Radelaide – from “big country town” to the towers of “Sad Gimignano”

Urban form is often an indicator of a place’s deep appeal; think of the towers of New York and its bustling urban lifestyle; the historical fabric of many medieval centers and their dignified rest; the striking architecture and bustling street life of downtown Melbourne.

Is there a connection between Adelaide’s urban form and its popular rejection as merely a ‘big country town’? Could a new Adelaide emerge? Here is the fourth part…

Probably originating from its main streets the width of a rural town, Adelaide’s reputation has grown to reflect, compared to major Australian capitals, what many visitors perceived to be its slower pace of life, its people supposedly reserved and his urban gestures of the big cities. .

Yet Adelaide’s urban form has evolved in recent years, as have its interstate counterparts. The most notable changes have been the proliferation of high-rise developments, which are no longer concentrated in the business core of the city.

Let us apply our comparative method to some urban forms in central Adelaide and, as before, leave it to you, dear reader, to conclude whether the continued popular disdain is deserved.

A “big country town”?

Let’s see some examples…

1. Adelaide Waterfront – Popeye’s View

Most capital city television newscasts include a characteristic location picture.

Many state capitals are depicted beside or above a water view.

Adelaide is too; Torrens Lake in the foreground of a line of prominent buildings, all sparkling at dusk. Sometimes the local tourist boat, “Popeye”, appears on the lake.

Yet where other city centers face veritable waterholes, Lake Adelaide shares Canberra’s artificial waterfront, both held in the air by a dam at the out of sight.

Unlike Canberra, the scale of Adelaide’s water feature is relatively small, closer to that which supplies a large rural city.

This pastoral impression is amplified by the buildings in the backdrop – a parliament building, a cultural center, a casino (former interstate railroad terminus), a convention center, an associated hotel and an exhibition center. Off-camera, the large sports stadium still known as the Adelaide Oval completes the ensemble.

The model of this set is deeply reminiscent of a large English country house; an artificial water feature facing a soaring lawn, the odd folly (the bandstand) framed by trees, and the essential trinkets of status and grandeur arranged like a string of pearls across the tableau to signify, in the case of Adelaide, the state capital -hood.

2. The Glenelg Tram – a tram named Retire?

Although, like other state capitals, Adelaide’s tram network is slowly expanding, it was largely phased out a few decades ago, retaining just one line linking the city center and the seaside suburb of Glenelg.

As the only line kept in Ballarat, Adelaide has become little more than a tourist attraction for many years. It offered few basic transport services, but by linking the city center with a booming pensioner suburb, the line unwittingly symbolized the trajectory of Adelaide life; from active CBD work to retired decline, facing the setting sun.

3. Rundle Mall

Upgrading Rundle Mall, which is more than twice as long as its counterparts in Melbourne and Sydney, is an almost perpetual obsession of ambitious Lord Mayors.

The most recent upgrade is high quality, with street furniture, plantings, tessellations, and artwork that seem to be really appreciated by the shopping hordes.

Yet unlike the pedestrian streets of many cities around the world that fill up after dark, when the mall stores close and night descends, the strip is largely deserted and becomes as spooky as a clown ( see title image).

4. Shitty Adelaide signage

Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi”Learn from Las Vegas” celebrated the visual richness of the urban tat; of low-brow design originating far from the arrogant halls of urban academy.

Good signage is now much appreciated; consider Dotonbori from Osaka or Shibuya from Tokyo.

This is not the case in Adelaide. For example, its nightlife strip maintains the same tattered collections of properties, advertisements and business signs that in some cases date from half a century ago.

Some of the larger signs urge drivers to park their car and grab a burger – but a bit more (see image below).

5. Just another country hub – the Adelaide Interstate Rail Terminal

When travelers arrive by train, their first perceptions of a place are defined by its railway terminus.

Sydney’s grand Central Station and Melbourne’s contemporary Southern Cross both flow directly into the city. Even tiny Spanish Toledo has a lavish rail terminus.

