Seeing the light > The revised 17-23 Wills Street development

Seeing the light > The revised 17-23 Wills Street development
Laurence DragomirNovember 19, 2013

Developers Shangyi Development Pty Ltd & Highbury Venture Pty Ltd along with their chosen architect Kavellaris Urban Design will be hoping it's third time lucky with the latest incarnation of their project at 17-23 Wills Street currently under consideration. Once dubbed 'Skypark' due to the provision of a recreational park wedged between apartments on the uppermost levels, the development was first proposed during 2011.

Drawing immediate negative media attention, the initial proposal highlighted the pitfalls and potential problems residents face when they buy into a development which is built flush to the site boundary with recessed windows/balconies, or the provision of a 'light shaft' adjacent to a site that will in all likelihood be developed in the future.

This is precisely what occurred as 17-23 Wills Street proponents sought to build to their site boundary which would cover the southern 'light well' of the existing Wills Court apartment tower at 25 Wills Street. If nothing else cases such as 17-23 Wills Street serve to highlight potential inadequacies within the planning system where apartment dwellers with external windows/balconies could essentially find themselves cast into perpetual darkness. Residents of Wills Court naturally considered this a somewhat gung-ho approach which compromises quality of life for inhabitants in favour of quantity, and which in turn would set a precedent for other developments to follow suit.

In due course 17-23 Wills Street was sent back to the drawing board by planning officials and while a second altered version of the tower failed to carry favour with VCAT, a third planning application was submitted late September 2013.

Seeing the light > The revised 17-23 Wills Street development
The initial versus current versions of 17-23 Wills Street, Melbourne. Images © Kavellaris Urban Design

The current proposal sees the unfortunate removal of the Skypark concept from the original scheme in favour of a tower with a greater setback from its immediate neighbour at 25 Wills Street, a compromise it would seem to ensure the viability of the project and maintain a comfortable level of amenity to adjacent apartments. Planning approval is now sought for a six metre setback from 25 Wills Street, providing existing residents with a compromise.

Originally proposed to extend to the common boundary shared with 25 Wills Street, resulting in the creation 100m tall light shaft would have severely negated the only source of light and ventilation for existing apartments, the 17-23 Wills Street team at one stage investigated the installation of heliostats (giant mirrors) on the side of the proposed 35-storey tower to reflect daylight into the shaft between it and 25 Wills Street, first employed in Australia on the underside of Jean Nouvel's Central Park One apartment buildings in Sydney as seen below.

Seeing the light > The revised 17-23 Wills Street development
Central Park One. Image © Frasers Property

The 700 m² site is currently occupied by a two-storey 1930's art deco building that will be retained, restored and incorporated into the design. All alterations are generally cosmetic and in keeping with the existing fabric of the building. It will feature 4 commercial tenancies of various sizes at ground level with the floors above offering office space. A visual 'break' or 'shadow line' between tower and base is employed, housing a restaurant as well as a landscaped rooftop - a departure from the tower and podium typology that is usually desired due to the size of the site.

The 35-storey tower, containing 224 apartments overall, is supported by a series of columns which penetrate through the above expressed as a tall slender mass consisting of 4 repetitive sequences of 8 different floor types which read as stacked, interlocking, folded concrete bands. The facade is then punctured with a series of horizontal and vertical glazed elements, following a 'serpentine path' and in combination with a series of colourful aluminium and glazed pods enclosing the balconies and providing visual depth - a process of pattern making. Finally the tower is adorned by what appears to be a child's interpretation of a 'crown' - a literal formal gesture which screens the roof top plant.

Overall the development has a playfulness to it and provides a welcome visual relief to the otherwise monotone grey towers which surround it.

Seeing the light > The revised 17-23 Wills Street development
Design strategy diagram

Most interesting however, is the provision within the basement level for 114 bicycle spaces, 8 dedicated motorcycle spaces and surprisingly no car parking with the remaining space given over to change and shower facilities and the required services. A step in the right direction particularly for tighter sites such as this which would otherwise present an inactive facade once access and service requirements were met, making the provision of a wrap of apartments or offices highly unlikely. Although I think in this instance the developer's and their architects' hands were tied by the need to retain the art deco building.

The previous design while sharing a similar DNA strain, offered with the exception of the Skypark concept, a fairly monotonous, singular visual expression to all elevations. The new version of 17-23 Wills Street which as mentioned now carries a setback of between 6 and 6.2 metres from the common boundary with 25 Wills Street, will no longer deprive the residence to the west of the only source of natural light and ventilation available, while also providing an elevation which no longer comprises a blank sheer concrete wall. Overall these changes have resulted in an improved outcome for the public domain and the residents of 25 Wills Street, a compromise which if approved will lead to a more favorable outcome for all involved.

Project team

Below is a selection of images for the original Skypark Tower at 17-23 Wills Street.

Laurence Dragomir

Laurence Dragomir is one of the co-founders of Urban Melbourne. Laurence has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience working in both the private and public sector specialising in architecture, urban design and planning. He also has a keen interest in the built environment, cities and Star Wars.

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