Australia’s Tallest House: Should some dreams be ruthlessly suppressed?


Australia’s Tallest House?

It’s always fun to watch architects recoil in horror when they are faced with buildings that violate principles of design and good taste. I had that joy this week  when I introduced WonderBro to what is apparently the tallest house in Australia. 

I’d heard about the building at Girvan in rural NSW on one of my favourite radio shows, By Design. As I listened to the interviewer, Jan Ryan, describe her walkthrough of the ten-storey, dream house with owner, John Grey, I had visions of a grey concrete monstrosity planted in the middle of a rural landscape.

I had to check out the photos. Surely it couldn’t be as ugly as I imagined.

The reality wasn’t far off. While my picture of a ten-storey house was all angles and swish concrete minimalism, the reality was more, um, Gold Coast. Imagine a ten storey McMansion, each floor a single dedicated room, with interiors … oh, I can’t even go there.

After seeing the photos, WonderBro regained his composure, and declared it must be fake. Someone has just been handy with photoshop and is having a bit of a laugh, plonking a Gold Coast high rise in a rural landscape. But, nooooo, I declared, I’d heard it on The Radio. I’d heard Ryan do the walk through the house, so it must be true.

I’m all for people realising their dreams. Generally, we don’t get enough encouragement to put forth our visions of grandeur and joy into the world. Dreams inspire not only the dreamer, but also those who witness the dream made real. Sometimes it’s the spark that makes a person believe “You know what, maybe I can go and do this crazy thing and it will bring happiness (or food or safety or life etc) to others”. But this house has me questioning my belief. Maybe some dreams need to be suppressed.

I’ve been trying to work out what it is about this building that makes me so uncomfortable. I’m not an architect, so why should I care what the built environment, of a place I’ll probably never visit, looks like?

It’s not the building’s size or even its style that makes me go “That’s just wrong”. If it was on the Gold Coast then I would think it was over the top but, like Versace and Q1, it would suit its environment. Similarly, it’s not its phallic, skyscraper nature – that’s just amusing. And while I’m not of fan of skyscrapers, I know they can be done well. Check out the soon-to-be tallest residential tower that’s under construction in Mumbai. Its use of living walls and design innovation make it fascinating, even if its $2 billion price tag seems a wee excessive. It will inspire generations of designers and extend the boundaries of what’s possible.

But the Girvan tower doesn’t inspire me. I just feel sad when I look through the photos. All that money, time and effort poured into a dream that is an eyesore.  I think what most irks me about it is that the building takes no inspiration from, nor references, the beautiful natural environment which it inhabits. It just seems to represent a gilt-and-ivory-tower mentality. Another symbol of man’s dominance over nature. It’s a building that screams, “I have no idea how to live with the natural world”.

Also sad is the fact that in its eight year occupancy, the owner has not used the spa, tennis court or swimming pool. Oh, and the lift doesn’t work.

The big question that I’m left with has been: “How the hell could this have been allowed?”.

Surely the local council would have height restrictions or requirements for new buildings to be in keeping with the character of the area. Nup. No height restrictions, no problems getting approval.

My overall feeling about this dream house is: What a waste. But perhaps these things exist so that we can appreciate great design. Perhaps we need the crazy dreams that don’t fit with our view of the world, so that we are compelled to ask, “How could this have been done better? How could a project like this be sustainable?”

Imagine what it could have been if one of Australia’s brilliant architects had been consulted.  Perhaps a ten-storey WonderBro concrete box? Or a ten-storey corrugated iron shed, with five storey pavilions?

If you live near the Girvan house, please please please send me photos and let me know what the locals think of their famous piece of architecture.