Since time immemorial, humankind has been obsessed with building tall, from the pyramids in Egypt and Gothic cathedrals in Europe to the glittering steel and glass skyscrapers of Dubai.
And whether constructed to satisfy egos, accommodate a burgeoning population, or to simply craft spectacular cityscapes, these vertiginous structures have the power to dazzle and inspire.
But for every new skyscraper successfully constructed, there are countless others that fall short of becoming reality.
In fact, dig deep and you’ll discover a history of architecture that is littered with failed ventures.
Be it due to spiralling costs, unrealistic designs, or an excess of red tape, the world is full of sky-high pipe dreams that never got off the ground — Australia included.
Once celebrated by their backers but now forgotten and consigned to the footnotes of architectural history, these are some of the big, bold and bizarre designs that would have transformed our capital city skylines, but never made it off the drawing board.
Grollo Tower, Melbourne
Proposed 20 years ago by developer Grocon — a construction company operated by the Grollo family and responsible for landmark projects nationwide — Grollo Tower was a skyscraper dream never realised.
Designed by Denton Corker Marshall, which followed an earlier concept from celebrity architect Harry Seidler, the tower was set for construction in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct.
The proposed Grollo Tower sparked controversy and division.
It had a planned height of 678m, later scaled down to 560m, meaning that the tower would have been the world’s tallest at that time.
Grollo Tower was to house apartments, retail facilities, a 500-seat auditorium, and an open-air observation deck at its summit, offering views as far as Mornington Peninsula and beyond.
The project was scrapped in 2001 and the area is now occupied by a mix of smaller commercial and residential buildings.
However, the Denton Corker Marshall plan was reportedly later commissioned for construction in Dubai, as the Burj Khalifa. In the end, that iconic building was subsequently constructed to a different design.
An early design for the proposed Grollo Tower.
“The building would have been first-class as the architect was Denton Corker Marshall, one of the very best architect firms in Australia,” Shane Geha, urban planner, leading rezoning expert, and founding director of EG Advisory, said.
“The firm is one of the only, if not the only one to win awards on a global scale, so there would have been no doubt in my mind as to the beauty of the building.
“Also, it would have stood at an extraordinary 560m tall, which is just over double the height of the Crown building in Barangaroo in Sydney.
“It’s also a shame as the observation tower would surely have been one of the most amazing places to see the city and its skyline.”
The Grollo Tower design was reportedly considered as the plan for the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai.
For almost 25 years after its completion Chicago’s famed Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, held the accolade of being the tallest building in the world.
Standing 110-storeys, the structure became an internationally recognised architectural marvel and go-to tourist attraction in the process.
An original rendering of the proposed CBD-1 skyscraper.
But unbeknownst to most Sydneysiders, the Harbour City almost stole that mantel back in 1987. That’s when plans for what was tipped to one-up the stateside skyscraper were revealed.
Located on Harrington Street CBD-1 would have beaten its Chicago rival to nab the ‘tallest building’ title by adding an extra 5m to its height — 445m tall in total.
“At the time it was proposed, Sydney’s CBD-1 would have been the world’s tallest building and would have come at a cost of $1 billion,” Dr Geha said.
“It was announced with much fanfare and was labelled as a catalyst for Sydney to fully embrace high-rise buildings, in the same way that our US counterparts had begun to do so.”
An article in the Sydney Morning Herald about CBD-1.
Set to accommodate 11,000 workers over 95 levels with approximately 1500 underground parking spaces, Octavius Development’s plans made headlines across the country.
But only months later, the proposed massive steel-framed structure faced opposition from the Department of Public Works, which raised worries about overshadowing.
The Federal Department of Transport also voiced concerns over the potential for towers above 300m to disrupt air traffic.
“In truth, the proposal was not particularly well thought-out and those behind it seemed more interested in creating media interest than actually developing a sustainable building that would be part of Sydney’s skyline for the foreseeable future,” Dr Geha said.
The building would’ve been an imposing addition to Sydney’s skyline. Picture: The Daily Telegraph
Decades later, the city remains vertically challenged, with the recently completed Crown Sydney being the tallest in the city at 271m.
“Even all these years on, CBD-1 would still be the tallest building in the city,” Dr Geha said.
“And though I am very pro skyscrapers, it would seem that this was one project that never considered the real impact it would have on the city, outside of being able to enjoy the label of ‘world’s tallest’.”
The recently completed Crown tower is now Sydney’s tallest building. Picture: Getty
Skypoint Tower, Brisbane
Despite being the third most-popular capital city in Australia, Brisbane is often disregarded by some when it comes to culture.
Yet, beyond the BrisVegas moniker, the River City packs a punch in the architectural heritage stakes.
And back in 1998, plans were revealed for a 415m high super-structure that would have further added to its design credentials.
Proposed to sit atop Mt Coot-tha, Skypoint Tower would have been one of the world’s tallest cable-stayed structures.
This enormous structure would’ve towered over Brisbane.
But the ambitious project never made it off the ground, primarily due to concerns over its environmental impact, fuelled further by community opposition.
“Looking at the facts, I do believe the right decision was reached, as ultimately the location of the development would have resulted in it being an unwanted eyesore for local residents,” Dr Geha said.
Brisbane’s loss of the Skypoint development turned out to be the Gold Coast’s gain.
After acquiring properties on a Surfers Paradise site bound by the Gold Coast Highway, plans for Q1 Tower — a 322.5m super-tall skyscraper — were revealed in 2000.
