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Melbourne, Australia – Portrait to pay tribute to the last chief of the native Yarra Yarra tribe

Melbourne’s strange proposal to put the unfamiliar face of a longdead man on a tower facade

Fair suck of the sauce bottle me little wombats but this seems to be a genuine proposal. Melbourne in Australia is set to have its own mini Mount Rushmore: a 32-storey apartment building with a facade that will bear the face of William Barak, a long-dead Australian native who is known (up to a point) as the ‘last chief of the Yarra Yarra tribe’.

The site is culturally symbolic. First, it’s on the now-deserted land owned by Carlton & United Breweries, makers of canonical Foster’s lager. Second, the apparition will loom sombrely down on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. And third, he will serve as the termination of a view running in a straight line through the core of downtown, 3km from the cherished Shrine of Remembrance (a solemn reworking by inter-war architects Hudson & Wardrop of the third century BC Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.)

Unlike the Mount Rushmore visages the lineaments of old Barak are formed not by dynamite, jackhammer and chisel but by playing around with the shape of apartment balconies: ‘using a number of … white panels that have been cut to make Mr Barak’s face to appear via positive and negative space.’ It’s a representational innovation that has raised worries about Barak’s grizzly gaze being shrouded by the drying towels of thuggish apartment dwellers, but we’re assured that won’t be allowed.

The practice responsible for the Portrait Building, Ashton Raggatt McDougal, has apparently tried this conceit elsewhere in the city’s suburbs. On that occasion local officials nixed the idea, but you hope the planners will let this one through on ground of irony.

The Oz developers, Grocon, comment: ‘Grocon has a proud history of developing iconic buildings in Australia, and we believe Portrait sets a new standard’, although they’re not saying what sort.

The Portrait Building is, however, only one extreme in that search to ‘humanise’ tall, repetitive facades via the balconies. The real articulated balcony game-changer is Italian architect David Fisher’s Dynamic Tower.

Designed before Dubai went into realtor meltdown, it is made up of 80 irregularly balconied floors that rotate at 6m an hour around a central core, powered by wind turbines. The building profiles created by random floor-turning can be strangely charming - much better than monkeys and typewriters although it belongs to the same genus. See it ravelling and unravelling at www.dynamicarchitecture.net.

Read Sutherland Lyall’s blog exclusively on www.architectural-review.com

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