March 2014

Arts & Letters

Hi-tech architecture in Adelaide

By David Neustein
The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute

A friend recently applied for a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1965, the Salk is an architectural masterpiece. Its centrepiece is a courtyard shaded by the canyon walls of surrounding laboratory buildings and animated by a ribbon of water that reflects the sky. My friend professed to know all about the Salk: its spectacular cliff-top location, its legendary founder and its Nobel Prize–winning alumni. But he was surprised to learn that the Salk is also significant to architects.

Famous for developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s, Jonas Salk conceived of a new type of research centre and hired Kahn to design it, long before he had a location in mind. The Salk Institute came to be situated in the sparsely populated Torrey Pines area of La Jolla, and not in Salk’s native New York or Kahn’s Philadelphia, thanks to the efforts of the San Diego mayor, Charles Dail. A polio survivor, Dail had offered Salk free land close to the site earmarked for the University of California, San Diego. Fifty years on, the La Jolla university campus thrives, and the Salk has helped to attract other high-profile research facilities and medical laboratories to the area.

The newly opened South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), which occupies a formerly peripheral site on Adelaide’s North Terrace, is a similarly ambitious institution. Proposed in a 2008 review of the state’s flagging medical research industry, and mainly paid for by $200 million in federal funding, the institute aims to emulate the Salk’s success by becoming not only a leading research centre but also a major catalyst in Adelaide’s urban transformation.

SAHMRI can accommodate 675 researchers across seven disciplines under a single roof. It will soon be accompanied by the relocated Royal Adelaide Hospital, currently under construction, and new buildings for the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. A second SAHMRI facility is planned. Eventually more than $3 billion will have been invested in the whole enterprise, which the premier, Jay Weatherill, has described as “the largest biomedical precinct in the southern hemisphere”.

The redevelopment of this former rail yard on the CBD’s northern fringe is a key part of the most significant change to Adelaide’s city centre since Colonel William Light’s 1837 plan. It includes the $535 million Adelaide Oval redevelopment, the $350 million convention centre extension, the adaptive reuse of the former hospital site, and new parklands, cultural facilities and bridges. While no coherent masterplan covers this frenetic renewal, the intent is to knit North Adelaide and the CBD together, by breaching the famous green belt and shifting the city’s centre to the banks of the River Torrens.

Of Australia’s capitals, Adelaide has probably altered the least in recent years. It could hardly be described as a hotbed of innovative architecture. Yet Woods Bagot, Hassell and Woodhead – three of Australia’s biggest architecture firms – originated in Adelaide. Woods Bagot, the world’s seventh largest architecture practice, with 16 international offices, won the bid to design SAHMRI. Reflecting the research investment and expertise within, the building’s form is fittingly heroic. Sheathed in scales and seemingly hovering above the ground, SAHMRI appears to be both zoomorphic and space age. Each of its façade’s several thousand triangular glass panels responds to environmental conditions inside and out. The glass is shaded by projecting hoods that vary in depth based on solar orientation, while perforated panels draw in air. Supported entirely by a steel grid, this articulated shell wraps every visible side of the building, including its underbelly. From an aeroplane window, it appears that a diamond-shaped UFO has landed on the edge of the CBD. Viewed from ground level, the building has yet to connect with its surroundings. As one walks west along North Terrace, the plane trees and sandstone façades of Adelaide’s cultural institutions give way to dust and construction hoardings. SAHMRI comes into view at the edge of a deserted skate park, its backdrop a wilderness of tarmac and train lines.

The building’s arrival is remarkable not just for Adelaide but also for Australian cities in general. With the exception of Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station, designed by UK architects Grimshaw, high-tech architecture is scarcely seen in this country. SAHMRI’s aesthetic is highly reminiscent of the work of another UK practice, Future Systems, responsible for the anti-gravity media centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground and for Selfridges’ “armour-plated” Birmingham store. But Woods Bagot’s project architect for SAHMRI, Anoop Menon, discourages such comparisons. Menon carefully avoids ascribing a single author to this project, or even an authorial team. He characterises the design process as collaborative and emergent, as if all of the many contributors instinctively knew what to do. Are we to believe that a technologically advanced hive mind was responsible for this hive of steel and glass? Whatever the case, the visual metaphor of the building is potent, suggesting that a benevolent and advanced race has arrived to spur on human progress. The South Australian Tourism Commission’s latest ad features a spacesuit-clad figure ascending in one of SAHMRI’s glass elevators.

Futuristic overtones continue inside the building. Glassed-in bridges span a towering atrium. The building’s floor plates rest on just seven supports. Like immense steel trees, six mega-columns branch into successively smaller elements as they rise. The building’s butterfly-shaped plan is tripartite, with enclosed service spaces along the western edge, open-plan offices to the east and glass-walled laboratories in the middle. This arrangement is highly flexible, with offices able to be converted into “wet” laboratories, but also generic and repetitious. Each level seems identical in layout, furnishings and colour scheme, with cheerless white meeting rooms and kitchenettes, as if the sterility of the laboratories has somehow infected the building’s human environment. In an institute that aims to promote collaboration among leading individual researchers, this sameness of the working environment seems problematic. A monumental spiral staircase descending to an enclosed eating area is intended to foster interaction, but this gesture feels particularly misplaced – the spiral stair originated as a medieval defence strategy.

To be charitable, the facility’s research themes and key staff were only determined once plans for the building were well underway. It is a great achievement to have condensed 25,000 square metres of programming into a single, resolved object, and there are exciting spaces where the building’s interior comes into direct contact with its outer skin. More disconcerting than the blandness of the rooms is a lack of outdoor spaces, and therefore of publicly accessible areas. Brisbane’s new Translational Research Institute, a comparable building completed in 2012, is arranged around a lush, semi-enclosed garden. The Salk Institute features sheltered colonnades and sunken courtyards, where junior staff stash surfboards, bikes and hammocks. Even Woods Bagot’s own Qatar Science & Technology Park, in Doha, responds to the Arabian Peninsula’s harsh climate with protected outdoor spaces. But here the plaza is left bare, as if Adelaide were an inhospitable moonscape.

What is so remarkable about the Salk is that it is of enduring value to both scientists and architects. SAHMRI, too, is an extraordinary undertaking, a coming together of political purpose, scientific endeavour and architectural flair. The building’s designers claim to have set a new standard of energy efficiency for Australia, and they have delivered a facility, on time and on budget, that has exceeded expectations. There is no question that SAHMRI will stimulate the renewal of the Riverbank area, and of the South Australian economy as a whole. But beyond SAHMRI’s symbolic purpose, questions persist about its ability to sustain a collaborative environment. Fifty years from now, will we be left with the image of a floating spaceship, never quite touching down?

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

© Peter E Barnes

March 2014

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