In Melbourne, new heights of design Skyscraper: Sometime next year, an Australian builder hopes to begin erecting the world's tallest building, the 113-story Grollo Tower.

Sun Journal

December 30, 1998|By Uli Schmetzer | Uli Schmetzer,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On the debris of a dockyard area shunned by the public, one of Australia's richest men plans to raise the world's tallest skyscraper, an obelisk-shaped edifice 200 feet higher than any building now standing or under construction.

Developer Bruno Grollo wants to make sure the 113-floor, 1,700-foot Grollo Tower, whose construction is scheduled to begin next year, will have no rivals for years to come.

The world's tallest building now is the twin Petronas towers (1,483 feet) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, though skyscrapers now rising in Shanghai and Chongqing, China, will be higher. The tallest building in the United States is Chicago's Sears Tower at 1,450 feet.

Melbourne's slender, tapering building is to be set on four sets of twin corner columns and a central core that allows space for a public garden 110 feet above ground level. The tower is designed to give the illusion that it is melting into the clouds.

It will house shops up to the 10th floor, offices to the 40th floor, apartments to the 91st floor, a 300-room hotel on the next 20 floors, and two floors of penthouses.

An urban landmark

Grollo says his $1 billion brainchild will become a landmark for a city whose urban area is second in size only to that of Los Angeles and whose riverbank malls and boutiques, known as Southgate, are a combination of New York's Fifth Avenue and Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.

No one who knows Grollo doubts that the skyscraper is also planned as a memorial for himself. His construction company, started by his Italian immigrant father as a small backyard paving company in the 1940s, is today a huge enterprise that already lays claim to some of the best real estate in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Grollo Tower is to be the crown jewel. In July, the Victoria state government rejected the skyscraper plan because its engineers found that the tower exceeded the state's height limits. The official explanation was: "The tower's promised contributions to Melbourne were unsubstantiated."

Since then, the government has reconsidered. If it gives the project the green light, the tower will be scheduled for completion in 2003.

First design rejected

The original design was prepared by a leading Australian architect, Harry Seidler, but its slanting rooftop solar panels and square shape did not please Grollo. "I wanted something more modern, more dynamic, more 21st-century," he says.

The Seidler model was matched against a design by architects Denton, Corker and Marshall, and the public was asked to decide in a poll.

"Over 70 percent of the public voted for the second model," Grollo says. More than 70 percent also voted in favor of having the world's tallest building in Melbourne.

The construction tycoon still faces a few obstacles, however.

One is the so-called Tokyo syndrome -- fear of devaluation of surrounding private property because of shadows cast by such an enormous building. Some experts have calculated that the building will cast a 10-mile-long shadow at sunup and sundown.

There also is financing: The Asian economic recession and its repercussions might jeopardize private backing for the tower. The tycoon dismisses that with the argument, "The Empire State Building was put up during the Depression, wasn't it?"

The Grollo Tower has already survived the wrath of environmentalists, who dug up a number of derelict railway sheds on the building site and labeled them national treasures. A trade union protested that the homes of its workers had to be moved.

Grollo has had scrapes with the law. This year, he was acquitted on charges of conspiracy to subvert justice. The government charged that he had hired his own secret agent -- a retired James Bond-like figure from Australia's Secret Service -- to come up with unflattering information on the police and prosecutors who were investigating alleged tax fraud by Grollo's Grocon Co.

Melbourne is determined to outdo its archrival, Sydney, which has its own world-famous landmark, the Opera House. That project also had a bad start. Danish architect Joern Utzon was hounded from Australia in 1966, vilified as the man whose masterpiece was costing the state far more than envisaged. Utzon, now 80, has refused to return to Australia and look at his completed work.

Private financing

The Grollo Tower will be financed privately, to avoid similar public outrage over the price tag. Already, 500 wealthy Australians have each paid $5,000 to a holding company as down payment for an apartment or office in the tower. Two hotels are vying for space, Grollo says.

Despite his reputation as a fast builder who is always on schedule, Grollo's eccentricities baffle many Australians.

He lives in a home with the sign outside: "Casa del Matto" (Madman's House). He has meditated on top of Uluru, the red rock in Central Australia that is sacrosanct to aboriginal peoples, and bankrolled a temple for an Indian guru. He keeps large stuffed animals all over his house and office.

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