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What should we do with the old RAH site?

Opinion

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I love a good challenge, and if there’s a bit of controversy about it, well, I might be even keener to have an opinion. This is a general characteristic of most qualified designers.

I call it spirit.  And as long as we can easily and endlessly draw upon it, then maybe we haven’t resigned ourselves to mediocrity just yet.

So, let’s get controversial and opinionated.  Brace yourselves; I’m also going to mention bondage.

The old Royal Adelaide Hospital – what do we do with it? Are the buildings there too ugly to keep? What do we do with this prime project opportunity?  The fantastic thing about the topic is that everyone has an opinion.

There have been several options tabled thus far. They include: completely demolishing the facility; turning it into high-density living; student accommodation to consolidate on Adelaide University’s existing fringe accommodation sites; a potential site for Adelaide High School with its upcoming rezoning; and returning the site to Parklands.

Open space created by the demolition of the other buildings would create areas that can be used for festivals and concerts.
– Brendon Harslett

The year 2016 will see the opening of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, and will make the current site available for use.  Sounds like a long way off, but this will scoot around very quickly and decisions on the site’s use will need to be made promptly. It could be a great topic in our upcoming election.  Me?  My wishes are selfish: with two kids whose secondary schooling is yet to be decided, I would find it very convenient as a high school with close links to higher education next door.

I’ve never been a believer in demolishing for the sake of demolishing, so would look forward to the pool of Adelaide architectural design talent finding a world-class solution for the site.  Are they too ugly to keep? It is a difficult argument, as there are so many different buildings on the site.

The lovely thing about design is that it is an opinion and not a science.  I’m a fan of the aesthetics of the external boundary of the site, mainly along North Terrace and Frome Road, and would prefer to see them stay.  The next five people you ask may say different.  Depending on the State’s Government’s commitment to extending current infrastructure beyond the Convention Centre, new RAH, SAHMRI and the Adelaide Oval, we could well find this site in the hands of private developers, potentially as a high-density living project.

Here is where we note the broader themes and tensions that are shaping the future of the old RAH site. Two major ones to touch on are density and heritage.

That block, if the government decides to sell it, shapes as a tasty opportunity for a developer. It is big enough to accommodate many blocks of flats; set deep in the heart of the city, they would raise a good price. Is this more high-density in the city a good thing?  Extended city living opportunities decrease the strain on the northern and southern sprawl, and reduce congestion on the traffic corridors to the extremities. But have we been put off by the term “high-density living”, in thinking it means our kitchens will have space only for a bar fridge and a single-drainer sink?

As head of the Design Institute, the question I feel qualified to answer is this: Can we have high-density living and good design at the same time? Answer: Absolutely.

The minute we pigeon-hole a type of structure into irrecoverably bad design status, we may as well stop thinking or striving to create fantastic spaces.  We have an opportunity with the RAH site to create hubs of thriving city living which can support the surrounding community by providing community facilities – buildings like gyms, sports, centres, etc – and open spaces that complement high-density CBD apartments.

The challenge of this site can be kept in perspective by a quote from Bernard Tschumi’s “Architecture and Disjunction”, which I had pinned above my drawing board while at uni:

Metaphor of Order – Bondage

“…..These rules, like so many knots that cannot be untied, are generally a paralysing constraint. When manipulated, however, they have the erotic significance of bondage. To differentiate between rules or ropes is irrelevant here. What matters is that there is no simple bondage technique: the more numerous and sophisticated the restraints, the greater the pleasure.”

Talking of bondage, the other “rope” that may constrain and shape the site is heritage. Currently, there are two heritage-listed buildings on the site: the Margaret Graham Nurses’ Home on Frome Road and the Nursing School Building on the corner of North Terrace and Frome Road.  These form a very minor part of the entire site, leaving open a mass of opportunity.

The RAH has substantial heritage claims.  The facility was opened around January 1841, and has housed many influential medical practitioners, none more famous than Howard Florey, a South Australian-born pharmacologist and pathologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 for in developing penicillin, which has saved an estimated 6 million lives since.  That is a significant history.

So what then to do with the site?  I’d like to see the retention of the buildings on the south-west corner, and for them to be committed for cultural uses such as education, or for our botanic facilities. Open space created by the demolition of the other buildings would create areas that can be used for festivals and concerts.  That would create a gateway between our CBD and botanical north, linking the inner-northern areas around the university precinct.

I don’t think a high-density housing development is the best use for the site –  it would get people into the CBD, but wouldn’t necessarily engage them with our town.

Interested in architecture? InDaily Design has partnered with the Australian Institute of Architects SA to run the City of Adelaide People’s Choice Award for the best public architecture project in the CBD. Click here to vote.

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