Reimagining the multigenerational towers destined for demolition

LONDON: Innovative architects have come up with reimagined designs for high rise towers destined for demolition.

They are Melbourne’s public housing high-rises, but not as you know them: draped in cascading greenery and cloaked with modern exoskeletons featuring sunlightdrenched balconies and pods.

The ideas are part of a collection of architectural concepts to reimagine and retrofit the towers, instead of following through on the state government’s plans to demolish and rebuild them.

The architects involved say the designs could extend the lives of some of the existing towers by 50 years, pointing to the huge resources and carbon emissions involved in tearing down the buildings.

“Everyone is a bit frustrated about the unilateral declaration to demolish all 44 towers,” said prominent architect Peter Elliott, who launched the exhibition this week. “It’s quite clear that a number of them could probably be renovated to satisfy the contemporary standards that people now expect.”

One of the ideas presented was a “pod” – designed by Elliott and BKK Architects – that juts out from the exterior public housing tower wall and extends each apartment by 23 per cent.

The timber-framed insulated bay window lounge replaces the external wall of the building, slotting in to the original space in just four hours after being prefabricated off-site to minimise disruption.

A prototype was installed at a Footscray tower 15 years ago after it won a state government design competition, but it was not developed any further.

“It’s a way of helping government test things to say, ‘OK, we’ll try this and if it works, then we can do it again’,” Elliott said.

Other concepts came from architecture students at the Melbourne School of Design, who considered ways to retrofit the buildings as part of their final thesis last year.

Isabella Fyfe developed an idea to remove the existing facade on a high-rise in Footscray, replacing it with a laminated timber frame structure that would turn corridors into new communal spaces.

The concept had a sustainability focus, Fyfe said, using the existing walls as floors, while also improving the thermal performance of the building.

The new area could be adapted by the residents, she said, choosing from a modular system of different pre-fabricated spaces, such as balconies and stairwells.

“It’s not a blanket design … but rather a system that can be shaped by those in the building,” she said.

It would also change the look of a building, taking it from a monolithic structure to something with different aspects that catch the eye. “It’s functional, but also visually, it breaks up the monotonous, straight up and down facade,” Fyfe said. The state government has consistently dismissed any idea of retaining any of the buildings. It argues the towers, which are 50 to 70 years old, have aged beyond their useful life

It estimates it would cost $2.3 billion over 20 years, about $55 million for each tower, to maintain the buildings – without retrofitting them. Cost estimates for the redevelopment plan are yet to be released.

It comes amid an ongoing battle with public housing tenants over the proposal, a key plank in thenpremier Daniel Andrews’ housing package released last September.

The Supreme Court this month dismissed a class action brought on behalf of some of the residents.

Critics of the government’s plan say it would upend the lives of thousands of vulnerable residents. Others are concerned about watered-down tenants’ rights under a new community housing model.

While some residents have expressed an interest in rebuilt public housing, citing the rundown conditions at some towers, others have joined public protests against the plan.

Chris Barnett, a member of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Architecture Committee, said the exhibition was about exploring ways to avoid demolition.

“While the aim was not to say all the towers should be retained, we believe the state government should be providing information on what retrofitting investigations were undertaken and how they were analysed as part of their decision,” he said.