Photo: Peter Clark, courtesy of www.SAHMRI.com
Adelaide, the SAHMRI and the
Spirit of the Place
By Monica Trevisan
I came back to Adelaide after twelve years and I have been impressed by the ways the city has evolved while maintaining its most distinctive features.
Among the many new urban interventions, the SAHMRI (South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute) is the one that most excited my interest for its artistic value. At first sight, it more closely resembles a sculpture than a building. SAHMRI expresses nicely and faithfully, in a public building, the ideals that make Adelaide a beautiful and livable city.
Adelaide is a successful urban and social experiment. Edward Gibbon Wakefield had the idea for this experiment in 1829. He was a British politician who wrote a series of articles about prison conditions and emigration from Newgate prison in London where he was detained for kidnapping an under-age woman he had married. In these writings, which, were collected as A Letter from Sydney, The Principal Town of Australasia, Wakefield argued that the British colonization of Australia would be more successful if the government sold land to emigrants at low cost to finance the colony rather than giving it away, and if populations were concentrated rather than dispersed. In his view, this would result in self-sufficient settlements that would be less dependent on convict labor. Wakefield’s ideas became the basis for the South Australia Act of 1834 that empowered the King of England to colonize this region.
Unlike other Australian cities, Adelaide was established as a settlement of free men and women permitted to follow their religious and political beliefs. It was a project of inclusion and tolerance, initiated in 1837 by British Colonel William Light who started by surveying the area and selecting an ideal location for the city. He was certainly in a state of grace when decided where to place it and which form to give it. From the urban point of view, Adelaide is a small masterpiece. It is divided into two parts by the River Torrens, called by the indigenous Kaurna people Karrawirra Parri (the rubber trees forest river).
The main part, south of the river and a mile wide, is enclosed within a large belt of public parks. It has a grid of wide ordered streets that intersect in the five squares that form the Central Business District (CBD). North of the river is the elegant area of North Adelaide, surrounded by greenery. It has also an urban grid that, while similar to the CBD, is rotated slightly with respect to the North-South orientation of the CBD.
The city seems to have been purposely designed at a human scale, to respect needs that are simultaneously private, intimate, and familiar as well as recreational and social. These characteristics have been maintained over time. Even the suburbs have benefited from the initial settlement decisions; they expand nicely down towards the sea and up to the hills. In more recent years, Adelaide has been evolving into a contemporary city without losing its soul and its urban structure. A radical transformation is taking place along the river: especially in the Northwest area of the CBD, important public interventions for a new hospital, expanded convention center/purpose built plenary building, and university medical school are taking place. SAHMRI is the flagship building in the precinct.
The SAHMRI in its urban context. Photo: Stefano Campostrini.
SAHMRI is a very peculiar building, or perhaps I should say a sculpture-building. To invoke a paradox, it is at once an organic and a rationalist building that aims for both complexity and simplicity.
Global architectural firm Woods Bagot designed SAHMRI. Edward John Woods and Walter Bagot founded this firm in Adelaide in 1869. With over 850 of the world’s best design minds spread across five regions and seventeen studios, the practice operates according to a unique global studio model. Rather than using a head office model, thought leaders are spread across groups aligned with clients. The influential British magazine Building Design recently placed it among the top ten architectural firms in the world.
Journalistic sources report that the architects had been asked by the Government of South Australia to design a building with great aesthetic value to host high-level researchers engaged in innovating and improving health services. Woods Bagot’s Director, Thomas Masullo, explains how SAHMRI has become “a thing of the world in Adelaide” and symbolic of the state’s commitment to medical research.
The Woods Bagot Internet web page dedicated to SAHMRI states that the sculptural quality of the building is intended to inspire and promote the building’s functions. The transparent parts of the façade reveal the two atriums, and the “skin” surrounding the building reinforces its shape. This outer skin is formed by a grid of triangles with different shading elements and is inspired by pinecone skins. When I first saw it from the street, I thought it was very similar to an armadillo’s armor.
The articulated form of the skin, as the above-mentioned web site reports, adapts and responds to the environment, becoming a living organism that responds to the positions of the sun. As a result, the SAHMRI is classified LEED Gold. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the US system of energy efficiency classification for the ecological footprint of buildings.
The SAHMRI’s interior space is designed to promote collaborative research through an innovative organization of common spaces, laboratories, and other research areas. The plan of each floor is symmetrical to the east-west axis of the atrium entrance and cafeteria. The exterior view of the articulation of the “skin” of the building hides this internal symmetry.
The building appears to be different from different perspectives because of its rounded and elongated, almost boat-like shape and because it lays nearly perpendicular to the road. Seen from outside, the building seems to float above the ground, permeable to the eye and to the passage of pedestrians and bicycles.
Inside the building, the light has that special quality that allows one to distinguish everything with great clarity without being blinded by excessive light. In the entrance hall, the multiple glass elevators leading to the various floors reminded me a film set (maybe for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or a futuristic technological space.
Sinuous white bands of planes that are visible one from the others, overlooking the high atrium space of the eastern side and connected by a spiral staircase that rises from the cafeteria recall Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This interior design is almost a sculpture within the sculpture.
Interior of the SAHMRI. Photos: Stefano Campostrini.
Colors simultaneously identify the particular types of research that take place at SAHMRI and reveal their diversity. The palette is sober: the internal surfaces are mainly white, while the exterior appears dark gray, and only against the light can one perceive, underneath the “skin,” the colors of the interiors.
Like Adelaide itself, SAHMRI is designed to attract people, in this case scientific and medical experts to do research in a community oriented setting. Like the city, SAHMRI benefits from its environmental conditions. Ideally, the spirit of the building is in perfect harmony with the spirit of its urban context.
When in Adelaide, I had the opportunity to meet with Thomas Masullo, Director of Adelaide Woods Bagot. He has been responsible for the SAHMRI project since the very beginning. I asked him how the design concept of SAHMRI was born and evolved. Meeting with me in his terrific studio in a high-rise building overlooking the town, he explained that from the urban point of view, the architects wanted to meld the city center with the River Torrens Park. They did not want to create a building that faced the street (North Terrace, the main street that functions as a border for the CBD), but something more like a pavilion in the park. Following this idea, the building has been placed almost orthogonally to the road (with some further tinkering and tilting to optimize its exposition for power use reduction purposes). The designers wanted a building without a main façade, but a building in which all sides have the same importance. Even the view of the roof plane can be considered as a fifth “façade,” enforcing the idea of a building given over to a common project undertaken by a community of equals.
The dia-grid structure for the facades (the outer “skin”) was chosen to reveal another view of the building having to do with its function. The fact that this structure is self-supporting, with a shape made only to embrace and protect the building, provides an initial hint of the research work done inside. Even the composition of the triangles evokes research: it is the result of applying complex mathematical models.
Photo: Peter Clark. Courtesy of www.SAHMRI.com
Masullo said that one important objective in the design of the building was “demystifying research,” often seen as a secret and mysterious thing carried out by scientists isolated from each other and, particularly, from the outer world. From outside of SAHMRI, one can watch the several research activities taking place inside, and the researchers can move freely inside the building to see what others are working on and connect with them.
The project, Masullo said, aims for both ecological and economic sustainability, demanding innovative solutions to keep the costs within the planned budget.
Dozens of visitors (and many locals) every week are visiting SAHMRI on guided tours, showing how it has already become an iconic building that declares to the rest of Australia and the world that South Australia aims to be a leader in innovation.
Monica Trevisan is an architect and curator who lives and works in Venice, Italy.