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The first tall buildings in Melbourne were constructed around the financial end of Collins Street at the end of the 1880s land boom. By 1892 there were 11 office buildings of 8-10 storeys; they dominated the skyline of the city well into the 1920s, but only two survive. As the first generation of tall buildings, they were not freestanding towers but were built to the boundaries with modelled street façades and glaringly blank side walls.

At 12 storeys, the Australian Building office block on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane, completed in 1889 for the Australian Property Investment Co., was Australia's tallest. It was later claimed to be the tallest in the world, but there were in fact a number of 13-storey buildings completed in New York and Chicago in that year. Designed in a broadly Queen Anne style, the high-pointed dormer gable and corner turret also made it the most strongly vertical of the early skyscrapers.

With the introduction of the 132-foot (40.2 m) height limit in 1916, no true skyscrapers were built in the interwar period, but there were a number of taller turrets and towers, along with office blocks built in 'skyscraper styles'. The impressive Gothic tower of the Manchester Unity Building soars skyward to 215 feet (64 m) and is often cited as the highest structure in Melbourne at the time, but the tower of the T&G Building at the corner of Collins and Russell streets just pips it at 67 m, and the tower of the APA Building (built in 1929 and demolished in 1969) at the corner of Collins and Queen streets was far taller, rising to 76 m. The best example of the American 'skyscraper style' of the 1920s and 1930s is the former Russell Street Police Headquarters. Designed by Percy Everett, Chief Architect of the Public Works Department, and built between 1940 and 1943, it is a freestanding brick tower that self-consciously adopts a vertical fenestration and articulation, and a stepped silhouette strongly reminiscent of New York's Empire State Building. The tower culminates with the extra vertical emphasis of a radio mast that extends the building's reach well beyond the 40-metre height limit.

The first building to break the height limit is also Melbourne's archetypal postwar 'glass-box' skyscraper. Completed in 1958, the former ICI Building, designed by Bates Smart McCutcheon, was inspired by the new-generation curtain-walled office blocks emerging in the USA. Located outside the city grid and surrounded by parks and gardens, the ICI Building exemplifies the 1950s modernist ideal of a pristine tower in an open field, a situation difficult to emulate in the crowded city centre.

By the mid-1960s a number of sheer curtain-walled towers rudely interrupted the city streetscapes. The 1962 CRA Building, the 1963 Colonial Mutual Building and the 1965 Reserve Bank suddenly dominated Collins Street with façades of 16-20 storeys, sometimes set back from the street, emulating the freestanding ideal. The pace of development accelerated, producing larger buildings on larger sites. The blocky 1963 Southern Cross Hotel (demolished) and the 1965 National Mutual Building (now AXA) were built on half-block sites formerly occupied by 19th-century markets, while construction was progressing on the 15-storey State Offices tower block behind the Treasury Building, completed in 1966, and the 26-level AMP Tower, completed in 1969 on the corner of Bourke and William streets. With their thick precast-masonry façades heralding a distinct shift from the light curtain-wall designs of the earlier decade, these two projects are also notable for achieving the modernist ideal of the completely freestanding tower in an open plaza.

This ideal was also realised by Melbourne's most refined modernist skyscraper, the BHP Building. The 40-storey tower, designed by Yuncken Freeman Architects and completed in 1972, remained Melbourne's tallest building for many years. Situated on one of the city's hills, this monolith, with its dark tinted glass and black painted steelwork, dominated the skyline.

Office development in St Kilda Road began in the 1950s, and the BP Building (1965) near the Shrine of Remembrance was by far the largest building outside the city. High-rise offices and apartment towers began to spring up in Toorak and Carlton, on St Kilda Esplanade, Beaconsfield Parade and Royal Parade, and at Monash University and the University of Melbourne.

The tallest developments, however, remained in the city, especially on Collins Street. Collins Place, designed by US architects I M Pei & Associates and begun in 1969 but not completed until 1981, was adventurous, with its twin 56level towers of precast ochre-coloured masonry panels and large enclosed shopping area. But the building became the focus of protests over the destruction of Collins Street, as did Melbourne's tallest structure, the 66-floor Rialto Towers, completed in 1986 and now generally admired for its textured, reflective façade.

The boom years of the late 1980s saw the construction of a number of new postmodern city towers, including the 'Big Six', each at about 50-56 floors: 101 Collins, 120 Collins, 333 Collins, 530 Collins (the stock exchange), Bourke Place (on the corner of King Street) and Melbourne Central. The consequent oversupply of office space in the city meant that no new office towers were completed until 2004, but high-rise apartments, often far more architecturally adventurous than the typical rectangular office block, have boomed. Port Melbourne has become a new high-rise hub, and St Kilda Road is filling up with multiple apartment towers. One of the tallest and most striking, with its curved, pointed elements and totem-like form, is the 35level Republic Tower by prolific apartment architect Nonda Katsalidis. New taller offices were proposed in the late 1990s, including, in 1998, a 120-storey tower in Docklands that would have been the tallest building in the world. However, it is Katsalidis' 88-floor Eureka apartment towers in Southbank that will be Melbourne's tallest.

Rohan Storey