The recent catastrophic failure of the apartment tower in Miami causes one to pause and reflect on their siting and utility. My first thought took me back to the Salvation Army days of my childhood. Build upon the rock not on the sand, we sang. I much later discovered that this had echoes in the traditional siting wisdom in old fengshui texts.

My first experience of high-rise life was delivering dry-cleaning to the Moonee Ponds housing commission towers in Melbourne. I was still at school, had just got my licence and had driven down from Cooma with a friend to visit his family. The feeling in the Moonee Pond towers was a mixed one of both good heart and melancholia. There was a similar feeling to the John Northcote flats when I worked as a postman in Surry Hills a few years later.

However, my first serious consideration of high-rise towers came with my return to Sydney after working as a geologist in northwest Queensland in the ‘70s. The high rise on the skyline seemed a macro-manifestation of the myriad termite mounds of the northern bush. The question arose as to whether the powers that be, the queens with their drones, were herding the hoi polloi into such structures for greater control to turn us into worker termites, so as to more easily satisfy their insatiable needs.

Around the same time the video “Shocking Asia” was available for hire. It showed an uncontrolled high-rise fire, blazing on the middle levels. The local fire department’s ladders only reached just few floors above the blaze. Seared in my memory is the image of trapped residents jumping some five floors to unsuccessfully grab hold of the ladder, knocking off those climbing down in the process, all falling to their deaths.

These experiences made me shy away from high-rise living, but I couldn’t avoid it completely. We lived in a studio apartment on the seventh floor of in a 10-storey apartment in Taiwan in the late ‘80s. The stairwell/fire escape, was strewn with furniture and bric-a-brac.

Needless to say, our first purchase was a rope of a sufficient length to climb down to the neighbouring building’s roof two floors below. The first time I mopped the bathroom, using too much water it seemed, the floor warped and buckled. The report at the time by the civil engineering department of Taiwan University,  that only 10 per cent of the buildings 10 storeys and over in Taipei would survive an earthquake over nine on the Richter scale, seemed apposite.

Tower residences may not only have possible structural flaws: such a built environment can also create social issues. Robert Gifford’s 2011 empirical meta-study, The Consequences of Living in High-Rise Buildings’ give substance to this.

I’m fairly certain that the politicians and developers who continuously advocate high-rise apartment construction in Sydney have never read Gifford’s paper; it’d be deemed too academic and insufficiently filled with business codswallop. Critical thinking is anathema to such people. I’m even surer that not one of these people has or will ever live in the towers they construct.

After all, one former chief executive of the Urban Taskforce, who was a great champion of high-rise development throughout Sydney, now lives in a low-rise complex in Walsh Bay, I understand, and from all reports has never actually lived in a high-rise apartment for any length of time.

I have to admit my biases. I was born and bred in a rented house in Campsie that had the childhood delights of a backyard large enough to allow cricket, football, mini golf, a vegetable garden, and chooks and ducks. Nevertheless, I understand the need for urban consolidation to cope with population growth. I also lived in apartments in Paris in the early ‘80s.

The five-storey height limit of that time enhanced the beauty of the place and gave it a human scale, such that I could cope with lugging bags of cement up to the top floor working as a builder’s labourer installing showers into old Parisian flats. Such a height limit for buildings for habitation could be made mandatory in Sydney.

Human scale in architecture is important. Otherwise, renovation only becomes possible for profitable corporate conglomerates or the rich. The collapsed Miami apartment complex was only 40 years old, but the cost for its renovation was this year quoted at $US15 million. For one apartment alone, this cost was $US350,000.

The present push for even more high-rise apartment buildings in Sydney reminds me of Mark Elvin’s logic of short-term advantage. Elvin theorised that a millennium of continuous focus on short-term gain was behind the collapse of the Chinese environment in the mid-18th century, resulting in large scale famine for over two decades.

In 40 years, most of the developers and politicians who now advocate high-rise towers will be dead. They will have pocketed their profits and lived their lives in comparative luxury, most likely in spacious surroundings, to leave issues of renovation of high-rise towers to the hoi polloi who will then live in them. Societally stupid really.

Dr Michael Paton is an associate of the Centre for Chinese Studies, University of Sydney. He was previously the Teaching Quality Fellow in the Faculty of Economics and Business, co-founder of the research group Sustainable Management of Organisations Group (SMOG), and Vice President (Asia) of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science.

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  1. I grew up in a quiet country town with chooks and fruit trees in the backyard

    I found it boring.

    Now I live inner-Sydney in a walk-up first-floor unit strolling distance from the centre of the CBD.

    I love it and plan to stay here until I drop off the twig.

    But yes – large repair bills – a high-rise building I know had 3 years of special levies just to pay for partial lift upgrades of about $3M – oh about $12K per unit – how would you like to pay – and even that looks less than 1/20th of the Miami quote for non-visible repairs.

    So yeah – and with squabbling toxic building committees where most default to ‘don’t want to spend money’ – a potential nightmare indeed.

  2. Personal reminiscences should never pass for facts. Or even relevant opinion. By our calculations 78% of dwellings in apartment buildings built in Sydney in the last 10 years are below 8 storeys – usually 6-7, mostly because of planning rules and the NCC 25 m rule. That is NOT high rise in anyone’s definition. They are low rise apartments, often cross ventilated in NSW – this is a design developed in response to NSW SEPP 65 ADG championed by many, including Chris Johnson. When apartment buildings are above the NCC 25 m they are usually 20-30 storeys. That may be called mid rise. High rise, as the author recounts in Asia, such as Melbourne’s Eureka Tower or Sydneys Horizon Tower are blindingly obvious visually but very rare in number. The big five cities in Australia are overwhelmingly suburban so the author has lots of choice other than apartments, but more low rise apartments are being built than any other form of housing in Melbourne and Sydney – I wonder why, maybe more people are saying yes thanks to apartments.

  3. Michael Paton mentions me as a former Chief Executive of the Urban Taskforce as being “a great champion of high-rise development” but I was actually championing a diverse range of developments across Sydney. High-rise in city centres close to public transport, mid-rise a bit further out, terrace houses next followed by low-rise houses. He says I now live in low-rise but I am in a 7 storey mid-rise apartment building. I produced a magazine on Mid-Rise Apartments, designed garden apartments of 5 storeys at Victoria Park and have just published a book through Lund Humphries titled “Mid-Rise Urban Living”. All housing types can have defects but ultimately it is up to the purchaser or renter to choose which type of living suits them.

    1. I’m 60 and looking at buying an appartment in SA or QLD. I agree with the comment that all forms of housing can have defects and so will expect a thorough building inspection before purchase. No stacker spaces for cars either!