Can Brisbane keep its character without protecting landmark views?

Brisbane looking particularly colourful, as it played host to the G20 celebrations back in 2014. Image: Getty.

Landmarks identify and define cities. Town-planning instruments usually protect these landmarks from development that does not respect the setting – but inappropriate development is placing one of Brisbane’s most important landmarks in danger. A proposed 47-storey tower threatens Customs House, on Queen Street, from being seen as it was intended to be.

Such developments are neither a new problem, nor unique to Brisbane. The “Toaster” apartment building has compromised the view of the Sydney Opera House. In Melbourne, the proposed shards of Federation Square threatened the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from St Kilda Road at Princes Bridge. The impacts of both of these actions were very much an afterthought.

In London, it was realised as the Shard Tower was being constructed that it would affect the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. But views of the cathedral are therorically protected from specific vantage points. The diagram, mapping these vantage points, demonstrates how best to pre-empt what may happen in the future, prevent unsuitable outcomes and protect views of landmarks.

The Customs House case study

Brisbane’s city plan has prescribed a heritage precinct around Customs House and the adjoining land to the north to ensure views of it are protected. However, the Brisbane City Council late last year approved the tower, which is to be built immediately to the north of Customs House. This proposed building is to replace a four-storey block that was already too large.

The proposed development, seen from Queen Street, which blocks the view to the Story Bridge and Brisbane River. Image: WOHA and Architectus.

By approving this development, the council has ignored its own regulations. These were put in place to protect not only views of Customs House from the northern end, but also to allow views across the site to the Brisbane River and the Story Bridge from Queen Street in the other direction.

The design of Customs House, completed in 1889, was unusually accomplished. It responded to its particular site at the bend in Queen Street, which is the closest point to the river.

Views of the building from various points in the city and river are possible and intended. The most important view, however, is of the northern end, from Queen Street and the open space to the north.

Intended view of Customs House from the north. Image: Postcard circa 1900.

The building has a dome placed over its Long Room, positioned eccentrically at one end. This was intentional and informed by Customs House’s setting: the oblique views made it difficult to determine that the dome was not in the building's centre.

In this way, the building is quite different to other landmarks, such as the General Post Office, where the main view to be protected is the front elevation, seen perpendicular to Queen Street.

Oblique views of Customs House. Image: author provided.

It is common practice to protect a landmark’s principal view. For Customs House, however, this is not the street elevation or the river elevation, but the various oblique views from further away, particularly the northern end with its semi-circular projection.

Comparative heights of the proposed and existing buildings to Customs House’s north. Image: author provided.

Brisbane's city plan should include a diagram of the protected viewshed for each landmark in the city to prevent unsuitable developments that could have a detrimental impact on a landmark’s setting. Although Customs House occupies part of a heritage precinct, no specific viewshed diagram has been made that would be able to prevent the current proposal. Nevertheless, that a precinct had been identified for Customs House and its adjoining lands should have been enough to protect it.

The existing building to the north, built in 1987 before the Queensland Heritage Act existed, is already too large. It did not comply with the Australian Heritage Commission’s determination that was given before it was built. The council made the mistake of approving it then, and will compound its error if the current proposal is allowed to proceed.

The federal Australian Heritage Commission has long been dismantled as state heritage controls were established. The Queensland Heritage Act followed similar legislation in other states but came considerably later and only after public outrage at demolitions such as the Bellevue Hotel and Cloudland. That was in the pro-development era of Queensland's long-serving governor, Joh Bjelke-Petersen – a time that now seems to be repeating itself.

If we care about Brisbane and its landmarks, this development should not be allowed to proceed.The Conversation

Robert John Riddel is adjunct professor in architecture at the The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.