The Fishtank (Walmer House)

The Human Fishtank

Or : A Guide to How to Build the Most Inappropriate Building Possible.

By D. Taylor

I’m just going to come right out and say this. Bates Smart has no clothes. This building fails on every level for this site. I’ll leave aside the question of how aesthetically pleasing it is. (Which it isn’t, unless you like derivative, fugly gulag dormitory chic. In which case don’t read any further).

It’s a big, blundering, bullying, square jelly of a building that looks like it’s been dropped into its setting by an alien with a mean streak.
It’s huge, but somehow also squat and blocky; a concrete and glass multi-level fish tank, with aluminium flourishes. And that glass is low-e glass, according to the Umow Lai report. So we might soon have our very own Walkie-Scorchie on the Yarra. (20 Fenchurch St, London: the building that melts cars and fries eggs

A full explanation of low-e glass is in the “environmental issues” section on this site, but to summarise what it does: it bends when it heats, and directs heat outwards like a magnifying glass. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do, but unfortunately it also does something unforeseen. The heat radiation it produces can reach temperatures of over 200c, which can melt plastic and vinyl, burn people – and yes, start fires. So a building that gets the full force of the northern sun in summer, and is in a sensitive river and parkland environment is turned into a giant magnifying glass that could possibly start fires. It will also increase temperatures and direct heat towards recreational users. (Some lawyers are probably leaning forward with interest now). Salta is also going to pave “Walmer Plaza” in hard materials, so in summer this area is going to be the epitome of heat hell. And the aluminium flourishes will reflect 90% of sunlight, so it will make a nice little bonus of glare. The Fishtank will certainly be doing it’s bit for climate change.

Someone had their thinking cap on here. Or some kind of cap, anyway.

So all the residents will be swimming around in their little square glass boxes for the viewing pleasure of the multitudes. Sounds so good for the soul, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter what all those stupid psychologists and scientists say – privacy is so over-rated. And anyway, the residents will have their own opportunities for “passive surveillance” of the less fortunate river users. The opportunities for “passive surveillance” are lauded with almost hysterical fervour in the Urbis Report. It’s not creepy at all. Why would you think that?  People like to be “passively surveilled” when they walk, or cycle, or row along the river, while trying to enjoy a little quiet recreational time. We’re all Kardashians deep down, right?

You wouldn’t think that this building could do any more for us, would you? But it’s the type of building that just keeps on giving. The wind report states that winds redirected by the building bulk will reach speeds that are enough to blow cyclists and pedestrians off the footbridge. And The Fishtank is only half the equation. Once the fire brigade site factors in, what will happen? We’re not allowed to know details for that site, and they probably didn’t need to do any reports anyway, as Planning Minister Justin Madden removed the need for any of that pesky accountability fluff.

I’m almost hesitant to give you the good news about the landscape plans for the building. How much joy can you take? Because the building extends to the maximum buildable footprint, and the only green space is on the small, steeply sloping drop at the base. But Salta is going to plant shrubs. And a tree. The shrubs aren’t really suitable because they’re too big for the area and one of them is highly perfumed, and the tree is a river red gum, which is way too big for the courtyard type space in front of the building. (They grow to 45 metres). But, shrubs, you guys!

Even if you’re feeling that maybe the landscape plans are a little ungenerous, there’s no need to feel concern, because this wonderful building has that amazing ecological saviour….space for hanging planters outside some of the apartments! They will save our environment, oh yes they will. Native birds and animals will flock to these little pots of perfect pleasure.

It doesn’t matter that there won’t be too many native birds and animals left because of the fragmentation of their habitat and the incredible amount of heat and light pollution that this wonder of a building will create. Birds and animals are much better in zoos or on television nature programmes where they belong, not getting in the way of kindly and altruistic property developers who only want to provide housing for homeless millionaires.

And what incredible housing. Some of the apartments will be a “spacious 51 – 70 meters”.  The average Australian prison cell is 10 square meters, and the average Australian Hilton Hotel room is between 38 and 54 square meters. Suites are larger.

I mean it, it’s incredible. Or do I mean that I’m incredulous that little glass kennels stacked in a big tank can be presented to people as something they should be grateful to occupy?
Why? Because a developer has to make an enormous profit at the expense of both the environment and the people who live in it. It’s the law. Victorian Planning Ministers and the developers they serve have made it so.

It would be wonderful if councils and planning ministers and governments had the guts and the will to stand up and say “We made a mistake. Our policy was wrong. We’re building the wrong buildings in the wrong places and we’re going to stop.”

Just imagine the fabulous, sensitive, creative and appropriate building that could have been built in this special space if not for greed, cowardice and a crushing lack of imagination.

As an addendum for anyone who enjoys “architectrish” here are some worthy contenders from the Bates Smart plans.
“Relate to the rhythm of the immediate site context”
“Create a timeless and sophisticated approach to form and materiality”
“Expressive horizontality in relation to landscape setting”
“Imbue an honesty in the expression of materiality and craft”
“Honest expression of materiality”



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