The future of the old RAH

Celebrating the past doesn’t mean you have to dwell on it, writes architect Gerald Matthews.

If every new idea in Adelaide revolves around apartments, hotels and more park lands, I have grave concerns about our city’s ability to break the shackles of years of stifling conservatism. I am talking about the Old Royal Adelaide Hospital Site or oRAH — and here lies the first problem. Why are we calling it the ‘old’ RAH? By all means celebrate the past but don’t dwell on it. As soon as possible we need a new way of referring to this site and it needs to be something that conjures up a vision of its potential. For now let’s just call it ‘The Site’.

Urban environments are like living organisms; in any suddenly empty space, the existing activities surrounding it are the obvious things to grow and inhabit the void. But this is a dangerous trap for us. As a city we should be thinking about creating things we don’t already have rather than creating more of the same.

When it comes to The Site we need more ideas like the proposed contemporary art gallery. It’s an outstanding idea and I’m thrilled to see an international design competition is now underway. But what else could fill the void?

Where are the big ideas like an amusement park? Not a franchise park themed after a movie production studio – more like Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Tivoli had a staggering 4.6 million visitors in 2016 and it’s a melting pot of rides and amusements, the performing arts and Scandinavian culture. A similar idea in Adelaide would be a huge draw card for locals and visitors alike and be a huge economic driver for the East End. Adelaide knows how to put on a festival so why can’t we have one all year round?

Or what about an Observatory and Space Centre? I love the idea of the city turning off all the illuminated signage and street lighting from 1am to 4am every other night so that we can be one of the few cities in the world with a real view of the stars. Aside from the huge savings in energy and associated cost, this would be a bold statement to the world and quite a point of difference.

The city doesn’t need to be brightly lit all night for safety as all cars have headlights and we’re not talking about a total blackout (even though we know how to do those pretty well). Space is very cool right now — just ask any politician or social media user — and there are companies in Adelaide designing and building satellites. A logical next step would be delivering the skills and resources to launch them.

Another prospect for The Site could be an Oceanographic Institute. We have many unique marine species living along our coastline that we know embarrassingly little about. If Adelaide is to be a city devoted to knowledge then surely we should be looking deep into the depths as well as up at the stars?

While we work out what’s best for The Site, it needs to be used purposefully for the public to be excited about its future. I’m really looking forward to seeing what temporary uses organisations such as the Adelaide Fringe can create next year. Activating the space in the short-term with pop-up arts and cultural events is going to be key to its future success.

We need to invite creative people who think outside of the box to develop ideas about how The Site can be used temporarily. If you want to achieve something unusual you need to support unusual people.

Who knows, ideas for its temporary use might even spark long-term ideas for The Site that no-one ever imagined.

Gerald Matthews is Matthews Architects Managing Director

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