptural towers of exceptional design quality, with space around them for sunlight, air movement and to take advantage of views out to the Gulf and the Hills, and rising from a more more tightly arranged urban ‘undergrowth’ might balance the need for active street frontages, and the opportunity for views. Important, in fact, when living on a Plain like we do. Other cities show an emphasis on tall buildings alone can leave a legacy of vacant forecourts, basement car park ramps and characterless foyer cafes.

We’ll also need to remain vigilant in the face of the piecemeal ad hockery we see when small sites are developed within the limits of their own constraints. There are numerous examples of poor city development with no consideration of the public footpaths or, in the case of some townhouse developments in the city, space for bins. Once we’ve built the room for the car it seems we sculpt the pedestrian footpath (note, pedestrian) into a patchwork of stolen pavement and kerb crossing ramps. We end up with a skate park of ups & downs that are anything but age friendly and likely to encourage people off the undulating footpath, onto the road.

In many ways, “height hype” is a straw man. And goes to the core of an essential insecurity. It’s important only in that it opens discussion on what is called the city’s “urban form”; the broad scale pattern of built vs open, tall vs short, materials and setbacks, development envelopes and the delivery of a renewed public realm.

Ultimately, the question is; what should drive a unique ‘urban form’ for Adelaide? Height may be a bi product of a number of other drivers. Or not. The design of a city should always reflect at least three essential truths about the place. Firstly, the innate technological capability of its industry. In Adelaide’s case this is reflected in the predominance of precast concrete in our CBD buildings. Unlike other centres that have a heritage of glass chards (think Manhattan), Adelaide’s Italian migrants established a true centre of excellence in the use of concrete that has infused our post-war streetscapes. South Australia’s postcard shot – the view of the Riverbank – is an essay in precast panels; on both John Andrews’ Intercontinental Hotel, and most of those buildings lining North Terrace.

Secondly, a city should reflect its local climate. Brisbane has turned this into an art form. Well, more a state brand. And converted it to economic opportunity. Brisbane has cleverly marketed its ‘sub tropical’ climate as a shared trait with its neighbours in the Asia-pacific. In declaring itself the ‘smart state’, and investing heavily in arts & culture, Queensland has boosted its trade with Asia over the past decade. And where Queensland looks to Asia to build its cultural associations, Adelaide’s climate offers a link to the more arid, temperate climate of the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean. Like these places, Adelaide’s daylight levels are off the chart compared to other capitals, and our famously temperate climate allows outdoor life beyond the conception of most global centres. Interestingly, it’s said that Adelaide’s famously long city blocks are a result of Colonel Light’s desire to protect the city streets from both hot northerlies, and cold southerlies. The East/west orientation of streets works effectively in flushing the city of its daytime heat, thanks to the west-moving Gully Winds. So inherent in the original plan of the city is already a physical response to climate. Climate is often the main driver of a city’s ‘vernacular’ form. Think of how a tropical city – with an obsession about broad roof overhangs to protect against the monsoonal downpour – contrasts with a Mediterranean hill town, with its flat roofs for sun-ripening the tomatoes and scarcity of rain!

But in raising the importance of a ‘vernacular’; beware those who would lead you too far down this road. Too often it is dogmatically applied to a Disney-like preconception of quaint pioneering shopfronts and the purse-lipped Georgian strait jacket. And is rarely translated into the 21st century convincingly (we’ve all seen the historicist townhouse dwarfed by the 3 car garage grafted on the front)! No, the future of Adelaide’s city form needs to be modeled on a more sustainable response to our climate. Not the Centenary picture book, circa 1936, and not a forced idyll long since departed.

The third ingredient in a considered city form is culture. Boston, Massachusetts is an education town; a broad campus fusing town and gown in its city form. Manhattan is fuelled by finance and commerce; housed in its tall signature towers. Each a competing icon. The Paris riots made famous in Les Miserables were the catalyst for Baron Haussman’s orderly boulevards that bulldozed the hidden alleyways that fostered dissent and conspiracy. A city’s form and culture are inextricably linked. Tony Blair’s embrace of a “cool Britannia” birthed Norman Fosters “Gherkin” in London. How will Adelaide’s own urban form translate a renewed sense of optimism about its future?

This is not a case for narrowly defining ourselves through a single tag line. It’s an invitation for our talented architects and urban designers, planners and developers, landscape architects and engineers to reflect a certain cultural reinvention.

The noted urbanist and former Mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner suggests that, in the 21st century, there are 3 key challenges for cities. Mobility, sustainability and identity. Height doesn’t rate a mention. The way we cater for business, and increased residential growth in Adelaide will change according to need. In many cases, the way forward is probably a ‘longer & lower’ form with larger floorplates. This will probably be located more along public transit corridors, and perhaps lining the green spaces of Squares and surrounding parklands. But this is hardly the biggest question we need to ask ourselves. In fact, it’s self-evident. The more interesting questions are about innovating in new materials and technology, responding sustainably to our climate, and reflecting an emerging more confident and energetic cultural life of the city.

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