Designed by Atelier SDG, the building officially opened in 2005 following a three-year build and houses residential units, a hotel and spa, restaurants, and an observation deck.
Q1 is an icon of the Gold Coast skyline. Picture: Getty
Q1 Tower was the world’s tallest residential building from 2005 to 2011 and offers visitors spectacular 360-degree views up and down the coast and to the surrounding hinterland.
“It’s pleasing to see that, despite that initial project being cancelled, a similar development has gone ahead at a different location,” said Dr Geha.
“The Q1 Tower has shown the positive impact such a building can have, providing both an attractive addition to the skyline, as well as a tourist attraction, with thousands climbing the building every month.”
Brisbane Central, Brisbane
In another reality, the intersection of Edward Street and Ann Street opposite Brisbane’s Central railway station would be the site of Australia’s tallest building.
Brisbane Central was a passion project by the then-Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who wanted to build a truly iconic landmark in the state capital.
The 107-storey Brisbane Central would have dominated the city skyline at 450m high had it been finished in the mid-80s.
The proposed Brisbane Central skyscraper stood at more than 400m high.
“He was determined to bring a truly iconic landmark to Brisbane, and I believe he was on the right path,” Dr Geha said. “He was certainly a controversial figure but for his views on development, I can’t fault [his ambition].”
The skyscraper received approval and excavation work began, but the project was disbanded soon after.
The tower could not be built today, due to the city’s aviation safety restrictions enforcing a 274m height limit.
The ambitious development was close to becoming a reality.
“It’s a shame that it was replaced by the Mincom Central — a seven-storey office building, which now stands on the site,” Dr Geha said.
“It’s incredibly boring in comparison… a sad indictment of modern planning and city making when this is the ‘better’ solution for the city.
“The original proposal would have seen a rather dominant building, which would still, to this day, be Australia’s tallest building and would have been a real feather in Brisbane’s cap.”
The Harbour City had another 1987 contender for the ‘world’s tallest building’ title when Alan Bond unveiled his most ambitious proposal of all – Skytower.
More than 2.5 times taller than his previous proposals at approximately 421m tall, the tip of the skyscraper’s spire — which was planned for a Park Street location — would have soared a whopping 401m above sea level.
Controversial business figure Alan Bond had many grand ambitions – Skytower being one of them.
“This would have been the tallest skyscraper outside the US at the time,” Dr Geha said.
“And it’s still taller than anything in Australia today. It was blocked by the council, but I would say, if you left everything up to the council then nothing would ever be built. They always find a reason to shelve projects.”
Council had planning issues with its height and bulk, and it was deemed to be too overpowering given its proximity to the Town Hall Precinct.
One year later, Alan Bond went bankrupt, and the plans were shelved.
An article in The Daily Telegraph about the scrapping of the proposal.
“It was cited that there was an issue with ‘shadowing’ from the proposed building, but this is rubbish — it’s true of every tall building in some sense, but taller and thinner buildings actually deliver less shadowing than shorter, fatter buildings.
“It is a shame it was cancelled as it would have been fantastic to have the tallest building outside the US here in Sydney. It would have been a real statement of power and a symbol of what the city can offer.”
Queen Victoria Market redevelopment, Melbourne
One of the Melbourne’s most iconic and historic landmarks, the Queen Victoria Market is beloved by locals and visitors alike.
Boasting a colourful 140-year history, the 7ha site is the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere.
But given its importance to the cityscape, it’s hard to believe that less than 45 years ago the Melbourne icon was under real threat.
Plans were revealed in 1978 to redevelop the historic market into a trade centre office and hotel skyscraper complex, also including two residential towers.
“The proposed architecture style was brutalist, which is a minimalist and ‘unfinished’ look,” Dr Geha said. “So, it’s hard to believe that it was found attractive, but it was popular during the 1970s when this proposal was lodged.”
The plan would’ve seen chunks of the market demolished. Picture: City of Melbourne
Thankfully, a widespread public outcry put a stop to the plans and the landmark was granted a listing on the Historic Buildings Register to ensure its protection in perpetuity.
“This was a real lost opportunity to pair the old with the new,” Dr Geha said.
“Urban renewal always requires vision and while the demolition of the original structure would have obviously been a mistake, the proposal for a mixed-use complex — which I personally would like to see more of in Australia — would have been a great addition to the city.
“Its residential, commercial, and hotel features would’ve allowed for incredible amenities all under one roof.”
The market was saved and remains a much-loved feature of Melbourne. Picture: Getty
Bond Street Tower, Sydney
Another 80s skyscraper that never came to fruition in Sydney was the Bond Street Tower.
A striking 37-storey building that fused old and new, the tower featured a cantilevered section 15 levels above the street, which was to preserve the historic 19th Century George Patterson House, which occupied part of the site.
Developed by the McNamara Group with designs from architect, John Andrews, costs were estimated at the $600 million mark.
Another of Alan Bond’s proposed towers.
However, the project ran into a series of roadblocks, including issues with council over the tower blocking s
unlight from filtering into Australia Square.
“The council, of course, had issues with this proposal,” Dr Geha said. “Projects like this one require substantial perseverance to get over the line as obstacles will always be provided by the council.”
The plan was met with objection from council.
When no buyer was found, plans for the tower were halted in 1990 and the McNamara Group decided to build a traditional office building on the site instead.
“It was a real shame that it never got off the ground,” Dr Geh said. “I am a big fan of John Andrews and regard him as a true visionary. It’s a shame that his vision didn’t come to life.”