Style and substance, so often architecture’s unlikely partners, finally work together in the world’s tallest (for the moment) residential tower. But size isn’t everything. Q1 Tower has design and material qualities that will outlast most of its competitors.

Pavement Art

The Gold Coast’s 80 level Q1 is rated the world’s tallest residential tower measured to its spire tip, enough to edge out Melbourne’s 92 level Eureka Tower by a few metres.

At 80 levels Q1 is not simply tall, it also happens to be very interesting. Utterly different from anything else on the Gold Coast and, for that matter, Eureka. Few buildings are designed in two parts by separate designers, but this one is. From a distance what you see is the work of project developer Sunland architect Barry Lee while close up, the podium and glass skirt is the handy-work of the Sydney-based Innovarchi led by Ken McBryde and Stephanie Smith. Some handy-work it is too.

There is plenty to like about this soaring, elliptical shell with its inspired, coiled glazing at ground level. While the tower’s height is the drawcard, it’s base appears set to become its symbol. Almost, but not quite close enough to touch, the canopy evokes a sensation of fine cover rather than enclosure. A bird’s wing or swirling fabric in this instance designed from steel ribbons and glass to slice daylight into the galleria and tower’s base. It performs other practical needs including transition in scale, sun and wind protection and as orientation device.

“Rational techniques are embedded in what is otherwise a very sculptural approach that is also a very functional device. From the rational you can create the poetic,” McBryde explains. “It’s that discovery of a well researched way of building structure from good materials that creates what appears to be a very free form, organic, concept.”

The project was all set to go with a considerably more conventional podium and base until Sunland’s Saudi owner Soheil Abedian heard McBryde make a presentation on urban design as part of an architecture talk series some four years ago. After a number of meetings, Innovarchi was brought on board.

Innovarchi’s credentials are impressive with McBryde and Smith having worked for Renzo Piano’s Genoa office for a decade on projects as diverse as Kansai International Airport and Sydney’s Aurora Place. The pair’s final assignment with Piano was Aurora and it was this project that reaffirmed their interest in the veiled qualities of glass-based architecture.

McBryde recalls how on their final day at Piano’s office, they were presented with a beautiful assortment of rock climbing equipment – so typically Piano - nothing more, nothing less for the task! It also occurred to McBryde that during design of the glass sails on Aurora Place that he would one day like to climb the creation he had helped design. Ever persistent, he has finally won approval from building management to make the ascent.

Architects he argues have an obligation to perform rather than practice and get it wrong at public expense. “The other change is the market. New work has to be much more sustainable. Buyers are much more astute and discerning. It’s only good design that will pay dividends. Those who understand that are going to profit and those that don’t are going to be left with a whole lot of stock they can’t move,” he says.

He quotes respected author Kenneth Frampton who refers to most towers being International in style but needing to do more where they touch the pavement. “That’s what we did. We looked at pedestrian flows, orientation, sun, wind and rain protection and took the components Sunland were working with and dragged them around to face the view. The components were all there but they were facing other directions.”

McBryde says the tower is an example of how the Gold Coast Council is determined to achieve much better standards architecturally and with urban design. “Historically it was a case of every man for himself, but now they’re really putting a lot of effort into seeing architects and developers do a much better job.”

Quality is revealing itself in a number of ways including energy ratings. Australian sourced Pilkington Low E performance glazing deliver Q1 aesthetic and vital functional benefits. Consider towers as potential energy black holes and the difference can be the same as a four versus eight cylinder vehicle multiplied a few thousand times. In this instance Q1 has top-end performance with slashed energy consumption because of daylight without the usual heat load of its closest competitor.

And there are returns for developers who make the effort. “There is a certain self-enlightenment in that developers are collecting bonuses for design merit. On one of our recent projects we’ve gone from a 4:1 plot ratio to 6.5:1 so there are bonuses for design merit.

“It makes sense for developers to engage architects who can design well,” argues McBryde, ”because it just makes a massive difference to their return. It reinforces that good design pays commercial dividends.”

And what about the fabulous design budget for their part of the project? “”The opposite to what you might imagine. It was actually incredibly tight, but we didn’t object. One of the things we learned from Renzo’s office was to work with what is available and to test your own resources.”

In true Italian style Innovarchi have created a strong sense of piazza to public and private spaces on the concourse. With the constraints of budget and delivery method, some trimming of the canopy wings was required. “We would have liked more but we weren’t phased. We didn’t take the budget constraint as a negative. It made us work that much harder to be clear about what was and wasn’t important. Had we acted like prima donnas and thrown up our hands in disgust we would have lost the lot.

“That became very clear from working with Renzo Piano on Aurora Place and other fairly tough commercial projects like Kansai Airport. These are demanding from a budget viewpoint and it makes you better appreciate what is important. Strip away the extraneous and you come closer to the essence of the idea.”

The project allowed Innovarchi to give free rein to some very high end 3D computer modelling, or scripting – an animation package that allowed fine-tuning of shape and design parameters. The package considered the steel ribbons, glazing panels, secondary trusses – all of which were fully resolved using 3D text based numeric control.

The process allowed a seamless transition from design to final fabrication. “You can say for instance that no pane of glass will be bigger than 2 m x 2.4m because if it is bigger then you jump to the next glass thickness. With such a facility you can finesse the design and work in consultation with the engineers who review it, apply sizes to the same model to finally provide the basis for shop drawings then sent straight to the fabricator from that 3D model. This means there are no gaps between the modelling and reality.”

Quick to share credit around, McBryde explains that working with like-minded consultants is crucial. “We made sure we worked with people who were as enthusiastic as we were about the opportunities.

Glazing supplier G.James won the contract for the tower and canopy and the range of specialized performance glazing was central to the result. Pilkington’s Low E glass is used throughout the tower (how many panels? Check with Greg Lewis) for reduced thermal loadings, superior light transmission and transparency. All vital to achieve economical running costs and high amenity.

At the podium and ground levels inclined walls feature a smoke grey Arctic Grey glass with performance coatings for it’s natural light transmission qualities while Low E glass similar to the tower’s skin is used for the canopy roof.

We used the colour of the glass to accentuate the idea of the project. We had to find ways of taking what is a very curving surface simply out of flat pieces of laminated glass with a simple stepping, fish-scale technique that is barely perceptible but we developed a very simple way of putting flat glass over what is a twisting overall surface.

He says Renzo Piano’s legacy for the pair was simply his way of working: “He’s warm-hearted, good fun and totally un-pretentious. Qualities needed for all good architecture.”

“What really frustrates us is seeing the special opportunity squandered. There are firms who probably use such projects as bread and butter when smaller, younger, more energetic, design driven firms like ours would die for the opportunity. Most architecture is there for keeps.”

McBryde remains cautiously optimistic about the future although the prospect of “a very tall tower” beckons in Dubai. “Our work on Q1 demonstrates that we can do it on our own. I think it shows we can handle big ideas and urban design independently of Renzo. Hopefully people will put two and two together.”

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.