Riverbank Precinct Tour

Athanasios Lazarou
Jul 11, 2016 · 8 min read

(5th May 2016, as published in How Now Is Soon)

“In a very South Australian way there was a debate about whether it should happen at all, but once it happened we all tried to take credit for it.”


Since 2010 Adelaide has been redefined by the Riverbank Precinct. The end result of a strategy that began with 5000+, an Integrated Design Strategy for inner Adelaide that developed conversations with design professionals, businesses, not for profit organisations, government agencies and academia are reflected in the multiple ways the Riverbank has been thought of as a masterplan. Open critique has merited openly applauded architectural results.

With a focus on how built outcomes can be positive agents of cultural change, the tour was categorised into project sections: the redeveloped Adelaide Oval (Cox Architecture, Hames Sharley and Walter Brooke), Torrens Footbridge (Aurecon, Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer), Festival Plaza expansion (ARM Architecture), and Stage 2 and 3 of the Convention Centre (Woods Bagot). More than $3.8 billion of public and privately funded infrastructure has been constructed in the precinct.

Following two days of conference discussion on how architecture can engage its agency and provide models of transformation, the Riverbank Tour signified a design-based vision for Adelaide and a model for contemporary urban development. Aptly titled “Transforming Adelaide”, the tour was led by SA Institute of Architect’s Chapter President David Homburg.

Adelaide Oval (Cox Architecture, Hames Sharley and Walter Brooke)

Most successfully, the Adelaide Oval redevelopment has captured the imagination of the public to the potential of speculative cultural programming, and architecture’s role in framing events.

It immediately became clear that the departure point for the oval was to test the idea of inside and out. The overall thematic of “arranged pavilions on a parkland site” is a stretch, but the oval certainly departs from existing stadium models that are inwardly focused (more similar to convention centres) and articulates itself to promote connections to the exterior. This reflection on both site and context forms a series of dialectical tensions that toy with preconceptions of how Adelaide defines itself spatially: city and pitch, parklands and pitch, sculpture and observer.

Whilst the retained northern mound and heritage scoreboard are clunky, the overall stadium strategy presents a South Australian response beyond concrete and steel. Porosity and permeability dominate (views to the parklands are uninterrupted in the stadium), refined orientations enhance the sporting experience (the members stand looks down the cricket wicket), and a lightness of structure is evident throughout (roof solutions are a combined effort of engineering, architectural geometry and fabrication). What is less convincing is the various financial gates which limit complete access of the facility. Our tour bypassed multiple tiers of pricing, with the Audi Stadium Club being compared to a QANTAS lounge.

Adelaide Oval is a site that favours permeability, but only in relation to how far your wallet can become permeable to your pocket.

A band warms up for the A-league grand final
Bronze screens reference the idea of parkland sculptures

The success of Adelaide Oval was properly captured by Homburg, who jested that “In a very South Australian way there was a debate about whether it should happen at all, but once it happened we all tried to take credit for it.”

The tour was particular lucky to capture the build up to the A-league grand final, allowing for a dynamic performing of the stadium as it prepared for an event.

Torrens Footbridge (Aurecon, Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer)

The 255 metre Torrens Footbridge was articulated as a minor precinct of its own, with the physical bridge structure costing $6m out of a total budget of $43 million dollars (almost $170,000 per metre for those playing at home). The site includes landscaping and water features which connect it back to the river and parklands at both ends.

We learnt of how the architectural swoop is in effect is effectively an urban gesture. The curve of the bridge helps symbolically and physically enclose Elder park and the Riverbank precinct for events. It works. The absence of details is also a positive driver of form; the lack of vertical lights reduce it’s profile (lights are integrated into the handrails), the glass underside reflects the ripples of the river, and the 8 metre width was designed for 99% of use cases (given that each metre of width added raises the cost of the project by 20%).

Stage 2 and 3 of the Convention Centre (Woods Bagot).

Adelaide already has two convention centres, side by side, but we need three, maybe four, and perhaps many, many more!

The logic behind the reproduction of the convention centre as a formal type is clear. The ‘convention centre’ model generates a 10–1 dollar return on investment to the State, and serves as the cultural departure point for visiting attendees. As such, what was articulated by Woods Bagot, designers of convention centre number 3 (and of number 2, but let’s not try to get confused) was how architects held a responsibility in deciding what the it is they want to say about both architecture, and architecture as a reflection of the city itself.