Adelaide emphatically confirmed its self-esteem as a country town when it moved its “interstate terminal” to a scrubby park on the outskirts of town.

Only the platform sign lets passengers know they’ve arrived (see image below), but they need a bus or taxi to get downtown – or they can stay in the train and head to Darwin or Perth instead.

6. Terminal Views – Vanishing Views

When opportunities present themselves, it seems to be a feature of modern grid city creation to celebrate axial terminations.

At the end of William Street in Sydney, the Kings Cross “Coca Cola” sign is now part of the heritage. The southeast corner of the Melbourne grid is marked by a sleek office block designed by Harry Seidler.

So it was with Adelaide.

Aware of the immense propaganda power of a carefully placed tall building, St. Paul’s Cathedral points damn skyward, ending the northern view of Adelaide’s Central Avenue.

The Newmarket Hotel has played a similar but secular role for thirsty visitors approaching Adelaide’s Grid Corner from Port Road.

Yet just across the same intersection, the recently completed Adelaide Hospital looms long and low, seemingly making West Terrace a road ending in a long convalescence.

Compare the hospital in Adelaide to its counterpart in Melbourne (see Google Street View images below).

7. Adelaide Lanes Improvements

If in literature imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, it would seem that it is the same in the making of cities.

After the resounding success of Melbourne’s back streets a quarter of a century ago, many other Australian cities have sought to capitalize on their own wasteland littered with bins.

Adelaide was no exception.

However, Adelaide never quite cracked the Melbourne code; something about making them interesting, engaging, expansive, vibrant, intimate, curiosity-enriching – even urban.

Images of Adelaide Google backstreets and images of Melbourne backstreets to compare.

8. A good place to die?

Adelaide’s reputation as “a great place to raise children – then die” is accurately mapped in the square arc of Adelaide’s North to West Terraces, home to several schools, colleges, a new hospital – and culminates in a cemetery, facing the setting sun.

New Adelaide – “Viagra-Ville” or “The Towers of Sad Gimignano”

Those who pay attention will have noticed that the face of central Adelaide has changed over the past few years. It’s like Adelaide bought a retired sports car.

It looks like the high-rise buildings (at least in Adelaide terms) have freed themselves from their CBD corral. Let’s call it “Viagraville”.

The two buildings in the image below face North Terrace and Frome Street in neighborhoods defined by 2-4 story buildings, many of which are heritage listed.

The two buildings below – one a playful evocation of a robot, the other perhaps a Cubist take on Swiss cheese – are set in different enclosures, each with an established scale of one to three stories.

We met the redevelopment of the central market in the second part. Views projected from its residential balconies depict its scale relative to its context (see image below).

We also came across the Eighty-Eight O’Connell development, which is helpfully represented among the mainstream scale in North Adelaide and beyond (see image below).

On their own, all of these buildings are well-designed, but they have caused significant concern among many locals and bewilderment among outsiders, mainly because they are where they are.

Unlike the gradual growth of most towers in Australia’s CBD, the sudden and isolated appearance of this new crop is reminiscent of San Gimignano, near Siena (see final image).

Its jarring stone towers, now charming, were erected by the locals to signify their wealth and power during the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines of the 12e and 13e centuries.

This town is now a tourist attraction. Will the Adelaide Towers attract the same kind of affection in the future?

Dear reader, it’s your turn again…

We have focused here on the symbolically rich built form of Adelaide, comparing it with examples from other cities.

What do these examples from Adelaide say?

Where do you think each might be located along the Crapelaide, Sadelaide, Naffelaide, Myeh-delaide, Happilaide, Radelaide, Fabulaide or Spectaculaide spectrum?

Mike Brown

Originally from Adelaide, Mike Brown has worked in local government and NSW State in planning, urban design and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the University of NSW’s Masters in Urban Policy and Strategy programme.
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