Architect Kevin Snell explains Queen's Wharf Tower's 'natural' design

Queen's Wharf architect Kevin Snell
Queen's Wharf architect Kevin Snell

The man who designed Queen’s Wharf Tower in the 1980s says it was meant to be a temporary structure and is surprised it has lasted this long.

Architect Kevin Snell said the observation tower had served its purpose and he was not surprised Newcastle City Council had decided this week to demolish it.

“It was only designed as a temporary structure, like an expo-type structure,” he told the Newcastle Herald.

“My ego’s not threatened, that’s for sure. I’m very, very surprised that the council has dished out the money to maintain it all this time. 

“I applaud the council for 30 years of support for the structure, but I fully understand, and I’m not crestfallen that it is to be demolished because that was always to be the case.”

Mr Snell said the tower, which was built as part of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations and opened by the queen in 1988, was meant to be dismantled after only two to five years.

It was the most efficient structure, and, believe it or not, that is like a poppy stem that we humans like to relate to a phallic symbol. They’re efficient. That’s just the way nature is, I’m afraid.

Kevin Snell

He said the fact that it had survived 30 years and been popular “proved its worth”. 

As for its suggestive shape, it had not occurred to him at the time that people would see it as a phallic symbol.  

“Believe it or not, not initially, because it evolved as various bits were pared off it for cost reasons,” he said. 

“It was never in my thought process at all. You might find that hard to believe, that I must be naive, but it really didn’t occur to me.

“Over the years I’ve got calls … saying what was I thinking building this big dick sticking up out of the city, and I sort of give them a very serious explanation of why it’s shaped like it is.

“An erect penis is an extremely efficient structure. I think they’re taken aback that I state the obvious.”

Council interim chief executive officer Jeremy Bath described the tower as an “embarrassment” after councillors voted on Tuesday night to raze it in the middle of next year.

“Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many cities around the world that have placed a 30-metre-high phallic symbol in their most prominent public space,” Mr Bath said.

Asked if he was deliberately being playful with the tower’s shape, Mr Snell said: “No, not at all. It was purely as a result of the most efficient structure, and, believe it or not, that is like a poppy stem that we humans like to relate to a phallic symbol. They’re efficient. That’s just the way nature is, I’m afraid.”

The tower was first designed as a square. Once it became circular, the domed roof was meant to open hydraulically into four sections like petals.

“The very top of the thing was designed to open like a flower opening,” Mr Snell said. “The four panels were to open, but the cost blew that out of the water. The fact that it stays closed, as it were, is the result we have.”

Queen’s Wharf, the accompanying tower and a now-dismantled walkway from the Hunter Street mall were built to entice people to cross the heavy rail line and engage with the working harbour. 

The wharf complex won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ (NSW chapter) Lloyd Rees Award for urban design in 1988.   

Mr Snell, who last climbed the tower five years ago with his grandchildren, said his initial design for the structure had evolved due to costs, engineering challenges and a range of other issues.  

“It was just a barren waste, so the idea of the tower was to draw people from the CBD across the railway line to the foreshore and then by climbing the tower get some idea of the closeness of the CBD to the harbour and just as a point of interest and a bit of a landmark.

“The reality is that the council were very concerned that no one be able to fall or jump off the tower, so it had to be closed in all the way.

“The sponsors were people like Tubemakers and the steelworks, so clearly we weren’t going to build it out of concrete, plus concrete was a much more permanent structure.

“And then if you can imagine the concentric rings we decided to make it out of to celebrate Tubemakers or pipe bending in Newcastle, one ring has one weld, whereas four pieces of a square tower would have had four welds, which would be four times the cost, really.

“The other thing was the council was concerned it be a gentle walk, so you would find your own level, and if you were feeling exhausted you could stand there a while and other people could pass you. There’s a flat section on every quarter turn.

“So then it came down to the structural engineers designing the most efficient way to hold the thing up, and the circular shape ended up being the most efficient shape.

An early model of Queen's Wharf.

An early model of Queen's Wharf.

“I was actually listening to a bit of talkback, and a few people said they enjoyed going up there and getting a sense of the working harbour and the foreshore and just an overview, and that was pleasing me to hear because that’s exactly what it was designed for.

“On the other hand I fully acknowledge it was a short-term thing and it’s probably served its purpose.”

The council has called for community feedback on what to put in the tower’s place, and Mr Snell hoped that whatever it was would continue to celebrate the “Dangar axis”, an alignment between the cathedral and harbour in surveyor Henry Dangar’s 1824 town plan.

Mr Snell urged the council to record the tower’s history as part of an award-winning building of its time.   

Newcastle property developer Keith Stronach called two years ago for the entire Queen’s Wharf complex to go, and Mr Snell was open to the idea. 

“I wouldn’t shy away from a brief to recreate a whole new presence there.”