Most presciently, the unfinished structure has currently revealed itself in a white skin to form a unique dialogue with the Festival Centre has occurred. The form itself began as a means to addressing connections back to the river, with views governing how it manifests itself physically in the building in terms of that shape, where twisting forms aggressively frame riverbank views to elder park and Adelaide Oval. In distorting and contorting the building into various forms, Stage 3 looks more like someone trying to wrestle out of a straight jacket — but wonderfully so.

Convention Centre 3 (estimated completion 2017)
Convention Centre 1 (2001)
Convention Centre 2 (2014)

The discrete follys plays along the edge of the riverbank to provide the iconic postcard shot. As such, in the representation of the postcard shot the importance of the site as a precinct — as opposed to a series of buildings — is revealed. In the collection of convention centres the precinct gains value beyond what the original convention centre could ever offer. Each serve a unique business case, and each have merited unique stylistic profiles (chamfered, curved and cornered). The architectural ’talking’ between the triad of convention centres is an intentional design move that could be classified by a range of opinion: optimistically ignorant, business friendly, or exceedingly practical.

Convention Centre number 3, designed by Woods Bagot, is due to open next year.

Festival Plaza (ARM + TCL, with HASSEL as the Adelaide Festival Centre’s architectural consultants)

The most contentious site of the precinct is Festival Plaza. We were initially walked through the forthcoming design transformation which awaits Adelaide’s most agreed upon public failure with virtual reality headsets. When the tour physically arrived there was no new built-works to greet us, but a windswept plaza filled with promises. In fact, the Festival Plaza tour stop was the most revealing…

Originally designed by famed Adelaide Architect John Morphett (who worked with Walter Gropius and headed up the Roman office of the icon), the site sits largely abandoned behind the State’s Parliament building. A lack of shade and defined program wounds its civic ambitions. Homburg deftly walked us through the various histories of the site; the sculptural intent of Hajek, the parking scar that was introduced in the 90’s, and the issues of level change which create poor quality access.

SA Institute of Architect’s Chapter President David Homburg addressing the tour
Hajek’s sculptures on Festival Plaza (which mask cooling vents)

Shaped by a plurality of (competing) interests including ARM (AA gold medal winner led by homegrown harbinger Ian McDougall), TCL (North Terrace anyone?), Hassel (#InHomburgWeTrust), the Walker Corporation (our car parks are paying for this build) and the Adelaide Casino (inequality for all), the plaza redevelopment is the next site of debate for the city to bite in to.

Adelaide critically lacks a defined meeting place or public forum, a problem since amplified by the failure of Victoria Square (or known by locals disaffectionately as “the world’s most expensive roundabout”). The intent of the new design is to replicate the success of Federation square, combining cultural attractions, nightlife and a public transport flow area. Homburg re-iterated the design principles driving the sites redevelopment: to realign the Ceremonial axis from King William road, re-level the site to encourage access and events, and to make the space more intimate (and a more suitable scale for Adelaide). This will be detailed by retaining the octagonal paving which picks up a new pattern that informs and generates new places and zones within the space. The existing nodes within the Morphett design will be retained, but existing connections will be stronger to extend the notion of the object (in this case, Festival Centre) in its field. Also to be featured are subtle water features (skim pools) and Jacaranda trees.

The rear facade of Parliament House is to be fronted by a three storey retail development (the balcony will be visibly retained)
SA Institute of Architect’s Chapter President David Homburg was engaging and entertaining

The motivations for such a development — beyond the financial gains of the Walker corporation and Adelaide Casino — is to “reconnect what is a very difficult site to navigate”, “take edge conditions and tie them back together” and provide a “defined meeting place” for the city. To do so has required sacrificing the project’s autonomy. Funded largely in part by the Waker Corporation’s dual speculations of a large commercial tower and 1560 space car park, the plaza risks becoming a large scale mixed-use commercial and retail development, cauterised from any premise of authentic public transformation.

ARM’s recent AA Gold Medal win will be needed to push back against more commercially inclined interests on what is a complex site in a prominent address. Regardless, the division of the site amongst competing stakeholders points to a flaw in the procurement process. For what motivation does a Plaza sloping towards a Casino hold other than a funnel?

Questions from the audience remained on what influence the Casino development would have in shifting the cultural narrative on the site.


Athanasios Lazarou

Written by

I’m a prize-fighter with my brain. #architect #theorist #researcher

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