Reviving Adelaide’s Darling

The complete restoration of the once derelict Darling building is one of the most significant heritage transformations of recent times, with the project duly awarded at the recent South Australian Architecture Awards.

The Franklin Street building’s restoration picked up six honours including the City of Adelaide/The Adelaide Review People’s Choice Award and the David Saunders Heritage Award for the building’s architects and tenants William Burton Leopardi.

Constructed in 1916 for mercantile grain traders J Darling and Son, after a century of use the building had fallen into disrepair. On the hunt for new headquarters for their design studio, co-director of William Burton Leopardi Architects Sophia Leopardi came across the building, which came up for sale in 2013.

Prominently located on the corner of Franklin and Bentham Streets, co-director David Burton says that “one of the enduring discussions around Adelaide is about heritage”.

“With this building, the whole story of it being left derelict was an interesting starting point,” Burton says.

Burton says that the building resonates with the public on a number of levels. “Firstly, because it’s such a beautiful building, [secondly], that it had been left more or less to rot for so long, and thirdly, because it is located in probably the most densely restructured block in the city.”

News of the building’s revival has also been widespread, with the firm receiving several letters from past occupants congratulating them on the renovation. “We received a letter from someone in Mt Gambier, who worked for one of the surveying companies that once occupied the building, saying how much they enjoyed working here and that it was great to see it back to its prime,” Burton says. “There’s a real affinity with the history.”

The significant upgrade sets an important precedent for other heritage sites in the city that still remain dormant and neglected. The capacity to reinvigorate historic spaces and create relevant contemporary business tenancies is a noteworthy achievement, which Burton hopes “is a bit of a lightning rod to show that there are ways and means of achieving this result without having to do a complete rethink”.

“With the right approach, we realised we could renovate it, rather than redevelop it, and make it a viable option,” he says.

The notion of legacy is also vital to the project, as the design studio sees themselves as the caretakers of the building, adding to its long history. “It existed long before us, and hopefully will continue to exist long after us,” Burton says. “Our part has been bringing it back to its former glory. We are proud to be custodians.”

What is evident in the careful restoration is what Burton describes as a “conversation with the building, as opposed to wiping away the history”. The materiality is honest, with the scarring of concrete pillars (the Darling building was one of the first Adelaide examples to use re-enforced concrete) left revealed. Ceiling finishes and services are left unconcealed and the additions are sympathetic to the nature of the interior.

Overall, the spaces are a sophisticated reawakening, achieved through the skilful and deeply considered integration of old and new architectural elements.

“We made a choice,” Burton says. “We could have done something new, however, it tells part of the story [of the building’s past], which we wanted to embrace.”

As an example of thoughtful design practice, the Darling Building stands as a model for future design interventions. These interventions have the potential to revive our urban streetscapes and serve as case studies for the revitalisation of heritage buildings as a still-viable option for city business occupancy in an age of perpetual new development.

Photography: Christopher Morrison

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